By Tommie Olajide
So, I don’t know at which point but I found myself clicking ‘Going’ on a Facebook event page for a Vogue Workshop.
The school bus to York University, where the workshop was to take place, would arrive at the Sherbourne Health Centre to take us to what was billed as a ‘Vogue, Runway, Commentary & DJ Workshop’, presented in conjunction with the History, Glamour, Magic Will Munro Exhibit at the Art Gallery of York University (For more information on the Will Munro Exhibit, click here). After a good 45 minutes of commuting to York University, I felt the first pang of nervousness. This gnawing feeling that I was going to be mocked by a room full of fabulous, larger-than-live vogue Extraordinaires proceeded to permeate my entire body. The sensation in my chest felt like grey food coloring being dropped into a glass of clear water.
However, surprisingly enough, my uneasiness reached it highest point that evening the moment I caught my first glimpse of York’s highly commercialized food court and mini shopping mall. As someone who has received his post-secondary education in a Montreal theatre conservatory, I was completely oblivious to how blurred the lines had become between Education and Industry. In an environment that was historically meant for sharpening one’s discernment and critical mind, I found it odd to see such conformity. Subsequently, I began to contemplate the commonalities between my auditioning for a KFC audition and their purchasing of some popcorn chicken. We had both, in our particular way, consumed exactly what had been put in front of us. The real zinger though was I couldn’t pinpoint when this change had occurred in me. The flip from what I perceived as my non-conformity to complacency had been seamless. Invisible. So! With that uplifting thought, I proceeded to The Underground at York’s Student Centre underground to be introduced to Ballroom culture …
(To see footage from a previous Kiki Ballroom Alliance event, click here.)
Most people would recognize ‘Vogue’ from Madonna’s 1990 hit song, but the world of Vogue was alive and well more than thirty years prior to that. It derives from a response to the exclusion that black gay African-Americans felt in a white, heterosexist society. So I find it comical that Vogue finally got its due respect only when someone from within that dominant culture decided to pick it up for herself and proceed to pay tribute to such personalities as Marlon Brando and Bette Davis, thereby excluding the true forefathers of Vogue/providers of her success.
(For the Wikipedia entry for ‘Vogue (Dance)’, click here.)
To begin the workshop, we were given the option: DJ, Runway, Commentary, or Vogue. My sudden sense of adventurousness took me to the Voguing section where I was taught its basic elements. We were instructed that freedom and creation were to be found in Vogue’s 5 or 6 foundational pillars: hand performance, catwalk, duckwalk, spins, dips and floor performance.
Next up: Runway, where I was firmly told that Runway was in no way linked to Vogue. You walk, turn, and pose. No dancing and ABSOLUTELY NO WALKING TO THE BEAT OF THE SONG! Runway scared the crap out of me. It was about attitude and, hardest of all, an unapologetic stance on wanting to be seen. Humility or shyness it seemed was only welcomed if it was completely deliberate and performative, otherwise you best leave it at home. If you weren’t confident, then simply perform confidence until you have the capacity for it authentically.
To me, the ballroom scene is in response to an unbalanced, racial, and heterosexist culture. Those who were queer, trans, and/or non-white in 1960 Harlem seemed to find a kind of asylum in the Ballroom world. It opened the possibility that although you may not be a straight white Wall Street executive, then you could at least be one by performing one. Its performance of these stereotypes allows one to realise that if a gay black man can somehow seem like he just came from his lavished Wall Street condo, that there is no intrinsic ‘Wall Street executive’ to begin with. This is not to say that they don’t actually exist, but rather that a large part of one’s occupation, social standing and entitlement is dependant on one’s playing the part versus actually being it. It’s all a performance of an idea that needs to be continually practiced in order for it to seem real or valid.
The same goes for idea of gender. We are taught that men are not to wear high heels. Yet, here I am among some very hard looking guys who are wearing six-inch pumps! So the question arises, are high heels still feminine if they are on the feet of someone who identifies as male? Can high heels be a further expression of his masculinity or have we permanently assigned high heels to femininity? If so, why? What does that mean for females who are, as a result, forced to conform to these imposed ideals of femininity? Or does a young man wearing high heels negate the potential for high heels to be an accurate barometer of a person’s sexual and/or gender self-identification process??? I mean, the list of question go on and on, from how I have sex all the way back to the very moment I was named. By invalidating one construct, you’re forced to invalidate the other thousand you’ve been upholding. For me, the very performance of these roles may transform the performer into someone that they’ve always wanted to be, but it also invalidates the intrinsic existence of the image they seek to fulfill.
At the end of the night, as I was approaching the school bus for the ride back downtown, the guy who had been leading the Runway Workshop called me over. He said, ‘I have a house, and we’re recruiting’. So, I joined a House, started attending weekly practice every Thursday, and a few weeks later I was back at The Underground at York University for the Army of Lovers Ball, where I competed in the Schoolboy Realness and Body categories. But that’s another story for another blog entry … But, until then, and as the commentator says, ‘Let your legs do the walking, let your feet do the talking!’.
(To read an XTRA article on Toronto’s underground drag ball culture, click here