Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps 'Voguing' Legacy Alive
Having lost many to AIDS/HIV, LBGT dance community lives on
In Loop 21's three part series, Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps 'Voguing' Legacy Alive, writer Joi-Marie McKenzie takes readers deep inside the House of Ninja, after their founder and Vogue icon Willi Ninja passes away from HIV/AIDS. With a disease that is heavily affecting the gay and lesbian community, the series sheds light on one of the hardest hit communities.
William Leake lay dying from AIDS. It was August of 2006, and the 45-year-old dancer was confined to a bed at the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens. He had lost his ability to walk, a crushing turn for a man who had once impressed club kids with his signature move: extending one leg 180 degrees straight over his head. More recently, retinitis had claimed Leake’s eyesight. Blindness made him feel particularly lonely, so the people closest to him, the members of his dance crew or “house,” began taking turns keeping him company in the hospital.
Javier Madrid, then 22, sat beside the bed. An ambitious dancer in his own right, Madrid was also the youngest member of Leake’s house. He watched the man who introduced him to vogue — an underground dance form that sprung from Harlem’s gay club scene — feebly try to strike dance poses in his hospital bed. Leake, better known as “Willi Ninja,” told Madrid he wanted to attend the annual Latex Ball, the biggest vogue competition in New York, the following week.
“Willi, no. As sick as you are?” Madrid said. But that didn't matter to Leake. He loved to dance. He felt that nothing, not even AIDS, could stop him.
“I just want to twirl,” Leake pleaded, half-seriously.
“Don’t worry about it,” Madrid reasoned with him. “I’ll bring a trophy back for you.”
Beneath the small talk, both men knew what neither wanted to say: Leake didn’t have much time. Even if Madrid could pull off winning a trophy at the ball, there was no guarantee that his mentor would still be around to see it.
Among his peers, Leake is revered as “the godfather of vogue.” He helped create and shape a dance form inspired by fashion models’ poses, runway walks and glamour. Named after the glossy magazine of the same name, the vogue dance style was devised by gay men. It celebrates a confident attitude and emphasizes poses, contortions and dips. Today, voguers perform primarily at “balls,” or competitions. Collectively, the ballroom scene is comprised of “houses,” which host the dance battles and act like fraternities. Each house has a “mother” and a “father,” who lead the group in everything from teaching dance practices to helping their members find jobs. Some of the better-known houses in New York include the House of Ebony, the House of Xtravaganza, the House of Mizrahi and the House of Ninja, which Leake created in 1982.
William "Willi Ninja" Leakes
Voguing burst onto the dance scene in the early 1980s, but quickly faded into the background. It resurfaced in 1990, thanks to Madonna’s hit “Vogue,” which inspired a generation of young people to mimic the stiff, jerky arm movements they saw in the song’s black and white music video. The next year saw the release of a groundbreaking documentary,“Paris is Burning,” which gave America a front row seat to voguing and the ballroom community. The dance form wouldn’t make another mainstream splash until 2009, when a dance group from New York City called Vogue Evolution competed on the fourth season of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” a hit television show on MTV.
Voguing was, and remains, a powerful outlet for self-expression in the gay community. Many of the dancers have endured rejection from family members, low self-esteem and shame because of their sexual orientation. Through voguing, they reclaim negative feelings, turning them into a positive experience. They love the dance style, not only because of its stylized movements, but because if you’re good enough, you can become “legendary,” meaning you’ve won more than a few vogue battles. Recognition and fame are the ultimate prizes. If you have the moves and the attitude, you can become a celebrity within the scene, a goal that many gay men, transmen and transwomen can rarely attain outside of the ballroom.
Over the past 20 years, voguing has undergone a unique transition of power. Many of the scene’s strongest dancers are gone. Dorian Corey, 53, a transvestite known for touring with a drag cabaret act in the 1960s, and Anji Xtravaganza, 27, a transgender dancer and the original mother of the House of Xtravaganza, both passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1993. A decade later, Pepper LaBeija, the original mother of the House of LaBeija, died at 55 from diabetes. Octavia St. Laurent, a transwoman who was often praised for her beauty, died in 2009 at 45 after battling cancer. All had been featured in “Paris is Burning” as leaders of the underground vogue scene.
Now, with most of the forefathers of vogue gone, their successors, or “kids,” have been left to recreate the moves and navigate the competitive ballroom scene on their own. And the landscape is changing. Not only are the moves different, but the houses have also changed. They’ve become less like supportive, nurturing families and more like fraternities. Modern-day kids are not only breaking the rules that Leake and his contemporaries created, they’re rewriting them.