slé and the odyssey of australia’s vogueing scene
House of Slé's Bhenji Ra on family, the power of dance and Sissy Ball: the Sydney event uniting the world's voguing community.
House of Slé. Photography Jonno Revanche
They say you don’t get to chose your family, but that isn't always the truth. Since 2015, Slé has functioned as a tight-knit circle of dancers and performance artists, made up primarily of queer and trans POC, who meet up, practice, work and play in the westernmost suburbs of Sydney. While they’re inspired by New York’s famed ballroom culture, Slé is creating a scene entirely their own in an Australian context. And they’re doing it as a family.
Despite their ever-growing success and influence, Slé has rejected creating any kind of official online presence. They’ve built their profile over time by coming together and organising free, often impromptu events in diverse spaces around the city: community halls, warehouses, train platforms and sporting grounds. They flex, battle, dip, serve face, vogue, and generally try to outperform each other to the best of their ability. The key members of Slé--Bhenji Ra, Koco Carey, Taimania F'oai, Jamaica Moana, Fetu Taku and Eliam Royalness--share a bond greater than most, experiencing real togetherness and exuding an enthusiasm for life which is typically precarious for trans and gender non-conforming people.
Without the megaphone of social media, Bhenji serves as the charismatic and talented spokesperson for Slé, mostly taking on the challenge of speaking for a group who are reluctant to be commodified or placed in the glare of an unfamiliar spotlight. What the group are currently focusing on--and what Bhenji is talking about right now--is the Sissy Ball, a party spectacle the group are hosting with Red Bull Music as part of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is set to be one of the biggest ballroom events ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. With tickets to the event selling out in minutes, it's expected to be a totally unequalled event, the first of its kind to truly welcome everyone into the institutional fold for an age old queer fiesta. We sat down with the inimitable Bhenji Ra to find out more.
i-D: Hi Bhenji. It’s been so nice spending a bit of time with Slé recently. One of the things that really struck me is that you seem like an incredible family. Your gratitude for each other is so refreshing. What does it mean to choose your own family?
Bhenji: Family for me is... a daily thing, it’s a continual presence of who you surround yourself with. You kinda have that when you're growing up, you're surrounded by a certain type of people, and then you leave that scenario and you're like, "Okay, who are my mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers now?"
What’s behind your decision to have no active online presence for Slé?
Well, still getting booked for gigs! But honestly, a lot of the girls resist it, or don’t have the infrastructure to do it, and there's also the politics of visibility for them as well, like even just talking to one of the girls today, she was like "I’m years away from being able to put my image up online."
That's so wild; and it’s beyond what any cis person could possibly comprehend. For trans people, having that presence can be like a deep, psychic stress that comes from hyper-visibility.
For sure, and I feel a kind of responsibility in that way. I don’t know, not that I’m a martyr [laughs], but I’m the one who has the media platform and I’m the one who has the online pull, and the one who puts her image out there which, at the end of the day, really irks me. I have to negotiate why I’m doing it and all the associated politics. But the expectation attached to that is so crazy... and I’m glad the others can resist all that and be safe without it. They're still existing and can do so much without it.
I'm interested in talking about the slow transition, from the private performance among friends and people who understand you, to taking it somewhere more public, where you can't necessarily control how people will react.
There's something about those more private performances that are very nourishing. It gives you something back, in a way. Slé is all about bringing this kind of energy and when it’s given back it sort of hypes the body. When it comes to private versus public, we're dealing with two different monsters and it just fuels you to do something so large. The girls have such natural strength in subverting the gaze but almost disregarding it, no matter what political social stuff is going on, or whatever that power dynamic is. It's different when you're performing for elders in your community or your uncle because they understand who you are and what you’re about.
Where are you at with the Sissy Ball right now? It looks incredible and there's a lot of excitement around it, which is amazing.
I think it's gonna be a lot of work. It seems like a lot of work to get everyone together, just getting five of us together is hard, imagine getting 50 of us together in the same room. I anticipate it will provide a whole new sense of purpose for the girls and their direction. To be honest, voguing, for us, hasn't been so important. We’re more about ballroom culture as a whole, as an ecosystem, with which we see ourselves coming together as trans people and just hanging out. It’s totally magical and intuitive that connection we share, a lot of familiarities are met in that space.
That’s really cool. And so positive.
I've seen everyone involved grow in their identity politics, in terms of really actualising who they are and wanting to progress personally. That coming together is really a reflection of the community in New York or Harlem. We're not just dancing in the club or pretending to battle to entertain people. There's a blueprint for what a vogue ball is and we're finally approaching that now.
What does it mean to be on the cusp of building something in Sydney that might exist in New York?
Coming into the world of the Mardi Gras -- a festival that has been an arbiter of queerness, decreeing what it means to be gay or lesbian or trans -- it’s very overwhelming for the girls because they've never taken part in any of that, or they’ve never been able to. And now suddenly they're hosting a significant event that is creating culture and they're bringing their identity into the fold as stakeholders, which is being directly consumed -- and I don't say that badly -- but it’s on show. It’s being really well anticipated and received and the people are really lusty for it as well! The girls feel really overwhelmed and apprehensive at the same time. It's a lot.
What does it mean to go from being disregarded or invisible perhaps, to being hypervisible, or an object of someone's desire?
Well, whiteness consumes black culture, and that's just the blueprint for consumption of culture and just generally consumption as a whole. There's that need to eat the other. I've always been aware of that so when I enter theses situations, I’m not surprised or anything. I understand that consumption will happen. For me it's about negotiating how I will let that happen and how I will hold power within that, and that my community will not be consumed until there's nothing left. Like if you perform at something, these people will get off from it. They need it, or something. We know what life is and we know what culture is: it gives people life. And we understand they're not getting their life and have to give it to them. Somehow, you reach a point in your life, as a middle class straight or even gay person, privilege reaches a point where…
... You're spiritually wrecked because you've sold your soul and exchanged everything for money, or acceptability, or the picket fence?
Yeah, 100 percent. And I think that creates mediocrity, arrogance and a voracious consumption of everything else. Slé is the exact opposite of that sensibility. We all have this really spiritual day to day journey of survival. Thinking about our lives and safety and well-being, it’s this daily thing. There's always a sense of liveliness that manifests itself into what our culture is. When you’re dancing you are the truth. Everybody is watching you, so you must be the truth, nothing can change that.
Text and photography Jonno Revanche