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Voguing: A Celebration of Queer Power and Expression

Voguing is more than a sickening dance style. It’s a symbol of queer resistance and empowerment. Grab your notebook and get ready to learn some queerstory.
Grindr
&
Editorial team
July 22, 2024
6
min. read
Table of Contents

It’s giving queen. It’s giving iconic. It’s giving legend. It’s giving Vogue

Madonna, Beyonce, and every doll who’s strutted through RuPaul’s Drag Race helped insert voguing culture into the mainstream lexicon. But if you don’t know names like Crystal Labeija, Willi Ninja, and Octavia St. Laurent, it’s time to catch up on your reading skills and learn the colorful Queerstory behind this iconic dance style.

What is voguing? 

Voguing (sometimes called vogue or vogue dance) is a dance style born in the LGBTQ Harlem ballroom scene of the 1980s. Named after the famous fashion magazine, it drew inspiration from haute couture, modeling, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

Using sharp angles, dramatic poses, and intricate hand movements, the dance style mimicked the poses of runway models as a way for gay men, lesbians, queer people, and transgender people to engage in gender as a performance. The blend of fierce fashion and dramatic acrobatics makes it a dance form that uniquely celebrates the body, pushes gender boundaries, and commands attention.

Today, it has been embraced and popularized by the larger LGBTQ community and spread into the mainstream, becoming a proud symbol of queer self-expression and empowerment. 

The history of vogue and ballroom culture

Harlem, New York, has long been an intellectual, cultural, and artistic hub for people of color, and it was no different for the budding queer community. During the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement that took place between 1920 and 1935, many influential Black visual artists, musicians, and authors were openly gay or gender non-conforming. The movement was instrumental in showing that distinctions of race, gender, sex, and sexuality were fluid and interconnected, setting the stage for the civil rights and gay liberation movements.

The Harlem Renaissance also laid the foundations for the neighborhood’s ballroom culture. New York City fostered a vibrant underground drag scene, and Harlem was the epicenter — a safe space for Black and Latinx queer communities to gather.

Old-school drag queen performances re-interpreted femininity by emulating Hollywood starlets and showgirl culture in the form of pageants. The balls affirmed diverse expressions of gender and sexuality in all their flamboyant fabulousness, far from a society where being gay or trans was demonized and criminalized. 

In the 1970s, the ballroom scene began to see competitions. Trans, gay, and queer queens faced off for trophies in various categories. Some sought “realness,” attempting to appear straight or pass as a specific gender. Others competed in beauty, runway strutting, or fashion.

Finally, the 1980s saw voguing enter the scene — a natural evolution of a dramatic art form. Winners boosted the reputation of their houses, surrogate families run by experienced Mothers. Queer Black trailblazer Willi Ninja and the House of Ninja are often credited with transforming ballroom routines, incorporating high-fashion couture glamor, theater, and modeling into a unique dance style. 

As voguing took over the ballroom scene, it caught attention outside Harlem. In 1990, documentary filmmaker Jennie Livingston released the monumental queer film Paris Is Burning. The documentary captured the movement’s evolution, following legendary Mothers like Angie Xtravaganza, Pepper LaBeija, and Paris Dupree in late-’80s New York City. 

The film helped highlight the ballroom community’s place as a reaffirming space for Black and Latinx transgender and gender-nonconforming people who were marginalized by poverty, race, HIV status, and sexuality. 

What’s the meaning of voguing today? 

Voguing first entered mainstream pop culture with Madonna’s gay anthem hall-of-famer. And 40 years after leaving Harlem’s ballrooms, it’s enjoying another renaissance in the cultural zeitgeist. 

TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Legendary, and Pose reintroduced mainstream audiences to voguing history and culture. Other gay icons, like Lady Gaga and Beyonce, celebrate ballroom culture in numerous songs. Madonna invited drag queens like Bob the Drag Queen, Plane Jane, and Alyssa Edwards to MC her Celebration Tour. Even Vogue got in on the action, with editor-in-chief Anna Wintour judging the Battle of the Legends competition at the Met with Jose Xtravaganza. 

In a time of anti-trans and anti-gay legislation, the way mainstream artists and audiences embrace underground queer customs has sparked important debates about the appropriation of marginalized cultures. Yet, despite the watering down of vogue in hetero spaces, gay communities continue to evolve the dance style on their own terms.

Voguing has always been a form of resistance against societal marginalization. With Queer African, Asian, and European communities putting their own spin on ballroom culture, the practice continues to foster queer visibility and belonging. Paris is still burning, honey.

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The 3 Vs: Vogue dance styles

Dust off your Trapper Keeper get ready for schoolboy realness. Here is a brief lesson on the three vogue dance styles:

  • Old Way: Old-school vogue refers to the original voguing techniques of the 1980s, prioritizing graceful movements, clean lines, and dramatic poses. Dance moves are all about gracefulness and fluid actions with immediately recognizable formations of hard lines and symmetrical poses. 
  • New Way: An evolution of the drama of old-school vogue, New Way adds complicated dance moves that require flexibility, acrobatics, and over-the-top poses partially inspired by martial arts. The new way introduced “clicks” (limb contortions at the joints) and “arms control” (illusions with the hands and wrists). Madonna’s “Vogue” was choreographed by legend Jose Xtravaganza with a mixture of old- and new-way dance moves.
  • Vogue Femme: Dancers accentuate femininity, using sensual movement (lots of swaying hips and spread eagle), attitude (flip that hair, girl!), and catwalk-style poses. A sub-category called Vogue Femme Dramatics emphasizes stunts and tricks to outshine your competition. It’s giving fish.

5 vogue dance moves to make the crowd scream “Mother!”

To be a bonafide voguer, you better nail down these five sickening dance moves: 

  • Catwalk: The catwalk exaggerates the supermodel runway walk. Slightly bent at the knees, voguers walk with exaggerated hip movements accompanied by swinging arms. A common catwalk move coordinates back-and-forth hip movement with shoulder and hip tapping. 
  • Duckwalk: Dancers crouch low to the ground in a squatting position, standing on the balls of their feet with their backs straight. They bounce to the beat and make a small kick forward with one foot on each bounce before repeating the movement with the other. If you don’t have the core strength to balance your weight, you can try assisted duck walks. Use a chair for support or place your hands on your knees. Expert duckwalkers move their hands around to show balance and strength.
  • Spins and dips: You better have charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent for these. The most agile voguers add drama with a 360 spin, then arch their back and dip backward with one leg flying into the air. It’s like the exclamation point on a fierce performance. 
  • Hand performance: A throwback to the old way of voguing, performers use intricate hand gestures to showcase their dexterity, speed, and finesse. 
  • Floor performance: If there’s a time to wear chicken cutlets, it’s now. During a floor performance, you roll, twist, pose, and arch your way across the floor. 

And just like that, you’re ready to take the floor like Blanca Evangelista. 

Strike a pose

Now that you’ve studied your voguing queerstory, it’s time to groove to the music. And if you need a ballroom partner to join you on the floor, you’ll find a willing competitor on Grindr. Download the Grindr app today and let your body go with the flow.

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