The influence of vogue and drag culture is everywhere. Thanks to the popularity of television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, glossaries of drag slang riddle the Internet, and death drops and duck walks can be found on stages and dance floors worldwide. But it’s not just vibrant fun drawing devotees to this queer culture movement. The vogue form is intrinsically inclusive and accessible, and its participants share a desire to create safe spaces that exist beyond the limitations of the dance studio or theatre setting. The Dance Current spoke with Ralph Escamillan of Vancouver and Gerard X Reyes of Montréal about how vogue balls are creating inclusive and intergenerational dance communities.
Lineage of tradition
The vogue movement evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s and quickly spread to the clubs of New York City. It was there in vogue’s hometown where Reyes fell for the form. On a day off from touring with Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Reyes took part in a class with Benny Ninja – the father of House of Ninja at the time. “Ten minutes into the class I was sold,” recalls Reyes. “It was one of those moments where you feel like this thing that I’m doing or this person that I’m with, they’re about to change my life.”
From participating in bar vogue nights in NYC, Berlin and Amsterdam, Reyes knew that teaching in Montréal would require much more than just the odd workshop. Vogue continues to be accessible, affordable and unique from more commodified dance styles because it exists beyond the studio setting, coming from the community involved and the tradition-laden ball scene.
On the West Coast, Escamillan founded Vancouver Vogue Jam under similar circumstances. After teaching vogue classes independently, Escamillan began to see how vital and empowering the community was. “We have people coming every year, where this is what gets them up and keeps them positive. We have people in transition. We have youth who are figuring out their sexuality. There are all these amazing things happening beyond just the dance.”
With two successful vogue balls complete, Escamillan is focused on honouring and respecting the vogue form, which encompasses reaching out to communities that might not have access to a traditional dance class setting, as well as attendees who are barred from encountering queer vogue culture due to age.
While the traditions of vogue are critical to the growth of the form, Reyes explains how including younger dancers only serves to make the culture richer. “I think [these events] need to be multigenerational because it is about passing down information and there is a legacy that is very strong.”
A space of one’s own
Opening the door to younger generations helps to create safe and inclusive spaces for queer youth. When Escamillan was younger, he found it difficult to take part in queer culture separate from the hyper-sexualized atmosphere of most clubs, where you also had to be of age to attend. Not that it’s bad to be sexual, Escamillan explains, but this is a chance to show what else the culture has to give. Now, vogue balls in both Montréal as well as Escamillan’s Vancouver Vogue Jam have seen increased interest from youth audiences, with participants as young as nine years old taking part.
After coming to dance later in life, Reyes felt that while dance classes offered him the discipline necessary to carry out a career as a professional dancer, he says, “There was always a ceiling to how much I could be myself.” As his career grew, Reyes became attuned to the separation between his body and his sexuality, as well as what he was representing onstage. “It was all just one big act,” Reyes says of being asked to portray straight relationship dynamics. “Can’t I just be more real in my performance and in my experience as a dancer and a person onstage?”
Finding a space that was LGBTQ+ friendly, and composed of predominately minority cultures, was exactly was Reyes craved. “It was very rich terrain for me because I’m Latino and I’m also queer, so this space felt very much like home to me. It was a space of community.”
Identifying as a queer Filipino male, Escamillan felt similar frustration when observing the straight and Eurocentric state of the contemporary dance community around him. “How do we bridge that gap?” Escamillan asks. “I think we have to give people the access to learn. If you can’t fathom affording a dance class, how are you going to realize that dance is an option?”
For both Escamillan and Reyes, keeping vogue balls intergenerational is the next movement of growth. “I’m ready to inspire and to create different structures that weren’t there for me when I was growing up,” Reyes recalls. “I didn’t have this kind of community as a teenager, struggling with my sexuality and my identity, and I didn’t have it in my twenties either.”
Up next, Escamillan is planning on connecting the West Coast vogue communities through a ball, as well as orchestrating a collaboration with his house mother, Leiomy Maldonado of House of Amazon. Reyes hopes to visit high schools around Montréal to talk about ballroom and vogue and to let younger generations know that it exists and that they are invited. “[Vogue] is inclusive on every level, but it is focused on LGBTQ+ youth, for me at least,” Reyes explains. “It’s about giving them space to feel [like] themselves and to grow in a community where they feel supported and loved and like they matter, like they belong.”
This article was originally published in the March/April 2018 issue.
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