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"The Madonna-Free Zone:" The History of the Harlem Vogue Scene

First Posted: Jan 09, 2014 01:56 PM EST

The Harlem ballroom scene was once ablaze with Latinos and African Americans performing the highly stylized, modern house dance called Vogue or voguing. While Madonna's video "Vogue" (1990) popularized the model-like poses, the history of the dance began in the early 1960s -- though competing reports state that Drag (Queen) balls can be dated back to the 1930s, which was referred to as "Spectacles in Color" by Langton Hughes. The dance scene evolved into the "intricate and illusory form" that it is recognized as today. Vogue magazine was inspired by the dance; as well as Malcolm McLaren's "Deep in Vogue"; America's Best Dance Crew dance group Vogue Revolution; and other mediums of performance and art. The 1990 film Paris is Burning documented the creative phenomenon.

"Houses," which were family-like collectives of LGBT performers and dancers, competed in formal dance competitions called "balls", earning acclaim for outperforming each other. Legendary houses rose from this era, each recognized for influence in community activism, fashion, nightlife, dance, visual arts and music. Truly influential houses sent its members to travel around the world, acting as ambassadors of the ballroom scene and voguing, showcasing the art form. Some notable houses are the House of Xtravaganza, the House of McQueen, and the House of Ninja, founded by the world famous performer and choreographer Willi Ninja.

French-Haitian Photographer Chantal Regnault's book Voguing and the Ballroom Scene of New York 1989-1992 gave a glossy account of the peak years of the legendary era. She captured portraits of Drag Queens; fierce individuals striking hard poses; stunners twirling on the ballroom floor; and performers resting on Manhattan-bound 'A' train with trophies in their laps. Her images, like the film Paris is Burning, captured a community that was beautiful and complex.

"There were very few venues for them to be accepted in the bigger world. One of the elements of my friendship with them was that I was a straight person who dealt with them like a normal person and not like they were freak." Regnault said in interview with The Fader. "And that made them feel good-they'd come to see me, stay at my place, talk and shout, smoke a spliff together, tell me their stories. Their lives were pretty rough. They were night workers and constantly in danger-in the movie, you see one of them is killed. That was a common fixture."

The houses performed three styles of vogue at the balls, Old Way (pre-1990), New Way (post-1990) and Vogue Fem (circa 1995). But the genre/scene manifested an array of styles within every generational phase. Members of the house, or the "children," sometimes legally changed their last names to advertise their affiliation with the house. The children danced and performed in tailored clothing, all the while dying from the AIDs epidemic and being exploited by the mainstream culture.

"When Madonna came out with her hit 'Vogue' you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, 'It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl.' Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke." Terrie Thaemlitz/DJ Sprinkle said during a monologue on the track, Ballr/Madonna Free Zone. "So if anybody requested 'Vogue' or any other Madonna track, I told them, 'No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I'm DJ-ing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor's reality!'"

Many of the members of the original vogue community have been plucked away due to AIDS, and many others receive treatment so that they can continue to live normal lives. Others have integrated into the "wider world," socially and professionally. The surviving vogue veterans no longer participate in balls, though they sometimes make appearances as "legendary legend."

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