Voguing Legend Leiomy Maldonado Is Bringing Ballroom to the Masses
"I didn't want to be the best. I became the best through work. I earned it."
Via FX / Instagram
Ballroom culture feels more mainstream than ever, largely thanks to a pair of groundbreaking TV shows that debuted this spring—Pose on FX and My House on VICELAND. The former is Ryan Murphy's (Glee, American Horror Story) new drama about New York's disparate subcultures in the 1980s, including ballroom and the gilded world of crony capitalism, that features the largest cast of trans actors in leading roles in TV history. The latter is VICE's docu-series about contemporary ball culture, centering on legends (and those aspiring to be) like Alex Mugler, Tati 007, and Precious Ebony.
One thing the two shows have in common, besides championing transgender and queer performers of color, is legendary vogue choreographer and Bronx-native Leiomy Maldonado. She choreographed the ballroom scenes in Pose and is featured as Tati's mother on My House.
Maldonado is known as the "Wonder Woman" of vogue for her athletic, gravity-defying style. Watch one video of her performing on YouTube and you'll understand the moniker. Just like the kids on Pose and My House, Maldonado found ballroom as a young trans woman and the community became her chosen family.
Professionally, she made her name as the first trans woman to compete on America's Best Dance Crew in 2009. Her signature hair flip, the “Leiomy Lolly,” inspired Willow Smith’s 2010 hit “Whip My Hair.” She even appears in the music video. (The flip also appears to have also influenced the choreography of Beyoncé and Britney Spears.) Last year, she starred in Nike's Be True campaign for Pride. And she's also the founder and mother of the House of Amazon in the ballroom scene.
VICE caught up with Maldonado to talk about ballroom going mainstream, lingering stigma against trans performers, and how to appreciate her work without being an asshole.
VICE: How did it feel to be asked to choreograph Pose?
Leiomy Maldonado: I felt honored that they wanted me to be a part of it. Especially because it's important to have real ballroom people be involved with anything that's ballroom. Our story should be told by us. [Ryan Murphy] did perfect. It wasn't even the fact that he came to me. It was the fact that he used so many ballroom legends from the 80s as consultants, like Jack Mizrahi and Hector Extravaganza.
It was amazing that they wanted to get it right. I feel like a lot of times that's lost. In the industry, a lot of cultures and a lot of things are taken, and no one wants to give credit. It's been an amazing experience.
Did many of the Pose cast members know how to vogue beforehand?
I believe only two of the ladies in the cast were already ballroom participants, but the rest we really had to teach from scratch. But they were so determined. They worked hard and understood how important it was to get it right. When I came onto the set, they were already doing research on ballroom, and they knew what to expect.
For Pose specifically, even I had to do research to be able to teach in the 80s style. Ballroom now is completely different. Even with voguing, it's completely different from what it was. Usually I only teach voguing, but on Pose I had to teach them how to do different categories, like runway.
What are the big differences between 80s-era ballroom versus what you'd see today?
Like in My House? Well in the 80s, when voguing first started, it was more about emulating poses and basically imitating supermodels and people in magazines. So it's more symmetrical movement. More just posing then posing again. Whereas now, vogue femme is more about being feminine and having lots of personality. There's beauty in both styles, and overall I just feel like voguing itself is a style of dance that's unlike any other.
Voguing is mostly freestyle. You're able to do anything you want, anything that comes to mind, whether you want to portray certain emotions, certain personalities, or certain characters. And there's no limit. I feel like with a lot of dance, you're stuck specifically doing one style. With voguing you can incorporate hip-hop, ballet, modern, and any other style of dance.
How would you describe your style of voguing?
Before I got into the game, vogue femme was more about being overtly feminine. What we call soft and feminine. Then there's another style, called dramatics, which is more high energy with crazy drops and spins and things like that.
When I came along, around 2003 or 2004, I basically vogued from the heart. I found a way to change it. Because of me, voguing has become more acrobatic, more of a daredevil style of dance. The reason they call me "Wonder Woman" is because of the things I'm able to do with my body while voguing. I defy gravity. I get down and dirty. If you ask someone from the 90s to vogue femme for you, it would look somewhat like the vogue femme that I do, but it would be completely different. It'd be a little bit slower, a little bit more compact. While mine is more like an explosion.
In ballroom, they separate the categories. They call the gay males "butch queens." They call trans women "femme queens." And they call a drag queen a "butch queen in drag." So then for [cis] females, they just call them women. In the categories, it'll be women's performance, femme queen performance, butch queen performance, butch queen in drag performance. Sometimes they'll have female figure performance which means anyone who presents themselves as a woman can battle. So it will be cis, trans, or drag queens.
Does it bother you that you’re not competing in a category that's just called "women?"
Even within ballroom, there are things that happen and certain categories that are very disrespectful to the trans community. Back in the 80s, it was OK, especially because we didn't know better. We were still trying to find a place to fit in. But now that we have a place to fit in, we shouldn't have to [be called femme queens].
There's this category in ballroom called realness. Basically, if a gay man is walking realness, you would have to judge him based on his masculinity. You would have to let me know whether you can tell he's gay or not. They have a similar category for trans women, where trans women are judged on how passable they are. And I feel like that category is disrespectful, because how can you judge what makes me more of a woman than the next person?
I think as a culture we’re still struggling with putting each other and ourselves into narrow labels.
A lot of gay guys, especially in ballroom, don't see trans women as women. And that's messed up. I struggled a lot with my own body type, being an athletic dancer, as part of the ballroom scene. I've been misgendered, disrespected, called all types of names, all because I'm athletic. How is that fair? Me, transitioning in a place where I'm thinking I'm with my community, and they're making me feel more self-conscious about my body than I would be in society.
How do you feel about cis actors playing trans characters?
I feel like it's so disrespectful. There's no way that anybody who's cis can play a trans part. Or maybe they can play the part, but why do that when you have trans actors who can do it? When you have people who have lived those things. I don't understand. And a lot of times, they won't even bother finding out, from someone who is trans, whether what they're doing is right. And that's another thing: If you're not going to cast someone who's trans, at least have someone who's a consultant behind the scenes telling you, "That's right, that's wrong." You can educate people and do it properly. Don't make it a mockery.
I find it so beautiful and refreshing to see so many trans actors on television.
We can do it, so why not. Being trans don't mean that we're limited. We have the same talent as people who are cis. Why should we be limited in our lives or profession?
What does it mean to see your community represented in mainstream entertainment?
I feel like we still have a lot of things to work on, especially within the industry, but little by little people are being more accepting. We're getting opportunities that we deserve, that anybody deserves.
I feel like it's long coming. We deserve to have been here a while ago. It sucks that it took this long. But I also feel like everything happens when it needs to. The only thing I feel needs to actually change more is the music industry. I feel like if I had the same talent and had been born female, I would be in all these hip-hop videos. I would be doing much more, but because I'm trans, that kind of limits me as a dancer. In the acting world, it's becoming easier and more open. The fashion world is more accepting and more open. But when it comes to the music industry, it's not. And I feel like that has kept me from working and creating amazing things with amazing artists.
Do you meet people who look down on voguing?
All the time, especially before. Now it's more accepted. But when I was on America's Best Dance Crew [in 2009], although a lot of dancers were amazed by it and loved it, there were a lot of people who were like, "Oh that's a gay dance." And to me that's the most ignorant thing you could say. What the hell makes something a gay dance? But little by little I've been able to change that. I've been able to showcase voguing in different art forms, where people are intrigued by it and want to know more, to the point where voguing is becoming mainstream and international.
Your style of voguing appears to have influenced many mainstream musicians.
I feel like voguing is going to be seen more and more, but my only issue is people coming to the right people to learn it. Some performers steal voguing. They pay a choreographer to teach them fake voguing, and then put it in they videos, and then everybody's like, "Oh, that's voguing," when it's not.
You didn't bother asking someone in the scene or educating yourself. That's bullshit. And if I have to call people out I will, I will continue to call them out. It's not because I want to discourage people from voguing. I want to encourage people to learn how to vogue through the right people. Anyone who's in New York should come to one of my classes at Peridance Studios.
Watching you perform these moves in heels is amazing! Are there safety precautions you teach students so they don't break an ankle or something?
Honestly, with this style of dance, you have to trust your body, or teach yourself to know your body. Some things in voguing look crazy, and if you try it without knowing what you're doing, you might get hurt. But if you're taught the right way and take your time to learn, you can actually do it. Anybody can do it.
When I teach, I come across people who have studied voguing and know about it, but also people who don't know anything about it. I like to push people and to show them that they can do anything with their body as long as they put their mind to it.
Not every amazing dancer has to go to school for it. Like me, I taught myself everything I know. I'm fortunate that I learned my body and became an amazing dancer just through practice.
Do you have a mother in the ballroom scene?
I actually have two parents. I have a ballroom mother: she's trans and she has basically been my mother within and outside of ballroom. And then I have a gay mentor. He's always been there for me through everything. So, I've been fortunate to have two parents. My trans mother doesn't really vogue. She walks other categories, but she has been in the ballroom scene since the 90s. And the guy who's my mentor, he's also been around since the 90s, but he's known for voguing.
Why did you start the House of Amazon?
There came a point where being a part of ballroom felt kind of negative, so I left. I just got tired of people being shady and catty. I felt like I'd worked hard, so at the very least, I deserved to be respected. But I felt like my talent wasn't appreciated, so I stopped. I was doing more traveling and teaching, stuff like that.
Then a lot of my kids and students started coming to New York, joining the ballroom scene, and being put into different houses. But the houses weren't making them feel like they were a part of a family, which is what a house is supposed to be. They were using these kids more for their talent. And I got tired of that. I got tired of going to balls and seeing my kids crying because their houses weren't supportive of them. So I was like, I need to open my own house and bring back what ballroom is missing. The true houses were built to be supportive and a family—be caring and loving. That's what my house is about.
I decided to name it Amazon, because anyone who knows me knows I'm the Wonder Woman of vogue. And she's from Themyscira, where she lives with the Amazons—this team of strong women. Initially, I wanted to have an all-women house, but then I figured shunning men was a negative place to start from. That wouldn't be right. So I opened it to everyone, and I started bonding with people and wanting them to be a part of my life.
Since then, it's been three years, which is crazy. My house is international, and a lot of times I don't get to see my kids who are overseas, but we always stay in contact. They are a part of my everyday life, which is so amazing. For me, as a parent, I've gone through so much in ballroom—I've gone through so much in life in general—and I wanted to give people a safe space. I wanted to be that beacon of hope for my kids.
The thing that makes my house different from others is that my kids are not ballroom hungry as opposed to a lot of other kids that come to the ballroom scene because they want to win a trophy. That never was my motive. My motive was that I want to vogue. That's it. I just happened to become one of the best because of my passion for it. It wasn't that I wanted to be the best. I didn't want to be the best. I became the best through work. I earned it.
How did you meet Tati 007, who's one of the main women on My House?
I met Tati through the ballroom scene. I always used to see her at the balls and things like that. With me and Tati, it's something that just happened. Her being around, me being around. We're both trans women, and we walked the same category, and things like that. Initially out of respect, she started calling me her mother. And from there, I acknowledged her as my daughter. And then from there, we just had a friendship.
I try to be there for her. I try to motivate her as best I can into being the best she can be as a person. And knowing that she's pursuing this career, I try to inspire and motivate her to be consistent and stick to her dreams.
What are some of the things you'd work on with an experienced voguer like Tati?
For me it's all about teaching control. Because I feel like that's the thing that people, when voguing, they forget. Although it may look wild, you always have to have control. I feel like that's what makes me so unique compared to everyone else. Although my style of vogue is on a ten, my control is on a ten, too. You can be amazing and execute nasty moves, but if you execute them in a way where it's clean and beautiful, it's even more intriguing and powerful.
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