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paris is still burning as vogue culture flourishes in new york

Inside club Escuelita, off Times Square in New York, Paris is burning all over again as a new wave of Ballroom kids dip, dive and death drop the dancefloor, to a chorus of cheers and crazy beats… the legendary DJ MIKEQ takes us on a tour of Vogue New York.

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Vogue Balls have a legacy that can be traced back to New York’s Harlem district in the 60s. Then cult film Paris Is Burning circa 1990 introduced an already established subculture to a worldwide audience and at once the idea of Vogue and Ballroom became embedded in our consciousness as a form of expression that in turn informed the mainstream, and pretty soon we were all at it... a movement was born. The music, dance and sense of occasion spawned a global phenomenon, its stars becoming household names. Today in New York the Vogue scene exists with its fundamental ethos intact, as a series of events that support the LGBT community on a number of levels, providing guidance via ‘Houses’, ‘House Mothers’ and safe spaces in which to state inventive and flamboyant forms of expression. Alive and flourishing today with a new breed of head-turning ‘House Children’ energetically dipping in the “New Way” (post 1990), “Old Way” (pre 1990) and Vogue Femme with walk-offs and classic moves, Vogue Balls are still providing a catwalk of expressive gesticulation. A couple of years ago, one such night was called Gorgeous Teen Sundays and was held at Escuelita, or Esco’s as it’s known by the locals, up near Time Square in New York City. We recall one of it's more memorable afternoon sessions... 

On the street, Houses begin to assemble under Esco’s flickering digital sign, a floating series of red dots spelling the word ‘VOGUE’. Stepping down a dark postered stairwell, in the distance music wafts within earshot. The club itself begins to turn into a catwalk and members start to limber up, practising, posing, flipping, dipping and diving to 26-year-old resident DJ and producer MikeQ’s seismic selection; he integrates a soundtrack which envelopes a homage to the old sounds sliced up with a few new ones, Ooh I Love It (Love Break) by the Salsoul Orchestra, a real classic of the ballroom scene, pounds through the club speakers intercepted with his own punchy edits on his Qween Beat label, which incorporate nifty samples and spin-backs. “I got into DJing balls in about 2005 after a year of first producing ballroom music which I got exposed to back in 2003 and just was stuck on it from there,” he tells me. MikeQ is very much part of the scene and his own music suits the New Way to a tee. Great dollops of sub bass and swooshing hi-hat crashes capture the mood as the dancers fall to the floor on one leg, revived by the impending thwack of the next thunderous beat. “When it comes to Ball, the music, dancing and costumes... the ideas are beyond everyday life.” These are the elements that keep him inspired: “Ballroom was a huge eye opener, Ballroom itself is what inspires me.”

“When it comes to Ball, the music, dancing and costumes... the ideas are beyond everyday life.”

Snookie Juicy and Kamari 007 are the commentators and signify the beginning of the Ball by announcing Houses, categories and most importantly judges who consist of legendary House Mothers and friends. “When it comes to Balls, anyone can be huge and famous,” MikeQ tells me. With much commotion the first category begins, Ms. Carta FF Face In A Black Dress And White Pearls, and members of the audience are now parading towards the clear space in the centre of the club. Snookie and Kamari point downwards at a well executed ‘Slut Drop’ or ‘Dip’ and together they tune in and bounce off each other’s rhythmic rhetoric over a series of MikeQ’s beats. “Meow meow meow meow,” they rant; the next section is, “Sooo cunt , so catty, meow meow!’ This is a Black And White Ball and now is the time to show off your accessories. All the moves are New Way so far but there is also an Old Way category, Traditional Performance - which, Mike says, “Is just as hot as any style of Vogue. Be careful though,” he adds, “steal a move and you might get called out.” There’s an element of competition but it’s overridden with the sheer talent of the dancers, who encourage and praise each other for the dexterity of moves, attention to their looks, and the attitude of fellow members’ walk and technique. Judges signify winners with a nod or point in the direction of the performers who catch their attention with their uniquely outstanding presentations. 

Quietly spoken MikeQ himself belongs to the House Of Ebony, a really iconic and legendary house of standing, and others include Corey, Dupree, Ninja, Xtravaganza, Blahnik, Aviance, Infiniti and Balenciaga - the Houses generally take their names from fashion houses and House Mothers (for those of you who know your Voguing history I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know). The scene has evolved since its mainstream explosion in the 90s, and the music and dancing may be different, but the legacy and community spirit, with a healthy dose of fierce battle mentality, is most apparent as friends cheer on friends as they perform and judge.

Nita Aviance first entered the world of Vogue in the mid 90s... “The first party I ever went to in NYC was Willie Ninja’s birthday at the Cafe Con Leche party. This is the first time I ever experienced Voguing battles first-hand on the dancefloor, to the sounds of DJ Derrik Foxx, Lord G and DJ Merritt (Xtravaganza). That tribal/ Latin house flavour you get from The Ha Dance is so distinctly New York.” Later he went on to join the House of Aviance. “It was started in 1989 by Mother Juan in D.C.” he tells me, “and after a series of successful parties and balls he moved the house to NYC, where it has staked its claim in the nightlife scene with first daughter Kevin Aviance among its top players. The House of Aviance has always tried to remain outside the world of Ballroom politics as it’s a house of great diversity that focuses more on the family aspect and promoting its artists.”

“Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia are huge influences for me,” he continues, “and some of the best times at their parties were when the floor would open up for the Runway/Voguing portion. Often towards the end of the party the lights would focus and the House children would take to the floor to express themselves with larger than life movements that had the whole club watching. They would get the queens so worked up with all the classic Runway/Bitch tracks. I remember Kevin Aviance, Franklin Fuentes, Mother Juan and Cesar Galindo even holding Runway classes for the younger girls in the VIP room before the serious dancefloor competition.”

Being a club DJ with almost all his influence and style coming from the NYC underground where a lot of the classic tracks originated, Nita Aviance tells me, “The New York style house track has always had a runway/ Vogue element because these are the dancers on which the tracks are tried and tested. The ballroom community has always been represented on the dancefloor at our parties, from the mini-balls at Opaline to the Aviance/ Xtravaganza Mother’s Day celebrations at my Tubway party at Mr. Black, where tracks like I Got My Education and Miss Honey were standard fare. These are the tracks that get the children worked up on the dancefloor week after week.”

“The future of the Ballroom scene, in my opinion, seems to be getting back to its roots. Vogue is being executed in a great way, the only thing I would hope is that the more and more exposure it gets, it really becomes classified as a true art form worldwide.”

One girl from The House Of Prodigy took us to a Voguing class and told us about the underlying importance of the ballroom community; the scene literally saves lives. Her earliest childhood memory was seeing her dad shoot at his girlfriend, here’s her story: “I was sleeping on the couch in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the age of four when I awoke to the sound of arguing. I went downstairs to get a piece of candy and to see what was going on, as I’m walking down the stairs I get to the last step and a bullet flies past my head. I dashed back up the stairs and hid under the covers on the couch, and moments later my dad’s girlfriend came running upstairs, out the door and into a cab. My father in close pursuit ran outside, opened the car door, grabbed her by her ankles and dragged her back into the house to continue beating her. Hours later I watched my father get arrested for the first time.” Later she was transitioning, homeless and abused, and the ballroom scene was the focus that kept her alive. “Usually the scene will first offer you to be a part of a house, or someone you may or may not be close with will refer or sponsor you to be in their house,” she explains. “After that the house will help you with various things, whether it be getting you an effect to walk a ball, helping you brush up on your category skills to make you a heavy hitter, or helping you get to, or into, the next Ball or function. In my experience I had a best friend at the time that saw me vogue and asked me to be a part of the Legendary House Of Latex, which is now closed. I went to a meeting, auditioned, was asked to step out for deliberation, and was let in the house that day. I was always helped along the way, even when I went to my next house this was the case; they helped me with everything, guiding me on things according to my transition.”

She has a positive outlook as she unravels her current plans: “I’m involved in projects with my friend and partner in crime to do some showcases of Vogue around the city, hopefully some abroad as well. I am still a member of the House of Prodigy and will be walking a Ball soon, it’s been a while. Also I go to industry parties in the city and showcase my Voguing talents to the professional dance world hoping to get discovered, and also because I love the energy.”

Looking forward, “I would definitely say it’s huger and more worldwide now,” according to MikeQ. “If not, it will be.” The movie musical Leave It On The Floor, set in the contemporary ballroom scene of Los Angeles, is perhaps a signifier of things to come. Meanwhile, every Monday night Vogue Knights holds its weekly ball - also at Escuelita - hosted and commentated by Luna Kahn and Jack Mizrahi. MikeQ explains, “I have been involved in it since I started putting music out in 2004, and in 2005 I attended my first ball, The New York Awards Ball.” Tamera “Prodigy” Williams adds, “The future of the Ballroom scene, in my opinion, seems to be getting back to its roots. Vogue is being executed in a great way, the only thing I would hope is that the more and more exposure it gets, it really becomes classified as a true art form worldwide.” Her concerns start at ground level as she considers the bigger picture: “It is becoming very mainstream, I just wish that the older generation, and the people that have been a part of the scene and who are now mainstream, would guide the kids in how to brand themselves and use their talent outside of the Ballroom scene to be successful!”

The main thing about Ballroom is having fun, self-expression and the chance to unleash creative energy while in the care and compassion of a House situation. Across the world people celebrate with their own balls, and it’s fascinating to see how the scene translates from state to state and country to country.