"Jingle ball, jingle ball, fierceness all the way," sing Melody's Angels, tonight's on-stage band, kicking off the Jingle Ball, the latest competitive ballroom event from Berlin Voguing Out. Founded by Berlin-based House of Melody mother Georgina Leo Melody and Mic Oala, the organization is Germany's hub for the dance that grew out of the African American and LGBT Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
The event is an opportunity for voguers from all over Europe to connect, train, and, of course, battle it out one-on-one in categories like Runway, Sex Siren, and the three distinct styles of voguing: Old Way, New Way, and Vogue Fem.
The event is subtitled "Berlin Is Burning" after the 1990 film Paris Is Burning, which documents some of the social history of the black LGBT youth that incubated voguing as a style. It's a rich and intricately coded culture: The system of houses, with their formidable mothers at the helm, originally created a family structure for house children and continues to do so today. Vogue has consistently struggled with outsiders (e.g., Madonna) profiting off the style's cachet, which is why it's incredibly important to the organizers to represent the original, grassroots spirit of voguing, no matter who's performing. Mic Oala, who founded the Berlin Voguing Out festival with Georgina Leo Melody in 2012, explains: "We have a permanent dialogue about these things and are open to being corrected. We are very sensitive not to come up with 'vaguing', as we call it, and we put all our time and money into it to bring people from the States, celebrating the community and promoting the legends."
As a result, the judges present at the 2015 Jingle Ball are internationally renowned: Archie Burnett, from New York, is grandfather of the House of Ninja and the godfather of Berlin Voguing Out; Lasseindra Ninja is the mother of the Paris chapter of the house; and Aviance Milan is a New Way legend who created the European chapter of the House of Milan. Likewise, DJ Vjuan Allure, who's providing the beats tonight, is just as immersed in the scene: A member of the House of Allure who's been voguing since he was 11, he has been an instrumental figure in developing contemporary sounds for the newest wave of voguers. Georgina Leo Melody, whose House of Melody is still earning its clout, may be hosting the event, but respect for hierarchy is a deep part of the history of this competition.
Burnett, an inspirational and generous arbiter at the Jingle Ball, has been closely involved in the burgeoning German voguing scene, and considers Georgina his house daughter. "[The Berlin scene] is relatively new and has a very unique opportunity to grow in a way that will be appropriate for Germany but still have the integrity of the roots of where the culture comes from." A veteran of the New York voguing clubs from the 70s onwards, Burnett is keen to encourage voguers everywhere: This week he is also teaching workshops in the German capital. "As a dance, it is for everyone," he explains. "Voguing culture though, is not…The effort has to be made in order for something to sustain."
This means that when the judges are displeased with how the culture is being represented, they say so, asking Vjuan to stop the music and taking the mic to announce where performers have gone wrong. Over the course of the evening, contestants are interrupted for, variously: in the Runway category, dropping their garments on the floor and posing instead of walking; in Old Way, dancing New Way and being physical with an opponent; in New Way, not holding their stretches long enough and hurrying too much; in all voguing categories, not staying on beat. At one point, Archie Burnett even takes to the stage to demonstrate, jousting his arms in perpendicular, fluid motions, meticulously on the pulse.
But then if a contestant is given a second chance to impress, no one is rooting for them more than the judges who have just called them out. "That's what I'm talking about!" Lasseindra Ninja shouts, out of her seat, pleased that an Old Way contestant has used a second chance to represent the hieroglyphic poses and parallel lines that characterize the style.
It's a supportive, networked, and obviously fabulous family that nevertheless expects and challenges members to do their best. Estelle Winter Ego, 19, has just come off stage from competing in Runway: She got chopped in the first round, but she's not upset. "The level tonight is really high: People have come from all over Europe," she says. Later I bump into her at the bar, after she's competed again, in the Toddler (or beginner) Vogue Fem category. She made it through the first few heats. Flushed with pride, she tells me: "That's the furthest I've ever got!"
The competition takes place with an exuberance and freedom that means you never forget that this is a ball and we are here to be entertained. The final of the Sex Siren category is a standoff between a male and female contestant, and Lasseindra Ninja can't choose who she wants to win: "Do I feel more straight or lesbian?" she giggles. At a stalemate, the judges decide to get the competitors to perform again. As soon as the beat drops, contestant number one, in cupless bustier, glitter-slathered nipples, holdups, and thong, is straddling a raucous Lasseindra, blindfolding her with a leather paddle. Needless to say, she takes the prize.
These moments of on-stage freedom and intense interaction among crowd, contestant, DJ, MC and judges mean it often feels as if the internal logic of the competition is going to collapse at any moment; we wobble across a tightrope of miscounted votes, interludes, and false starts. But the boundless energy and sheer dedication of the dancers' flicks and flounces on Vjuan's bouncing, crashing beats somehow keep things careening on course to the final category: Vogue Fem. The newest voguing style, its unofficial description is "soft and cunty," and it's characterized by dramatic drops and ambitious spins, graceful hand motions and sheer sexual provocation.
The category's final sees Kendall Mugler (in a flippy Santa minidress and heels that make me want to cry) take on Aleandro Ninja, whose Santa outfit includes an epauletted leather chest harness. Bouncing low on their heels, arms folding in and out nimbly to the beat, they whip down to the floor when the beat crashes in, one leg stuck out dramatically and head flung back, as the crowd yelps in unison. Mother Melody on the mic calls out the countdown to the final moment, her voice hitting the beat: "…aaaaand: Hold. That. Pose. For. Me." Out of breath, bodies tensed in anticipation, Ninja and Mugler pause in position with a cheeky elegance. They look towards the judges: mother, grandfather, all legends. When the verdict goes to the House of Mugler, you couldn't even blink before the pair of sexy Santas is joyfully hugging. As Archie puts it: "There is no way anyone cannot be captivated by what they see."