Voguing, the stylised modern dance that sprang from New York‘s ghettos, is again causing a stir in London. Time Out puts its heels on for a lesson
‘There’s been a huge resurgence of voguing in London,’ says Jodie Harsh, drag queen du jour and promoter of the Circus and Foreign club nights. ‘Everyone’s hiring [seminal 1990 documentary] ‘Paris Is Burning’ and going to voguing balls. It’s very much a fashion thing – they’re obsessed by voguing.’ For the Body & Soul fundraiser, the great, the good and the downright fierce of London’s exploding voguing scene are gathering for the SingStar Xtravaganza Ball.
Most people’s knowledge of voguing starts and ends with Madonna’s 1990 single. A few people throwing some languid, highly stylised shapes, right? Couldn’t be further from the reality of a vogue ball if it was dressed in gingham and line-dancing to Billy Ray Cyrus. Voguing is a fast, competitive and extremely agile danceform.
‘For the SingStar Ball,’ says Harsh, ‘we’re taking inspiration from the voguing ball scene in New York City in the late 1980s. It was centred around Chelsea Piers and very much a black, gay trend. The talent of these poor black and Hispanic kids was dancing, so they formed houses which were almost like whole communities. They lived together, played together and danced together. ’
The SingStar Ball will feature two superhouses – made up of London houses such as Jonny Woo’s House of Egypt and the House of FierceNest – with guests from the legendary New York houses, the House of Ninja and the House of Xtravaganza, also performing. Members of each house will compete on a catwalk in a variety of categories and will be judged severely by a panel of ten including Harsh and Giles Deacon. How hard can it be to wiggle down a catwalk striking poses? ‘Wear some heels,’ advises Harsh before my voguing lesson with Tamer FierceNest, ‘and be fierce.’ Right. Fiercenest is a menswear stylist by day and vogue star by night and comes from the House of FierceNest who were the surprise winners of last year’s Bistrotheque Drag Ball. He shatters all my voguing dreams just by walking across a room.
‘You’ve got to keep moving,’ advises FierceNest, seamlessly shifting his weight from side to side while keeping his hands posing, moving, posing and moving again. Can straight guys do this? ‘Some do. It depends how repressed they feel.’ Voguing, you see, is about heaping attitude upon all and sundry. You pout, you glare, you throw razor-sharp daggers (or ‘shades’). Suddenly, it all makes sense. As a camp gay man, shunned by much of society and probably family, too, this would have been the ideal way to express yourself. And it’s still the case today, says FierceNest. ‘A lot of people in London are brought up with a background that’s less understanding of who they are and aren’t accepted. They won’t change, they can’t change, and they drift away from their families. In a house, they are supported, they have people who tell them “You are amazing”.’
Back to the lesson, and FierceNest shows off his signature move: the shake. Wearing super-skinny jeans, he shakes as though he’s being electrocuted. ‘I can hold this for ages,’ he says, proving his point. Other moves include the drop in which he falls instantly to the floor as though shot, the banji boy where he does a great impression of being a gangster walking in the ’hood, and one in which he licks a finger and runs it over each nipple. ‘It basically means I’ve got feminity,’ he explains with a smile. Kate Moss would feel frumpy next to FierceNest, so I meekly pack my heels away. Time, I think, to get some advice from someone else on the vogue ball scene. Famous for teaching fashion models how to walk on a catwalk in heels, Princess Xtravaganza is also a producer (check his MySpace page for his latest work) and is one of the most legendary voguers on the planet.
Princess started going to the Chelsea Piers when he was barely 15 years old in the late 1970s, and traces the scene’s history back to prisons in the late 1960s where transsexuals would dress up and compete against each other. When they met up after release, the balls started. In 1979, Princess was invited to join the House of Ninja and then went on to join the House of Xtravaganza (representatives of both will be at the SingStar Ball).
‘When night-time hit,’ he remembers of his time on the Piers, ‘it became totally different. People would come down from Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and all the competitions would start. Who was better than who, who was old, who was new, who was trying it, not trying it. In the daytime everyone was nice and sweet, people played double Dutch, but at night-time, oh honey, well you had better come across that street in the latest fashion, you had better have a look ’cause they were ready to read [make fun of] you. I grew up poor in the ghetto surrounded by gangs and when I saw all of this, I thought: Oh, okay, it’s gay gangs.’ Cue cramming his mouth with a pack of chewing gum and blowing bubbles at anyone on the Piers who looked at him twice.
‘This event means a lot to me,’ he continues, citing several members of his immediate family who have HIV, something which he says he has only recently been able to discuss. ‘The gay community lost so much of its creativity with the AIDS epidemic, and it’s important that us old ones show the new ones the way. You’ve got to put your own character into your vogue. It’s fine to admire other people, we all admire, but you have to have your own stamp. My stamp is that I strike real fast and I hit every beat, I’m always on point and never off point. When I’m on the catwalk I’m telling you a story of what I went through when I came out. That’s what you have to do out there, you have to tell your own story.’
The SingStar Xtravaganza Ball is this Thursday at Café de Paris.
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