Madonna, Miami and the Vogue Identity


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Madonna, Miami and the Vogue Identity

After 25 years, the Queen of Pop’s record leaves a legacy of empowerment with a spotlight on rich identity.

There's no denying that Madonna's "Vogue" is one the most iconic moments in pop culture history. Released 25 years ago this month, Madonna's double-platinum-selling, No. 1 single and its accompanying video, directed by David Fincher, are unforgettable. Who could deny the allure of snapping, the power dance moves, that black and white classic Hollywood vibe, the casual elegance, the blend of the masculine and feminine… that bra? What has titillated the world since 1990 was neither a beginning nor an end for Madonna and the real-life scene "Vogue" came from. After many reinventions of her own, the culture the queen of pop once shined a light on continues to thrive, now more than ever.


Anyone who has seen the documentary Paris is Burning knows ball culture started in 1980s New York as a form of survival as much as entertainment. Young gay men, often kicked out of their homes because of their gender or sexuality, banded together on makeshift catwalks, creating new families in the form of "houses," led by "mothers" and "fathers." These houses, often are named after expensive fashion brands or other wondrous things, battled each other on the dancefloor, competing in different categories. It was all about living out a fantasy you couldn't afford and with personalities the world wouldn't let you be on your own. Madonna's first verse captures the vibe perfectly.

"Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache, it's everywhere that you go / You try everything you can to escape the pain of life that you know / If all else fails and you long to be something better than you are today / I know a place where you can get away, it's called a dancefloor, and here's what it's for so / c'mon, vogue."

Thanks to that little bit of music, the once underground ball scene exploded outside New York and into all corners of the United States and the world.

"Everything caught on and grew, and especially back in the days when Madonna had the popularity of the whole Blonde Ambition tour and 'Vogue,'" says Power Infinity, current Mother of the House of Infinity in Miami. Since around that time, he's helped cultivate the regional scene from literally nothing to an emerging national powerhouse. That wasn't easy, and Power didn't do it alone.


The first Florida house was House of Exxcentrika, founded by a New York transplant named Gustavo. In those days, the House of Infinity was run by a whip of a man named JoJo, and the two were joined by House of Lords and Power's original house, Righteous Shade. While many felt exploited by Madonna's use of voguing, it only served to help the scene's popularity, bringing in members who wouldn't have known it existed. Bolstered by the popularity of "Vogue," ball culture was able to grow roots in cities like LA, Chicago, and Miami.

"[The scene] was really popular, not just ballroom-wise but among gays," Power says. "The balls that JoJo threw were well attended because everybody wanted to see something they didn't have an opportunity to see before."

For years, the scene was dominated by those initial four houses, but by the late 90s and early 00s, some national houses began to notice.

"My personal honor was when we started seeing the Mizrahis joining us, we saw Ninjas joining us, Ebonys, Milans," says Alexis Lords, founding father of the House of Lords. "All these houses started noticing us in south Florida. That was, for me, the best way I can describe it was just an orgasmic experience."

One thing Madonna didn't touch on in her "get up on the dancefloor" single, and in some ways, it's the most important: You can't have a Ball without shade. As it turns out, you can't even have a ball scene without pissing off a few people. Though Miami has hustled for decades, grown from four local houses to a well-established group of national names, even sending its best dancers to participate in and win nationally-approved balls, the New York ball scene is still loathe to give its sisters to the south any credit.


"We've been doing exactly what the booklet says so what makes us any different from anybody else but for the simple fact that they want to exclude us because they're not down here?" says Warren, Father of the House of Milan.

Warren is a "legend," a figure recognized for his or her supremacy in a given category. Warren is nationally recognized, having come to Florida from New Jersey in the 90s. He's watched as the Miami scene grew into its own and supports it when Miami "deems" its own legends. New York and those helming the National Council, he says, don't always recognize the Miami houses' legends.

"We need to keep pushing, because there's so much great talent here, from categories featuring Bizarre, Runway, Face, Realness, Performance," Warren says."Our community as a whole can go up north anywhere and shake the building. People sitting around in this room now have done it and have proven that."

In essence, the north vs. south divide of the American ball scene is just a manifestation of one of its hallmarks, shade, and the Miami houses take it in stride.

"They want the mecca to be New York, and that's it," says Temeka LanVin, overseer of the Miami chapter of LanVin. "You're deemed in New York, [they want] everybody to just come back to New York instead of expanding."

Social media, LanVin says, has made things too instant to contain in one city. In fact, the immediacy and openness of social media has lit a fire in the ball scene internationally, harkening back to the spirit Madonna sang about 25 years ago.


"It was exciting to me," recalls Xavier Mizrahi, Father of the House of Mizrahi, on his first time experiencing a ball. "I could become someone other than I was in the regular world. It was school and work, but then I come here to the Ballroom scene and I can be X. I can be me. I can relate to all these people, and I can turn into someone that I wasn't. It wasn't about the money. It was about the friendly competition and seeing what was out there, other than what I was seeing in the everyday world."

Alexis Lords agrees, that "it's about the fact that when you enter the ballroom scene, you're living out your fantasy.

Today, voguing is bigger than "Vogue." It's hit mainstream "straight" culture almost without anyone noticing. The internet is rampant with videos of outsider dancers mastering moves like arms control, kids are dipping and calling it "the death drop." J. Lo's last album features a track called "Tens" full of ball lingo and featuring Jack Mizrahi as MC.

"Madonna didn't start vogue, she took vogue and made it mainstream," Power says. "Madonna got a glimpses into this world of ballroom, and of course it's fabulous, and of course she's a businesswoman, and of course she knew that she could really put this out there and it would be something new. She would be the poster girl for vogue. Well she's not; she took something that we've already been doing, and she made it fresh and new for the rest of the world, but for us it's just another day."


Not that anyone is throwing shade at the Madge.

Pictured: Tameka LanVin, Power Infinity, Trigga Ebony, Danny Ninja, Yasser Ninja, Xavier Mizrahi, Lexx Miyake Mugler, Warren Milan, Prada Chanel, Alexis Lords, Sierra Mizrahi.

"Madonna wants to shout out the outliers, and gay people, believe it or not, are outliers," says Yasser Ninja, Father of the local chapter for House of Ninja. "We have so much to offer the common world, but they only see us as AIDS, diseases. In reality, we have so much creativity that you can benefit from out there, it's beyond."

"We couldn't have done it," says Trigga Ebony, House of Ebony. "We needed someone mainstream to put it on TV so people could see."

"No one can say 'did she do it right?'" Power says. "Anything that she did for Ballroom would have been right, because it gave us a spotlight that otherwise would not have been there."

Regardless of who shines the spotlight, who recognizes the dancer underneath, or what house the dancer claims, a Ball is just about being there, having it, and processing the hell out of any girl in your way.

"When I was a kid, I wish I had a place where I could go and have fun the way our kids are doing," Alexis Lords says. "All of us here leaders are giving our kids a sense of belonging, a sense where they can go, and we're hoping to save more lives by giving it to them."

Few songs can boast such a legacy as that.

Kat Bein throws shade in Miami and on