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Vancouver is Raining: A Ballroom Oasis in Voguing’s Wild West

On Canada's west coast, ball culture is having a moment.

by Eric Shinn
Apr 29 2015, 7:25pm

Photo by Mark Gutknecht

Voguing is enjoying a moment. The movement first sashayed into the mainstream in 1990, on the heels of two breakthrough films: Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning and David Fincher's music video for Madonna's megahit, "Vogue." The former shed light on the seminal underground scene of 80s New York City and the movement's godfather Willi Ninja, while the latter brought the scene's flamboyant style into the music video generation's popular consciousness. Once confined to a few scenes in a few cities, in 2015, voguing is anyone's game—especially in Canada.

"I popped my ballroom cherry in 2008; that was before I had even watched Paris Is Burning," says Quanah Style, one of Vancouver's voguing divas. "I didn't plan on competing but was inspired by all the fierceness and signed up last minute, then won! I was addicted after that."

"It's taken much more seriously in Toronto and judged stricter," says Style, explaining that Canada's largest city is its voguing capital. The #artlive Ball and Crystal Winter Unicorn Ball really impressed her, as did the Toronto vogue community's recent Social Media Awards Ball. "Here, you can't vogue in a runway category. It's quite specific. No shade, but it's easier to win in Vancouver. I've won four balls in Vancouver."

Vancouver's House of La Douche however, does not make winning look easy. The crew of four—Ikue Ueno, Michelle Underwood, Tristan Chad, and Jonathan Kol—dazzle crowds with intricate synchronized choreography. They intimidate rivals in solo battles with dramatic dips, high-speed hand movements, and powerful poses. At the House of Celebrities Ball in November, Ueno won the Vogue Performance category because, in the words of the Vancouver Pride Society's Entertainment Coordinator and vogue ball MC Symone Says, "she came to work!"

"When I am about to go on, I'm excited and nervous at the same time. It's actually a very uncomfortable feeling, but I know feeling uncomfortable is a great thing," says Ueno. "Once I start to dance, I forget about all the anxieties I had and let the music guide me to a journey of dance. Music, Music, Music! Every time I hear voguing music, it makes me want to just explode on the dancefloor."

Ball culture first emerged in black, Hispanic and Latino gay communities, often marginalized or ignored by more mainstream gay nightlife scenes in major cities. It was originally called "performance," but the theatrical gender-bending dance took on the name "voguing" as dancers mimicked runway-ready poses worthy of Vogue magazine. They appropriated the aesthetic and naming conventions of haute-couture fashion houses for their dance crews, which continue to serve as inspiration for ball "houses" today, held together by the chosen family of fiercely individual kindred spirits.

In the early years, Willi Ninja refined the repertoire by incorporating elements of martial arts, modern dance, ballet, gymnastics, disco, break dancing, runway walking, and posing. Moves from the pre-Madonna era are referred to as "old way" and focus on spins, dips, and pops. Post-Madonna "new way" moves feature more floor and hand work, such as the "duck walk." Dancing and runway walking are often separated in competition as are other competitive fields including reading, realness, and traditional beauty battles of face, body, and sex appeal.

House of La Douche crew in full form. From front left to right, Michelle Underwood, Ikue Ueno, Tristan Chad, and Jonathan Kol.

Got all that? While the complexities and nuances of traditional voguing were deliberately hard for outsiders to keep track of, pop culture moments like RuPaul's Drag Race, music videos from the likes of FKA Twigs, and Lady Gaga's homages to ball culture in her tours have done much to pull back the curtain. This familiarity has led to formalizing the vocabulary of a movement with deep roots that have spread through the soil of diverse and dedicated scenes, and consequently branched off from the Big Apple's voguing family tree and sprinkled seeds in Canada.

Since Jojo Zolina founded House of La Douche in 2006, Ueno has been devoted to the practice. She credits him and two other international teachers, Archie Burnett of New York and Gary Quon of Vancouver, for schooling her personally. All have judged competitions and taught workshops with Vancouver's dancers for years, each sharing their wisdom and experience from their time in New York's voguing scene.

Zolina left Vancouver for Toronto in 2010 and his absence is still felt among Vancouver's dancers. In a relatively small city, every dancer counts. "There are stunning, consistent dancers on the scene," says Raziel Ried, the award-winning novelist and voguing judge at Celebrities Ball. "What Vancouver lacks in scope it more than makes up for in dedication to the craft. The city produces raw and fierce talent."

Cydney Eva from Kween Krew takes the runway at Fortune Sound Club in Vancouver. <

"House of La Douche was originally formed to promote uniqueness, creativity and individuality of LGBTQ culture," says Ueno, who produces the annual Amaze Ball with the Vancouver ballroom house DJ Kasey Riot. "Over the years, we have seen more multicultural diversity in our group regardless of any gender, race, belief, and sexuality. We feel that we have a mission to play a bridge between LGBTQ and the mainstream, and to celebrate freedom of expression and the beauty of performing arts with a little humour, edge, and storylines."

"What's unique about Vancouver's voguing scene? The lack of black people!" laughs Symone Says. "I can say that because I'm black. I was there 25 years ago when the culture was leaving New York and hitting Toronto. It's quite exciting to watch the younger generations adapting and running with it. Truly, only in the last seven to ten years has it become such a huge phenomenon in Vancouver. It's pushing some edge these days. Instead of grabbing trends, Vancouver is able to be at the forefront, circulating them."

Jane Smoker and Valynne Vile host a recent competition at Vancouver's Fortune Sound Club. Werk.

At last year's Bass Coast festival just outside of Vancouver, Tawni Krystal and Lolo Fox of Light Twerkerz performed a marathon 90-minute stage show accompanying Taal Mala's DJ set. This year's festival has House of La Douche set to perform, along with Blondtron N Waspy, and Zebra Katz. In some ways, the west coast bass music scene is becoming the wild west of voguing.

Vancouver's output of original voguing music is also on the rise. Local diva Quanah just recorded with producer Boy Pussy in Toronto, with tracks "Beat of My Heart" and "Pump My Body Up" set to release on Wet Trax, channelling the classic techno and house feel of 90s runway staples like Dee-Lite and early RuPaul. Even with so much happening, insiders are careful to note that this is not a trend, but something more enduring.

"Everyone wants [to talk about] the next big thing, but it's not. It's a culture, so you have to treat it like that," said Cakes Da Killa. The New Jersey-based rapper spoke to THUMP recently after performing with DJ Cherchez La Femme at Fortune Sound Club in Vancouver that included a choreographed crew performance by House of La Douche.

"I think voguing is more of a spirit," says Cakes. "It's not really tied down to one place even though it came from New York. So I like that it's being translated and filtered through other perspectives. I think Vancouver has their own thing. House of La Douche? They was tearin' it. I was like, 'yasssss bish, yasssss.'"