C-DANCE-R: Vogueing

This year’s CDR Berlin Summerjam + BBQ has an extra dance edge to it with House of Melody set to light up the floor. To lead up to next Thursday’s festivities and to place focus on a vital component of club culture, we’re publishing the first in a series of features on dance styles. Get limber and let Ayian Camcam take you through a brief history of voguing. This party is fierce!

Voguing made its first mainstream appearance in the music videos of Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Deep in Vogue’ in 1989, then later Madonna’s 1990 chart-topping hit single Vogue. On the surface, voguing may seem merely a trendy dance form, popular amongst stylish, gay dancers of New York, but dig a little deeper and one finds that voguing had been around since the 70s, long before artsy, ‘experimental’ pop stars made it popular. More than just a dance trend, voguing is a form of expression that rose out of minority gay communities in Harlem who found escapism from prejudice and poverty in the spectacle, extravagance and decadence of the drag queen balls.

Jenny Livingstone’s poignant documentary Paris is Burning and, more recently, Wolfgang Busch’s How Do I Look uncovered the underground culture of the Harlem drag queen balls – elaborate gay and transvestite galas that incorporated both pageantry and competition. Author Michael Cunningham wrote how since the 1920s, the drag ballroom scene of New York was mainly staged by white men, with prizes and trophies awarded for the most outrageous costumes. Black queens occasionally took part, but were expected to whiten their faces, and rarely won competitions.

After a lull, these balls re-emerged in the 1960s and were increasingly held by black drag queens  – bigger, bolder and more flamboyant. The drag ‘houses’, named after their respective queen mothers, were formed in the 70s – the first among them being the House of LaBeija, after their fiery black queen mother Crystal Labeija. The drag houses mirrored high-end fashion houses and were structured along familial lines, taking the place of the broken families and homes its members had left behind.

Fierce competition was commonplace between the different houses as each began organising their own balls. And as the balls multiplied, so did the competition categories -– high fashion, sportswear, luscious body, butch queen, and so on.

Voguing as a dance form came out of queens throwing ‘shade’ at each other – their term for exchanging insults. A Soul Jazz book dedicated to voguing describes the precise moment when voguing first emerged. In an after hours club, Paris DuPree, mother of one of the main houses, was throwing shade at a bunch of queens. Infamously, Paris took out a Vogue magazine from her bag and opened it up to a page with a picture of model and posed on the beat. She turned to a different page and struck another pose, again on the beat. Another queen confronted Paris and struck a pose in retaliation. Paris then did another pose.  This battle of poses was soon called voguing, and very quickly became part of the show during the balls, where drag queens would parade down the walkway, striking poses at each other. Much of the voguing poses later took inspiration from Sub-Saharan African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Voguing soon took on various styles and different people brought their own interpretation. Willi Ninja, considered by many as the godfather of voguing and who featured in Paris is Burning and McLaren’s video, formed House of Ninja. His style of voguing incorporated martial arts.

Voguers often danced to disco and later house music that often had sexy or camp vocals and punchy beats to punctuate their poses. Tracks like MFSB’s ‘Love is the Message’, Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’, SalSoul Orchestra’s ‘Ooh I love it’ were big favourite in the 70s. Later, tracks like Loose Joints’ ‘Is it all over my face’, George Kranz’s ‘Din Daa Daa’ were massive hits among voguers.

Notable voguing DJs include David Delpino and Junior Vazquez.  From the mid-80s until 1991 Delpino, who was Larry Levan’s protege and warm up DJ at the Paradise Garage, started a club night downtown called Tracks NYC. Members of the House of Xtravaganza became regulars at Tracks and displayed their voguing skills there. Soon, voguers from the other houses followed, extending the reach of voguing beyond the Harlem balls.

Junior Vasquez deejayed at the Sound Factory and produced ‘bitch tracks’ like ‘Work this Pussy’ specifically for dance battles and voguing. It was at the Sound Factory that Madonna met Jose and Luis from the House of Xtravaganza, who later became her Blond Ambition Tour backing dancers.

Masters At Work’s ‘The Ha Dance’, which sampled a conversation between Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd in the film, Trading Places, became the anthem for the New Way of voguing. In contrast to the fluid, graceful movements of the Old Way, the New Way was more rigid and often involved mime, breakdance, popping & locking, handstands and contorted poses. By the mid-90’s Femme Vogue was also developed with exaggerated feminine movements, influenced by ballet, modern dance, Latino dance and striptease gestures.

Never again did voguing enjoy the same limelight as it had in the early 90s. Many of the main figures of voguing, including godfather Willi Ninja, have died; too many from AIDS-related illnesses. A few active houses are still around today and continue to hold balls, although not exclusively in New York City.


One such live House is Berlin-based troupe, House of Melody – the “First German Vogue House”. Register here to come join us at CDR Berlin on Thursday 11 August to witness their styles. Back-up and prepare!

Image sampled from Homard Payette‘s photos of House of Melody.

And from the Archives..