Inside Eastern Europe's Wild, Competitive Voguing Scene

The New York ballroom scene has spread to a European incarnation that mixes straight, gay, black, white, men, women, young, and old. Photographer Ewen Spencer has been following its parties.

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Nov 13 2015, 7:15pm

All pictures by Ewen Spencer

Vogue dancing and ballroom culture has forever been associated with the primarily black and Latino, almost entirely gay New York underground. But in the years since Madonna turned it into a slightly-too-late pop single, and as Paris is Burning has gradually become required watching for fashion students across the world, the scene's influence has been felt in places far beyond Harlem and Downtown NYC.

Photographer and friend of the scene Ewen Spencer (who took some of the most iconic photos of the grime scene and the UK garage scene, and made the Channel 4 documentary series Street, Style & Sound) has been photographing the vogueing scene in some of its more unlikely outposts—Stockholm, Talin, and St. Petersburg, where the rapidly growing scenes bring together people from all walks of life, as they adapt the styles of the old ballroom houses, often with a more classical, more gymnastic, just-as-outrageous approach.

Ewen plans to publish a book of the photos entitled 'Come, Bring, Punish,' which will be funded through a Kickstarter (you can find it here). I met up with him to talk about it.

How did you first get interested in the European voguing scene?
I was photographing a guy who was assisting me. I'd cast him for a commercial shoot, for a clothing brand. During these kind of hands-on shoots that I do, there's a lot of fooling around and waiting. While we were waiting, he told me he 'd got into to a big sort of street dance event. I hadn't realized that vogueing has become big part of that scene.

He showed me a video of the final of the vogue tour that he'd recorded in this little area in Stockholm. He'd just filmed it on his phone, and I was like, 'What's going on here, what is this?' I saw a very attractive young woman competing against a very flamboyant black male, and that was the final, and they were dressed as Snow White characters. I mean, it's just wild. The crowd was going bananas and I just thought, I wanna know more about this .

I went to one in Rotterdam, in the back room of a club, underneath a motorway overpass. There were people from Italy, Moscow, France, Stockholm, and the United States there. It was just a huge, diverse mix of people, of all sexual orientations and ages. I think there was even an 11-year-old from Bulgaria there.

What were the first things you noticed about the night?
They appropriate everyday language into their own kind of language. For instance, 'cunt' is used as a superlative. So if something's very good, they would click their fingers and wave their hands and go 'That is cunt!' and bang on the stage and the catwalk.

You know, to photograph that... I just went back and looked at the pictures and I don't think I've been as excited about taking pictures for quite a long time. I was hooked immediately.

Who exactly are the people involved, in terms of the competitors and the audience?
Probably a third of the audience are competitors, and the rest are purely spectators, or people who've come to support a particular house. There's so many different houses within the scene, all with their own supporters and competitors.

The voguing movement was kind of pushing out into eastern Europe and those houses out there are very organized. They're almost like school trips. There'll be a slightly older person who was clearly very involved in the scene and would be competing and dancing for a house, but would bring with them a troop of like 16/17/18-year-old men and women who would create their own outfits, just like everyone else did, and compete and take part in the whole event.

And it's mixed? Boys and girls, gay and straight, black and white?
Absolutely. One of the most popular guys at the moment is this very slim dark-haired guy with long hair. He's a straight man, he brings his girlfriend with him and he's very pretty. He's just a hit; he's massive at the moment.

How does their take on voguing differ from the classic American type?
The eastern European kids and the Russians definitely have a more gymnastic, balletic approach to it. There are different themes: there's vogue femme, there's traditional, there's even one called sex that you don't see very often, and there's whacking. Some balls only have a few of these, others will try and cover everything. And certain people will only enter in certain categories, others are all-rounders.

What's different in this European incarnation is that it's much more physical and there's more floor work, so it's a mix with street dance, contemporary dance, ballet, and breaking.

So there are lots of contrasts within the vogueing movement here as a result of the diversity of people's cultural backgrounds and nationalities.

How does the house system work? A lot of them are a part of pre-existing houses in America, so it seems to me that it's almost like a franchise system?
Yeah, there are kind of like franchises of American houses that exist. There's the House of Lanvin, and House of Ninja, which is an American one that's also big in Paris and around Europe. But there are people from lots of different cities who all contribute to one house.

It's very competitive. There are certain people within voguing right now in Europe that want to put a stop to the competitiveness, but I don't know what they want to make it into. Personally, I quite like the competitive nature of it. I think it brings something exciting to the audience and it keeps people coming.

It's organized through Facebook pages and the community just knowing one another. The talent-spotting is basically just seeing someone who's young coming through and saying, 'become part of our house, you've got something special.'

How do you think these kids got into it? Is it from pop culture, from Paris is Burning, from the Madonna tune?
I doubt it's from the Madonna song. I think it's probably developed through a kind of growing awareness and an acceptance of other people's cultures, as well as a desire for escapism, a place where you can feel kind of safe to express yourself.

There's nothing hidden away in these places, they just feel really free. People obviously feel celebratory when they're there as well, and you can see that happening. There's not a lot of hedonism going on here in terms of alcohol and drugs actually. You don't really see that elsewhere.

You said you've never seen Paris is Burning. Was that a conscious decision?
I think it has become since I started working in this area, but it wasn't at the time. I didn't want to taint my point of view—I wanted to keep it pure. But I look forward to watching it one day, as long as the book has been published.

How tight are the houses with each other? The original scene seemed to be based on a kind of outsider camaraderie.
I think there's a great friendship among everybody and they're very tight. I spent a lot of time backstage and they're just having a great time and a lot of fun.

These scenes can be quite closed off, I imagine. How receptive were they to you shooting it?
There are similarities to the garage scene for me, because there are these house photographers there who are covering it for the promoter, who'd usually be somebody pretty high up from a house. So they already have a staff photographer and a video-maker. I just ask in advance if I can come along and tell them what kind of work I do. Usually they're very receptive and say yes.

I think we've had one or two where they've said no because they want to own all the imagery associated with that night. Where it goes, I don't know, but they want total discretion over their evening and they don't want it to be exposed to anyone else—which you've got to respect. Most people welcome the idea that it may come to fruition as a book or something like that, though.

What do you think is so inherently fascinating about this scene?
It's so international—people are traveling every weekend to different events, in the same way we did with early house music and northern soul and any kind of musical and style subculture.

It has its own identity, and to me that was immediately attractive, as well as the creativity of dressing up and creating these outfits, and the absurdity of it at times. So there's comedy and there's tragedy, all those different emotions tied up in it, in a very short space of time.

Once I went to one ball, I couldn't wait to go to the next one. The quality of the pictures from the first visit meant I knew I was onto a good thing, so I've stuck with it for a while.

It's exciting to photograph. Grime, for instance, is about showing off, about peacocking, so there was a lot of continuity there, from what I was doing in the past. It's seeing the human form in a slightly different way—moving in slightly unusual ways and showing off.

Thanks Ewen.

Fund the Kickstarter here.

And see more of Ewen's work on his website.

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