I frequently show Jennie Livingston's great documentary, Paris Is Burning, in my gender/sexuality classes, and this article does a great job of updating us on the voguing scene, which not only remains vital, but has spread far beyond New York City.
New York Times, May 22, 2005 Sunday (Style Section, Pg. 1)
"Still Striking A Pose," by Guy Trebay
SELVIN KOOL-AID GIVENCHY was stalking the runway, letting fly his hands and his wild invective. ''Work it, girls! Serve it like a legend!'' said Mr. Givenchy, who is something of an underground legend himself, what with his Moms Mabley mug, his colossally oversize sweatshirt and a mouth that would make that raunchy comedian's seem snowflake pure. ''Remember,'' Mr. Givenchy commanded the ladies, although ladies was not the word he employed. ''I am in charge of the girls!''
The girls were not girls, of course, and the boys not boys. The runway was a makeshift theater on which, over the course of a long evening, the girls and the boys would stomp and pose and parade and dance attired in zoot suits or chiffon dresses or else very little at all. The gathering was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the New York-based House of Ultra-Omni, one of the last of the original drag queen houses whose balls proliferated in the 1980's, then faded from memory and, seemingly, disappeared.
Whatever vague awareness most Americans may have of this bygone scene probably comes from Madonna's ''Vogue,'' the influential 1990 hit that was either an act of homage to the underground that inspired it or one of creative larceny. A fuller introduction was provided by ''Paris Is Burning,'' Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal of the epoch and the quirky ''legends'' who gave it birth.
No one can say for sure when or how voguing seemed to vanish, and with it the houses that brought it into the world. Those houses constituted groups of gay men organized and run by ''mothers'' and ''fathers,'' populated by ''children'' and named for fashion designers no one involved had ever met. Then and now, even people who were in on the scene might have been forgiven for assuming that its practitioners had moved on in the decade after ''Vogue'' and ''Paris Is Burning,'' or, as likely, were now dead.
The reality, it turns out, is astonishingly different. True, AIDS decimated the ball world, carrying away many of its founders. But far from fading out, the balls survived and are being revived by a new generation that has exported them from the urban centers where they first flourished to the Sun Belt and the Midwest.
Balls are now being staged almost every weekend in cities like St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit. The House of Ultra-Omni alone has branches in 10 states. A dozen or more Web sites are devoted to the scene, which also has its own magazine and newsletter and is the subject of a new documentary that brings things vividly up to date. "How Do I Look" was filmed over the past decade by the German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch; fresh from making the rounds of an academic circuit still eager for tales from the gender front, the film will be released on DVD next month.
''People thought it all ended with 'Paris Is Burning,''' said Wayne Tanks, the father of the Wisconsin chapter of the House of Ultra-Omni. Along with dozens of other children, Mr. Tanks had traveled to Los Angeles to celebrate his house's quarter-century mark. ''But we're still here.''
In Los Angeles this was made abundantly clear as members arrived to represent venerable houses like Ninja, Versace, Mugler, Cavalli, Moschino, Bizarre, Blahnik, Givenchy, Balenciaga and Prestige. Mothers and fathers and children from each of these clans descended on a Westin hotel near L.A.X., curiously resplendent beings whose existence gave proof to the survival of an implausible phenomenon conjured from the raw material of hard lives.
They came to commemorate, to celebrate, to dance and posture and do serious battle on a catwalk in an overlighted banquet room. They also came, if one may borrow back a phrase from Madonna, to strike a pose.
''When I first heard about the houses, I thought, this culture is so underground,'' said Brandon Harp, a member of the Atlanta House of Ultra-Omni. ''Then I found that, in places like Kentucky, where I had never been, people knew who I am and what my best category is.''
Mr. Harp arrived in Los Angeles prepared to walk in a category called Butch Queen Realness, a kind of extravagantly performed commentary on self-presentation, in which an out gay man impersonates an apparently straight or closeted gay man by wearing a costume that exaggeratedly telegraphs masculinity. Mordant social commentary has always been at the core of the voguing balls, and long before academia institutionalized the notion that gender is performance, the ball children were tartly making the same point at elaborate fetes where competing groups vied to outdo each other at caricaturing the masks of sex. Wealth and power, it should be mentioned, also tend to come in for some sharp appraisal at these gatherings, critiques the more pointed because ball children have historically possessed little of either.
Throughout their history, ball children have strutted down improvised runways in categories like ''executive realness,'' ''femme attitude'' and ''sex-siren effect.'' The costumes they donned were most memorably of the feather boa sort. But, just as often their ''drag'' runs to ''executive'' suits and wingtips or else do-rags and Timberlands worn by Down Low types.
In the past the ball children battled in gay clubs and leased Elks halls. They took trophies and earned credibility and status on a circuit that was both intricately networked and, at the same time, so seemingly informal one would think the balls were arranged ad hoc. All that has changed, Mr. Tanks said. Thirty members of his house split their time between working up ensembles for catwalk competitions and creating outreach programs promoting ''awareness and prevention of H.I.V.'' and other forms of sexually transmitted disease.
Social service was a galaxy away from anyone's concerns at the Westin hotel on this spring evening, as the ball children tucked into a dinner of poached chicken and mesclun with slices of Brie. The meal was a marked departure from balls of the past, where the food, if there was any, tended to be chips or pretzels or anything useful at soaking up booze. If not an entirely sober occasion, the 25th anniversary of the House of Ultra-Omni was a Kiwanis picnic by contrast with the frenzied, and often drug-stoked, blowouts of earlier days.
Still, it was a serious ball, serious meaning frivolous to a nearly demented degree. As Mr. Givenchy repeated any number of times, ''The girls better serve it serious, they better work, and they better come out here punishing my runway with a nasty attitude and a sickening walk.'' Irony being mother's milk in the ball world, words like sick and nasty and over (or ''ovah'') are terms of the highest approbation: Webster's take note.
Of all the contributions the ball world has made to culture, dance is probably the most durable, athough that oddly seems to have escaped much scholarly notice. ''Voguing is truly an evolution of ancient African dance forms rehearsed and refined into a form of first-world party artistry,'' explained Muhammad Ultra-Omni, real name Salaudin Muhammad, before taking to the stage in a white linen suit and a white straw hat whose crown was cut out to allow for his fountain of dreadlocks.
Once onstage Mr. Muhammad put in play the stylized walks and poses and dips and spins and chest poppings and stupefying dead drops that have qualified him for legendary status on a scene where legend is a hard-won formal honorific.
''Break dancers get together and do stuff like this, and it's fully accepted,'' said Willi Ninja, surely the most celebrated dancer ever produced by the ballrooms, speaking in a mainstream sense. ''If Madonna does voguing, it's O.K.,'' he added. ''But when the ball children dance, even now, people say, 'Oh, it's a bunch of crazy queens throwing themselves on the floor.'''
Yet even the most skeptical observer would have trouble disputing that real artistry is involved when Muhammad or Ninja takes the floor. And not even a churl could keep from being charmed by the House of Cavalli, a posse of refrigerator-size men who swept into the Westin ballroom near midnight wearing demure French twists and dresses of diaphanous chiffon that had to have been cut from acre-sized bolts.
To the chanted (and entirely unprintable) exhortations of Mr. Givenchy, each performer took his thrashing, popping, stalking, prancing or whirling turn on the runway and posed and performed in a way that one contestant described as ''so nasty and ovah it's sick.''
The clear high point of the evening, for this observer at least, was reached when Warner McPherson, also known as Hershey Ultra-Omni, pranced onstage with his lean body oiled and naked but for a G-string kitted out with plastic Wal-Mart foliage. In a blur that lasted less than three minutes, Mr. McPherson miraculously managed to conjure the entire history of voguing in a performance so stylized and manic that inspired is hardly an adequate word. It was possessed.
''Work it, Miss Hershey! Bring it! Serve it! Show them girls how it's really done!'' The voice belonged to Kevin Burrus, or Kevin Ultra-Omni, who helped found the house of that name 25 years ago in New York. ''You know, seeing Hershey makes me emotional,'' explained Mr. Burrus, as his protege performed. ''After all that we have been through, with the AIDS and the drugs and the death and the homophobia, I see Hershey dancing and realize that the ball children are still strong and still out here, carrying on.''