Photos by Jackie Lee Young
Texas' scrappy electronic music scene is steadily growing, but it's still hard to find artists like the members of House of Kenzo—a San Antonio-based vogue crew that has become a force in the local DIY music community over the past year. Vogue dancing was House of Kenzo's initial focus, but they've also branched into performance art, DJing, and music production.
roxy rnbwstrchld is the house's de-facto "Mother," a dancer, and the group's main MC. Gemel Biscotti, AKA LEDEF, is both a dancer and a DJ/producer who began his career playing at strip clubs; he makes unsettling tracks that mix Chris Brown's "No Air" with samples of someone choking. Antonio Padron, AKA TonePadron, started dancing in high school at quinceaneras, evolved into krumping, then settled into his own of vogue. He's also splits DJ and production roles with LEDEF, citing Jersey club music as an influence. Bobby bearz is the only non-Texan in the group— an acrobatic dancer, he splits choreography duties with Antonio and holds down a side gig teaching cheer and gymnastics to high schoolers. Breezy and Karma no longer live in San Antonio and weren't performing that night, but are still considered family, with Karma credited as house "Fatha.
Whenever they enter a room, heads turn—partly because they're dressed in what looks like a mix of Hood by Air and The Fifth Element with a Texan twist, like stereotypical cowboy boots paired with a skirt of orange construction netting. But mostly, the attention derives from the fact that their outrageously theatrical dancing always becomes the talk of the night. During a typical show, the crew will spontaneously drag ladders onto dance floors, break-dance in high heels, and wrap crowds in neon string. Since their formation in 2015, they've already shared the stage with Mexico City club collective NAAFI and have national and international tours in the works.
The competitive NYC vogue culture most famously chronicled in the 1991 film Paris Is Burning, and more recently in Kiki and Walk! this year, isn't as prominent in Texas, so the members of Kenzo learned the basics of vogue dancing from friends in Philadelphia's House of Blahnik and Karma, who plays a major role in House of Ninja. In my ten years as a DJ in the Austin dance music scene, I've never seen anything like them, so naturally I wanted to learn about how a vogue house sprung up in a city most commonly associated with Tex Mex and metal.
When I reach out to the crew in November to ask if I could follow them around San Antonio for a night, they agree immediately, inviting me to "Deconstructed Attitude"—a DJ set by LEDEF and TonePadron at Hi-Tones, a divey venue that claims to have invented the pickle shot. Roxy was incredibly friendly on the phone, peppering her sentences with the word "cunt"—a complimentary term within the ballroom scene.Roxy's shoes
On the appointed evening in mid-November, I drive down to San Antonio and arrive at Bond's 007 Rock Bar around 7PM. Like most nights, the House of Kenzo crew first assembles to pre-party at this metal bar. When I step inside, roxy sits at a table superglueing her platform heels. She introduces me to the bar owners, who happen to be her parents. Meanwhile, Antonio is quietly organizing tonight's DJ set on his laptop, while Bobby, dressed in a sweater with an embroidered heart, trades barbs over whose outfit is the most "cunt" with Gemel, who wears combat boots and slashed sleeves. Gemel claims victory thanks to an S&M collar around his neck that's on loan from an escort.
Throughout the night, everyone is referred to with female pronouns like "she" or "her," myself included. When I ask Gemel why, he says, "That's just a reaction to cis-het[erosexual] normative language."
"If I had to, I'd say [I'm] a non-binary male," he continues to explain. "It's not a hard identity to me at all—I feel very fluid with it. A daytime look can be very masculine or go super cunt. I think it's stupid to confine yourself to any identity when you can easily recreate it any day."
"Crawling" by Linkin Park blares out of the bar's speakers as the group moves on to discuss a recent series of House of Kenzo shows called the Fuckwave Trilogy thrown at the Blue Star Arts Complex over the summer. One involved roxy wearing a wedding dress that was sliced off during the performance. They mention how they saw an attendee masturbating in the middle of the dance floor, agreeing that it crossed a line, but they still loved it.
Polishing off a round of Jager and Cokes, the Kenzo crew tells me what to expect at tonight's performance. They explain that it won't be highly choreographed, more of a b2b DJ set between TonePadron (Antonio) and LEDEF (Gemel), with roxy emceeing and Bobby dancing. The members of Kenzo are keenly aware of how vogue dancing and MCs are not typically associated with house and techno parties. But they tell me that they're proud to be considered outsiders in club culture.
"We're kinda pursuing a role as official performers based in experimental movement," says roxy. "That element of hypemen—people who motivate and encourage the audience to immerse themselves in the music—the experimental techno dance scene needs that. We're filling that void."
At 8 PM, we leave the bar and drive to a compound of art galleries in the South Flores Art District. There's an open house tonight, and hundreds of people circulate throughout the 11 studios. We're here for a show at Gravelmouth Gallery by the Essentials art collective, who exhibit black and white collages of dominatrix and couture imagery that match Kenzo's post-fashion, post-apocalyptic, post-everything vibe.
Local DJ crew Sweedish Erotica plays diva house when Kenzo arrives, and when Antonio hears the filtered grooves of "Back in the Days" by Alfonso Deep Touch, he's inspired to dance. No one else in the room is moving, so Antonio easily draws the crowd's attention.
His stoicism turns fierce, like a mannequin come alive. Arms swing and click at obtuse angles, then his body unlocks, falling in a violent dip turned drop. The vogueing only lasts a couple minutes before we have to leave for soundcheck at Hi-Tones, a rough and tumble rock club that roxy jokingly refers to as a cholo bar.
Soundcheck is supposed to be at 9 PM, but when we arrive there's a snag—roxy and Gemel don't have ID, and the bouncer doesn't seem to care that they're performing later. The group now needs a new place to do their hair, makeup, and wardrobe while to sort out their situation.
They call in a favor with their friends at vegan cantina La Botanica. The queer-friendly venue is a big supporter of Kenzo, and allows them to turn the dining area into a green room. Outside on the patio, DJs associated with record shop Southside Vinyl play tasteful house like Byron the Aquarius's "Aquarian Voyage" as customers share plates of empanadas.
More friends of Kenzo arrive, including their make-up artist Nate Ryan, who walks into the room with white lace covering his eyes and black fake blood on his nose. It's hard to believe that he's only two hours sleep. He lays out his cosmetics on the table and prepares to do Kenzo's makeup.
Tonight's makeup theme is "alien skin, but way more toxic and beautiful," says roxy.
At 11PM we head back to Hi-Tones with hopes that the bouncer will soften his ID policy. I don't really understand why he was such a jerk, but changing an evening's plans on a moment's notice doesn't seem too unusual for Kenzo. He still seems angry, but relents and lets the group inside.
This dive is not the most likely place to find harsh club music. Mexican blankets line the stage and dusty religious candles hang on the wall. The night starts with DJ Der Kindestod playing un-Shazamable experimental club tracks as the bar's mostly middle-aged regulars nod curiously along.
Next, Saakred, a songwriter with an electronic slant on San Antonio hard rock, takes the stage at midnight, violently scraping the mic stand across their guitar strings. All four members of House of Kenzo head bang along on stage.
At 1AM, LEDEF and TonePadron go b2b for a chaotic set that starts with demonic vocal samples over booming half-time kicks and violent swashes of noise. The DJs move through genres fluidly, with techno, drum and bass, jungle, and R&B rubbing against each other, sometimes in combative ways. (Check out a recording of their set here.)
Bobby and roxy dance violently on stage, pairing deep squats with rapid-fire foot kicks and violent ass-thrusting toe touches taken from a workout instructor's playbook.
They command the crowd to "open the portal" and their friends erupt on the dance floor. Although the bar isn't packed, the energy makes it feel like a full room.
Dancers form a circle and an LED mounted on Jackie's camera becomes a spotlight for twerking and vogueing clubbers. roxy and Bobby chant authoritatively on the mic.
"Real ass bitches, fake ass world."
"If you're not sweating, you're not learning."
"Fearless love, fearless expression, fearless fucking dancing."
Plus a dozen refrains about pussy and what to do with it.
Suddenly, a clearly wasted girl crashes into the stage with all the chaos of the dance floor, but none of the grace. Bobby turns frantic. "This bitch isn't with us! Drag her! She's falling into the CDjs! Drag her! " he shouts to venue staff. It's the moment of the night where it becomes clear that even in the laissez-faire world of Kenzo, there is definitely such a thing as the wrong type of chaos. Security escorts the girl out.
The lights rise at 2AM, marking the end of the night. The fifteen or so kids left standing shuffle towards the exit. At the curb outside, there's talk of an afterparty, but no plan materializes. As fun as a late night with Kenzo would be, I'm relieved. The group couldn't have been more welcoming, but I'm mentally, physically, and socially exhausted. Seven hours is a long time to spend in a situation so defiantly fierce.
Hanging out with the crew opened my eyes to a side of club culture I hadn't really seen up close before in my time in the Texan dance music scene. I'm surprised by how vibrant San Antonio feels, with DJs and art seemingly around every corner, and how the city's traditional stereotypes like metal bars and taco joints have been reclaimed in the name of Kenzo. The dancefloor really did feel like a portal created to allow these kids to move, look, and feel like themselves—or whoever they feel like in the moment. As for the House of Kenzo, it was just another Saturday night.