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How Today's Ballroom Leaders Are Fighting a History of Appropriation

After decades of outsider celebrities treating the lifestyle like a trend, the community is keeping its own members at the forefront.

by Taylor Hosking
Jul 22 2019, 12:41pm

Getty Images / Catherine McGann

Early in the second season of Pose, protagonist Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista tries to convince ball emcee Pray Tell that Madonna's "Vogue" video will change their lot in life. But he counters: "Every generation thinks they're going to be the ones that are finally invited to the party … It ain't never gonna happen."

Each time voguing has emerged into the mainstream, scene insiders worried that the lifestyle would be treated like a disposable trend. And in some ways, it has been. But today, as ballroom is becoming more visible than ever before—with performances at The Met Gala and stars slaying red carpets throughout awards season—members of the community are aiming to make this moment count in a more lasting way.

Ballroom got its start in 1980s Harlem as a for-us-by-us counterculture movement that branched off from underground drag shows. It grew to have a number of hubs throughout the city, with house families competing for trophies and glory in each arena. Although it's flirted with the mainstream over the years, it's never fully broken through. In 1989, a few music videos—like Janet Jackon's "Alright" and Queen Latifah's "Come Into My House"—featured voguing backup dancers, and nightlife leaders held an AIDS benefit "Love Ball," where vogue stars mingled with celebs like supermodel Iman and designer André Leon Talley. But Madonna's video for "Vogue" in 1990—the same year that the documentary Paris Is Burning was released—really brought the dance style into public view.

The excitement of seeing megastars voguing started to wear off, though, when some realized it wouldn't have lasting effects for the broader community. "[Madonna's "Vogue"] was a fleeting moment in pop culture and I wish she had worked [more] with the ballroom community to make it last longer," Pose actress Angelica Ross (who plays Candy) told The Hollywood Reporter in June of this year. Some early pioneers at the time were eager to expand their reach, like icon Willi Ninja, who famously said in Paris Is Burning, "I want to take voguing not just to Paris is Burning—I want to take it to the real Paris." Ninja and a few other legends like Jose and Luis Xtravaganza were eventually able to travel, model, and teach vogue to celebrities. But they were rarely the star of major productions themselves––and even those experiences were rare until recently.

Today, there's still some risk that history could repeat itself, as celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Ariana Grande jump on the voguing craze, but leaders in the community are pushing to rewrite the story. "If [ballroom is taught by] people who are in the community who are paid for their work, that's cool," Pose runway choreographer Twiggy Garçon explained to VICE. "That's not always the case." To combat appropriation, stars like emcee and rapper Precious Ebony have been bringing voguing to the masses themselves. "Our community needs more spotlight because we're so tired of people coming in and stealing from our talent, our craft," Ebony told VICE.

Now the scene has its own celebrity advocates like Indya Moore and Janet Mock, and the increased attention has created lanes for trans and queer people of color to break barriers as models, activists, fashion icons, actors, choreographers, rappers, and TV moguls. The ultimate irony of Pray Tell's cynical line that every generation thinks they'll finally be invited to the party is that people are him are now not only invited, they're the main event.

It's hard to tell how long the current voguing craze will last, but the careers and projects spurring from this community-lead phase may well have a lasting ripple effect. Mock's first time directing on Pose, for example, led to a slate of future groundbreaking Netflix shows centering trans characters. And as stars continue to break barriers for representation, they're gaining new platforms to speak outside of LGBTQ-targeted programs; Moore, for example, just became the first trans person to keynote at Essence Festival this summer.

For now, insiders say these opportunities to share the culture on their own terms are a good thing, and ballroom isn't under threat of losing its core culture to commercialization. "There will always be people who come into a space and disrespect it by not knowing how to act. But there will be people who contribute, too," producer and vogue dancer J.D. Moran told VICE. "If it becomes harder to get into a ball, then that's fine. It just means the community needs to be more organized in preparing." While community members don't know exactly what to expect next, ballroom's ever-evolving nature assures them that the next phase will be for the best. "We always have references from ballroom then to ballroom now," Ebony said. "Just look how far we've come. Look how much it's evolved. Look how many people are being amused and intrigued with our community."

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.