Growing out of the drag queen ritual of throwing “shade”, or subtly insulting another queen, voguing can be traced back to the early 1970s.
“It all started at an after hours club called Footsteps on 2nd Avenue and 14th Street,” says David DePino, the alternate DJ at the Paradise Garage and a DJ for the House of Xtravaganza, the first all-Latin drag house. “Paris Dupree was there and a bunch of these black queens were throwing shade at each other. Paris had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat.” The provocation was returned in kind. “Another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose,” adds DePino. “This was all shade—they were trying to make a prettier pose than each other—and it soon caught on at the balls. At first they called it posing and then, because it started from Vogue magazine, they called it voguing.”
An alternative genealogy has it that the dance style was forged by the black gay inmates of Rickers Island, a New York City jail, who exchanged shade and poses as a way of whiling away the hours. “Maybe they didn’t have a name for it, but that’s what they were doing, or so it’s said,” comments Kevin Ultra Omni, head of the House of Omni and a veteran of the scene. “I know Paris was an early pioneer of voguing. But I believe that vogue existed in some other form through other people as well. I also think that a lot of voguing poses come from African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Taking their moves into New York’s discotheques and bars, voguers steered clear of the centre of the floor, where the concentration of dancing bodies would be at its most concentrated and the intensity of the party felt at its strongest. Instead they headed to the periphery of the floor, or even a back room area, where they would find more space to execute their moves and, perhaps more importantly, enjoy the kind of space that would enable them to see and be seen. The honing of skills continued on the West Side Piers, where drag queens hung out in houses, or extended non-nuclear families that were organised by mothers and fathers who would take care of their children and help them prepare for drag balls. Held once a month, the balls were extravagant affairs that enabled houses to compete with one another across a range of categories. The emphasis placed on dressing, walking and posing also meant they doubled as a place where drag queens further honed their voguing skills.
One of the earliest discotheques to attract a black gay crowd, Better Days contained a main dance floor where the legendary Tee Scott played a mix of hardened funk and disco, and also a back room, where dancers would head if they fancied a break or a spot of cruising or a chance to dance the hustle. It was there that Omni noticed voguers modelling in front of what might have been an imaginary mirror, styling and posing in time with the music, turning a hat sideways before bringing it back, and pivoting with grace, “all to the beat”. “I met Paris in 1975,” says Omni, “and I remember her in Better Days, posing on the back dance floor and throwing shade.”
Having focused on striking poses as if they were fashion models, voguers began to introduce contorted, jerky, slicing moves into their repertoire after they became familiar with the swift, angular movements of Bruce Lee and his co-stars while working trade inside Times Square’s porn cinemas, or heading there after a night’s work to get some rest. “Hand movements, posture, attitude and presence were most important,” Willi Ninja, the founding mother of the House of Ninja, commented in 1994. “Then people started doing splits, and Hector [Xtravaganza] and I started dislocating our arms and doing what they now call ‘arm clicking’, where you’re dislocating the arms and doing cartwheels and aerials. And then I began combining martial arts movies.”
Ninja, who also took inspiration from the Asian neighbourhood where he grew up, adds: “The dance takes on many forms. It combines a little technical dance, from, say, jazz and ballet, with acrobatics. As for my own form, it has as much to do with watching Indian and martial arts movies and fashion shows and putting bits and pieces together. There’a Latin base, which is the flowing movements, and then there’s the African base, which is the hard, strong, blocking and clicking.”
The outlook of voguers was improbably close to those of the breakers who started to hone their style in the Bronx in the second half of the 1970s. Both sets of dancers developed their skills through a mix of competition, athleticism and an impulse to be noticed rather than to blend into the crowd (the aim of most partygoers of the era). In addition, the voguing technique of throwing shade was matched by the breaker turn to burning, or the miming of miming attacks and insults. But while both sets of dancers were committed to “keeping it real”, their understanding of what that involved contrasted radically, for while hip hop realness was grounded in the idea of urban authenticity, voguers viewed it as an ability to pass as someone they weren’t, or to perform drag effectively. Moreover, the societal status of the sexual preferences that underscored these differences led breakers to dance in public settings, often in broad daylight, while voguers headed to the abandoned piers or the clandestine spaces of gay-driven dance venues and drag balls.
Just as breakers developed their style around a set of recordings that enabled them to express a form of spectacular athleticism, so voguers became inspired by an alternative soundtrack that accentuated their ability to punctuate graceful movements with a series of freeze-shot poses. Like the Latin, rock and funk-oriented tracks that drove early breaking culture, recordings that featured staccato stabs on the “one” actively encouraged voguers to go into a assume a static pose and then adjust that pose according to the introduction of each successive stab, while elegant, swooping strings encouraged them to walk with style. “Lyrics had very little to do with a song being popular with voguers,” says DePino. “It’s all about the beats and the stabs. The stabs are the part of the song that the voguers would land on and pose to.”
Above all other recordings, M.F.S.B.’s “Love Is the Message” captured the sensibility of voguers in the 1970s. Initially played by David Mancuso at the Loft and Nicky Siano at the Gallery, the record became the unofficial anthem of New York’s downtown private party scene, where the record’s tight rhythm section and sophisticated orchestration elevated it above the more pop-oriented strains of “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” (which also appeared on the M.F.S.B.’s debut album and went on to become a major chart success). Combining fanfare drama, jazz sophistication and a silky-spacey rhythm section, “Love Is the Message” provided the ideal backing track for the grandiose, stylish, celebratory balls, and the song came to be played as the anthem that opened every event in conjunction with a drag parade. “Disco classics like ‘Going Up In Smoke’ and ‘Bad Luck’ are funky but the mood they evoke is melancholic,” says DJ Danny Wang, a one-time member of the House of Ultra Omni. “Old school vogue records contain elegant jazz chords that sound grand and airy, which is the case with ‘Love Is the Message’.”
Voguers were also drawn to songs such as “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross and “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)” by the Salsoul Orchestra. The slow, sultry opening of “Love Hangover” summoned drag queens to embrace a highly sexualised femininity that built in intensity as the track moved to its freak-out groove, with Ross herself idolised as an icon of black feminine beauty. Remixed by Shep Pettibone following a tip-off from his DJ friend Leslie Doyle, “Ooh, I Love It” became a voguing classic thanks to its pose-friendly horn stabs and the knowingly naughty rapping lines of the song’s backing singers. “The classic old school voguing tracks have these specific chords and they also have a certain ‘cunty’ femininity,” says Wang. “The girls who rap in ‘Love Break’ are an example of this and so is Diana Ross in ‘Love Hangover’. They sing in this cool, breathy, orgasmic style. It’s the opposite of gospel.”
Other records emerged as recognisable voguing anthems as a result of the inadvertent conversation they initiated up with drag queens. Released by Columbia Records in 1978, Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” appealed to the drag queen preoccupation with passing as real, which became the primary criterion according to which judges would award marks at balls. Co-produced by Arthur Russell and Steve D’Acquisto, “Is It All Over My Face?” by Loose Joints appealed thanks to its sleazy sound, its insider reference to ejaculating over another person’s face, and its use of the word “over”, which doubled as black gay slang for being over-the-top. Regularly selected by DJ Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, where voguers started to hang out from around 1984 onwards, George Kranz’s highly unusual beat-scatt track “Din Daa Daa” lent itself to all manner of thrusts, twists and poses. “But real serious voguers will get down to any kind of good music,” adds Wang. “My instructor Muhammad Ultra Omni often spoke of ‘hitting the beats’, or using his body and gestures to find and define the polyrhythms set forth by the music. So a good voguer can vogue theoretically over anything with a beat and often does this in clubs.”
Voguers were presented with the first track to be intentionally tailored to their style when Malcolm McLaren released “Deep in Vogue” in 1989. Widely known for his high-profile adoption of punk and hip-hop, McLaren found out about voguing when Johnny Dynell, a Tunnel DJ and member of the House of Xtravaganza, sent him a tape of Paris Is Burning, an unfinished movie by Jennie Livingston, in the hope that it would help the director raise money to wrap up her project. “I told Malcolm about the ball house scene because I thought it was perfect for him,” recalls Dynell, who encountered voguers and ball kids on the West Side piers before they started to head to the Tunnel. “Of course, he immediately put sound bites from the movie on his record. What the hell was I thinking?” As with hip-hop, McLaren promoted the voguing scene as a subcultural trend that harnessed working-class energy into music and dance. “It is to do with everyday life,” the impresario told New Musical Express. “It’s amazing, so many of the shows here, you’ve got all these bimbos who walk without passion. The great thing about Voguing is you walk with passion.” Ninja was hired to dance on the video, the first of its kind.
Three other vogue-specific tracks were released during 1989 and 1990. Having witnessed his mid-week night at Trax become the most popular voguing hangout in the city, DePino teamed up with Dynell to produce “Elements of Vogue”, which featured a commentary on voguing by David Ian Xtravaganza. A year later, Danny Xtravaganza to record his own spoken-word poem-song over the fat bass and punch beats of “Love the Life You Live”, a Freddy Bastone production for Nu Groove. And during the same year, Madonna teamed up with Shep Pettibone to release “Vogue”, which went on to become the best-selling single of 1990. “Madonna’s friend Debbie M always came to Tracks and was a friend of mine and two other Xtravaganzas, Luis and Michael, who was a hairdresser and did Debbie M’s hair,” says DePino. “They set up a meeting with me and Madonna, who came to Tracks when the club was closed to meet and watch some voguers. I had a group of kids there to vogue for her, including some kids from other houses. She picked out who she liked for the video.”
Madonna also gravitated to the Sound Factory, where Xtravaganzas had started to congregate on a Saturday night thanks in part to DJ Junior Vasquez’s 1989 production “Just Like A Queen” by Ellis D (a play on LSD). “The first time she came to the club she called ahead,” says Vasquez. “She came into the booth and then sat on the speaker in front of me. After that she came periodically for about three months.” Jose and Luis Xtravaganza went on to work as backing dancers for Madonna during the explosive Blond Ambition tour, after which they starred in the behind-the-scenes documentary of the tour, In Bed with Madonna (titled Truth or Dare in the U.S.). “Madonna never came back to the Sound Factory after the tour,” adds Vasquez. “She was over vogue.” For his part, Vasquez went on to release “X”, which featured hard tribal beats, sparse synth lines and a sample of a drag queen saying “extravaganza” that was lifted from Paris Is Burning. The ensuing release of “Get Your Hands off My Man” confirmed Vasquez’s skill at picking out evocative vocal samples and laying them over a driving tribal house track.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s voguers also made a point of dancing to “The Brutal House” by Nitro Deleuze, “Break 4 Love” by Raze, “What Is Love” by Deee-Lite and, above all, “The Ha Dance” by the Masters at Work duo “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. A staple at the Wednesday night Underground Network party at the Sound Factory Bar, where Vega DJed and Ninja became a regular on the dance floor, “The Ha Dance” was built around a sample of Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd delivering a nonsense chant during the film Trading Places, Vega’s imitative synth effects and Kenny Dope’s slamming beats. “‘The Ha Dance’ was the ultimate anthem for ‘new way’ voguing, which is defined by its tight geometrical and gymnastic forms,” says Wang. “It is extremely demanding on the body because it requires massive stamina and break-dance-like popping and locking. Handstands and double-jointed ‘arm control’ movements are not uncommon.”
“New way” voguing can be traced back to the moment in the early 1980s when ball organisers expanded the number of competitive categories, which in turn led to the introduction of specific butch queen and banjee boy categories. The rise of these masculine classifications chimed with a historical juncture that witnessed the intensification of the AIDS crisis coincide with the Reagan administration’s promotion of a series of neoliberal polities that led to a rapid increase in inequality. During the same period, hip hop producers fostered a significantly tougher beat structure and rapping style than had been evident on earlier releases, and this in turn encouraged voguers to accentuate their own athleticism and aggressiveness. “The ascendance of hip hop, with its cartoony male archetypes, was bound to attract the children's attention, not to mention their critique,” Guy Trebay noted in the Village Voice in 2000. Tracks such as Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor”, which introduced siren effects and screams into the stuttering beat structure of “The Ha Dance” provided dancers with a track to match the mood on the floor. “‘Witch Doctor’ was the huge new-way-voguing anthem,” notes Wang.
Rooted in the milieu of the drag ball, the nightclub, the cabaret circuit, the ghetto, the piers and the sexually transmitted disease clinic, voguing culture shifted again in the middle of the 1990s, or a couple of years after Clinton sought to draw a line under the militaristic and capitalistic ravages of the Reagan-Bush era, and just when activists and health workers started to bring the AIDS crisis under control. Assuming a new style for the softer times while contributing to the tireless reinvention of their culture, voguers forged a new femme vogue sensibility that featured, in the words of Aaron Enigma of the House of Enigma, “pronounced hip movement [and] cha-cha-based footwork (often in stocking-feet for maximum slide), peppered with classic striptease gestures.” Enigma adds: “The emphasis is on how flamboyant one can be through movement alone.”
Featuring the the spoken word poetry of butch queen Kevin Aviance, a regular performer on the New York club scene, “Cunty (The Feeling)” embodied the new sensibility. Including the stabs made familiar by “Love Is the Message” “Love Break” and “Vogue”, “Cunty” also reminded voguers of some of the core elements that inspired their style and dance.