This article originally appeared in Time Out London in January 2012
A new Soul Jazz compilation and book uncovers the music and moves of New York’s ’80s house ballroom era, the underground nightlife scene immortalised by Madonna in her infamous single ‘Vogue’ this month. And, though it lives on in the Big Apple, you can find traces of this fascinating polysexual culture in London clubland too…
We’ve all seen it. We’ve tried to do the lightning speed hands, to twist our locks into the perfect Marilyn curls and to memorise the rap of glamorous celebrities ‘on the cover of a magazine’. The music video for Madonna’s chart-topping single ‘Vogue’ will forever immortalise that exaggerated style of dance in pop history, but the Harlem voguing scene from which it takes it name has since burrowed back underground.
Soul Jazz’s compilation and its accompanying book, ‘Voguing: Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 89-92’, however, is shining a light back on this forgotten subculture. The book comprises a series of eye-popping party snapshots and portraits by photographer Chantal Regnault, taken during the scene’s ‘ballroom house’ heyday. Amazingly, the photos were sitting in a box untouched in her home in Haiti for 20 years, until Soul Jazz founder Stuart Baker came knocking during a trip to the country.
‘The ballroom scene has a hidden history,’ says Baker. ‘[When ‘Vogue’ came out] a large amount of attention was focused on it, but after the hype had died down, no one was interested in it anymore. There’s Jennie Livingston’s film, [‘Paris Is Burning’, an award-winning 1990s doc on ballroom culture] but, apart from that, it hasn’t been chronicled anywhere.’
It’s a wild and fascinating story.Voguing and house ballroom first emerged in the early 1970s, inspired by the queer masquerade balls that emerged in New York as far back as the late nineteeth century , and the ‘throwing shade’, when one queen subtly insulted another, that developed from them in the twentieth-century balls. In this new incarnation, these balls saw ‘ball children’ – gay and transgender black men – battle each other for the glory of their ‘house, referencing a model representing a fashion house on the catwalk. These dance-offs became known as ‘voguing’. They mocked social stereotypes in categories like ‘realness’, in which competitors would win points from the judging panel for how convincingly they played it straight or ‘dragged it up’.
The balls were a crucial support network for the black gay community. ‘Their houses were surrogate families for them because many of them lived on the streets and had been kicked out by their families,’ explains Regnault. ‘So the balls were a space where they could be totally free to express their fantasies and be appreciated for it.’
The voguing story is inevitably tinged with sadness. Out of all the people that she photographed, says Regnault, two-thirds of them had passed away when she revisited New York to interview its founders for the book in 2010. In the late ’80s, as voguing was booming, so too was the Aids crisis, which destroyed many of its stars.
The Soul Jazz compilation is as visceral as the book. It stretches further back, to 1976, and rounds up the major house ballroom tracks up to 1996. You can picture the likes of Jose and Luis from the House of Xtravaganza, who appeared in Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video, framing their faces in time to ‘Love Hangover’ by Diana Ross, an early vogue icon. Or popping and spinning to Cheryl Lynn’s ‘Got to Be Real’, which was co-opted by the scene as an anthem for ‘realness’. Some of the raw, low quality beats and brash vocals, however, wouldn’t sound out of place at Dalston Superstore today.
Made-for-the-ballroom house stompers by the scene’s superstar DJ Junior Vasquez (‘X’) and Kevin Aviance (the awesomely titled ‘Cunty’) also feature; ‘bitch tracks’ like these are being increasingly sampled by today’s creative house producers. Just listen to London producers Joy Orbison and Boddika’s January single ‘Swims’, which is built around a rapid-fire bitch vocal from Tronco Traxx’s ’98 catwalk anthem ‘Walk for Me’. Such renewed interest in house ballroom music has, in turn, inspired Vasquez, still a DJ on the gay scene in New York, to start producing in the bitchy style again.
Then there’s New York native MikeQ, the DJ at new youthful ballroom club Vogue Knights, a party that Diplo brought to worldwide attention in aVanity Fair article last October. The voguing scene has always continued to exist under the radar, but MikeQ breathes new life into the soundtrack. He mixes up vintage house ballroom and samples from signature tunes like Masters at Work’s ‘The Ha Dance’, the original of which features on the Soul Jazz compilation, with new chart R&B remixes and a stripped-back, drum-driven beat. When he played in London a fortnight ago, it wasn’t at gay nights or nostalgic ballroom one-offs, but at some of the capital’s most cutting-edge parties: Night Slugs and House of Trax.
Here in London, meanwhile, we can’t lay claim to a house ballroom history like New York, but its high-drama and sense of community can certainly be felt. It lives in our alt.drag cabaret scene, spearheaded by Jonny Woo, whose performance incorporates voguing in homage to the era, and who started his own house, House of Egypt. And its music is alive in many an east London club night.
‘Ballroom culture set the blueprint for a lot of big house records back in the early ’90s, which fit perfectly for a lot of nights harking back to a more classic style today,’ says Dalston Superstore’s Dan Beaumont. ‘They combine a lot of those classic records with new productions that reflect the sound.’
So, while you won’t necessarily find voguers stalking across the dancefloor – unless it’s at the larger versions of Jim Warboy’s SOS party, where you’ll find a voguing runway down the middle – here’s where to catch the voguing vibe in London.
Strike a pose, we urge you.
Jim Warboy’s night of wild, sweaty polysexual abandon celebrated its first birthday at East Bloc last week but its larger parties boast a catwalk and often guest dance teachers.
The next SOS is at East Bloc on Feb 18. www.eastbloc.co.uk
House of Trax
A new-for-2012 night with a focus on booty-shaking, inspired by retro TV dance shows like ‘Soul Train’ and ‘Dance Energy’.
The next House of Trax is on March 17, location tbc. www.houseoftrax.tv
Paris Acid Ball
Every night at Dalston’s premiere gay hangout, The Superstore, is prime for a spot of voguing action, but none more so than Paris Acid Ball, whose soundtrack includes jackin’ acid workouts and runway classics.
The next Paris Acid Ball is at Dalston Superstore, date tbc.www.dalstonsuperstore.com
One of two clubs where you can participate in ‘House Dance’ competitions, which, like voguing, originated with house music in the early ’80s.
The next Tribe is at the Brixton Club House on March 17.www.triberecordsuk.com
‘Voguing: Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 89-92′ by Chantal Regnault is out now and the compilation is out on Mon Feb 3 (both Soul Jazz). Joy Orbison plays at Mulletover on Sat Jan 28.