Features I by I 31.01.14

The untold story of the UK’s vogue scene: part two

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The untold story of the UK's vogue scene: part two
Judges at Manchester’s Vogue Brawl, 2012; photo by Jamie Alun Price

Last week Niall Connolly lifted the lid on the little-known history of the UK’s vogue scene – catch up with that here. In part two, he explores the current voguing renaissance taking place in cities across the UK.

As we saw in part one, voguing in the UK comes from a different tradition to that in the States, and even mainland Europe.

Not based so much on the streets or in the clubs, voguing came to prominence here in the early 90s through professional dance troupes and art and fashion shows. Yet, as with America, the natural home for voguing in this country is still the house ball, where all elements and categories get to work the runway and compete for legendary status. And, although we may be some way behind our European counterparts when it comes to regular balls, the UK is not completely devoid of house balls – though as usual with this scene, you have to look a bit further afield to find the real action.

The UK’s North West is the centre of the current UK vogue renaissance, with annual balls in Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Time for some disclosure: as The Niallist, I’m a founder member of the Manchester-based queer collective Tranarchy, and since January 2011 we have held an annual ball called Vogue Brawl. In my time, I’ve also helped organise and host the Fierce Ruling Divas Ball in Glasgow, and I’ve DJed at Liverpool’s House Of Suarez Ball under my vogue production alias CVNT TR4XXX. I’m heavily involved in this scene, and right now it’s focussed in spots that are well respected for their dance music cultures and histories, but that don’t necessarily get a huge amount of time in the media spotlight.

We’ve already encountered a young Darren Suarez in part one of this article, voguing as a teenager in the clubs, after hours parties and cemeteries of late 80s and early 90s Liverpool. Flash forward 20 years, and Darren is a professional dance teacher with an idea for throwing a ‘House Of Suarez Ball’. The first of these balls was thrown in 2010, and since then the House Of Suarez Ball has grown to become the UK’s biggest annual vogue function.

NC: How would you describe the HOS ball to someone who has never been?

Darren Suarez: “If you’ve never been to one of our balls, I can guarantee that you will be overwhelmed with colour, dance, energy and fierceness. At least one of the five categories will inspire people. The categories at our ball are Fantasy, which gives creatives in costume and fabric the chance to create big costumes and installations in the theme of the ball, to live out their fantasy, in a way. There is Solo, which is inspired by a solo performer’s confidence to vogue, or perform solo any of the other styles that might fall under that umbrella, such as waacking, hands, femme, new way, old way, etc.

“Then there is Realness, which was originally called “femme realness”, but I thought calling it “femme” limited it a bit, it narrowed it just to men who wanted to look like women, but “realness” in general is about having the conviction to take one’s alter-ego to the catwalk and displaying that in the best fashion. Sex Siren, which obviously speaks for itself and does tend to cause a bit of woo-woo – it’s hot bodies displaying the theme, using minimum fabric and a lot of skin, and basically throwing a hot mess down the catwalk! And lastly there is choreography, which speaks for itself, and embraces lots of styles and flavours within the ball’s theme, lasting between three and four minutes, displaying what the dancers think is the best of vogue in that amount of time.”

NC: What was the specific inspiration for setting up the ball? You took the lead, but who else was involved?

DS: “The inspiration was taken from when I was a young kid back in the day, learning the vogue skill. I always had in my mind that I’d love to walk in a ball. It never even occurred to me that I could put a ball on! But working with groups like Homotopia and Duckie, the idea came to me that we could maybe collaborate on one, which we did in 2008, on a big ball. After that, there was a lot of things I knew should be in a vogue ball, mostly to do with dancing and the vogue styles, which the 2008 ball didn’t display – it was more of a drag ball. So I took a year out to research, get a sense of a possible audience, if there was funding available.

“In 2010 we launched the Justice vogue ball, which was in remembrance to one of my close gay friends who was brutally murdered. There were various pots of money from the council and other sources, and I appointed Darren Pritchard as my project manager to help me pull together the houses and performers and elements the vogue ball needed. By 2011 there was more money available for me to create an opening piece, and to hire professional dancers, and I was able to few the voguing with arial work, point shoes, classical dancers, theatre and more. It was a fusion of Dante’s Inferno and vogue, which got a great, emotional reaction. In 2012 the theme was Disney To Divas, which allowed people to get very involved, and then last year we did The Gods & Monsters Ball which you were involved in.

The ball had always been something that I had in my mind, and I was always wondering how I could keep it UK and not make it too New York. So I am actually really pleased with how it has developed.”

NC: What would you’d like to achieve with the ball?

DS: “The legacy of the vogue ball, how I want it to move forward, I want Liverpool to be recognised as a destination [for vogue], and I want it to be at the forefront of the UK’s vogue scene and culture. Which means that the categories as they are would actually shift, so you would get the other European countries excited to fly to the UK, and the solo category we have now would be replaced with an hour’s programme of these houses, who are already severe with their skills, battling. We are in talks to move that forward.

“Also, the ball has legs, hence the “mini-ball” which is going to really go off in Manchester [more on that below]. Birmingham has a really strong black culture in its arts and dance, so that’s somewhere I would like to approach as well. Edinburgh Fringe have expressed interest too. I am very passionate on the ball being very much a North West thing, so I am holding back on London for just now, until the time is right.”

As mentioned above, one of the stars of the House Of Suarez is the dancer Darren Pritchard, who had a breakout performance voguing on the TV show Got To Dance in 2012. Initially only taking part because someone else dropped out – and for the chance to meet Davina McCall, who loved his performance, and bestowed on him the honour of being “fabulous” – since the show Darren has been booked to vogue all over the UK. Darren’s initial love for vogue ties in with his own cultural heritage.

Darren Pritchard: “Being a working class gay male, voguing was a style I attached to on every possible level. I understood the culture, for one being brought up in a black community, understanding why those guys had to go underground because the West Indian society is very macho, it’s a lot more vocally homophobic than in the West. Also I love it because it’s a dance form and I love to dance, I feel it’s what I was born to do, and voguing embraced my sexuality whereas other forms, such as contemporary dance, don’t necessarily do that.”

Although professionally active in, and with very strong ties to, Liverpool, Darren is actually from Manchester. He gives a good breakdown of the two different scenes in these neighbouring cities.

DP: “In Manchester, we’ve got a lot of drag queens, and voguing evolved from the drag culture, so the drag queens get it, and a lot of young club kids are embracing it now too. Musically we’re better here [in Manchester] I think, ‘cos we’ve got Drunk At Vogue, Tranarchy, Cha Cha Boudoir, we’ve got all these events that are celebrating the drag and the club cultures. All that’s missing is the dance. Manchester is a club city, and we’ve also got the gay village, so there’s a growing audience for this in Manchester, and while we have got a following, dance-wise it’s happening more in Liverpool, because Darren [Suarez] is there and he’s a teacher at LIPA, and he’s known as a voguer. I think it’s growing though. This time that we’re in, the time of austerity, the political regression of the Conservatives, is very reflective of the 80s. So while a lot of people conform, a lot of other people think ‘I need colour’.

“The gay scene is very homogenised now, with gay boys trying to be straight, and straight boys trying to be gay, the whole metrosexuality that’s going on. There isn’t an embrace of gay culture, of being camp, being flamboyant, dressing up, cross-dressing, celebrating transsexuality, embracing gay music, gay fashion, that’s all kind of frowned upon. It’s kind of sneered on, and there’s a fighting, underground sensibility which is saying ‘No, bring on the sissy boys, bring on the faggots, this is our culture.’

“It’s great because there is an underground scene and it’s growing, people are coming out of the ‘flamboyance’ closet! That happened in Liverpool with the Suarez ball. We had 600 people at the last one and I was like, ‘where are these people coming from?!’ Even people that walked – we had punks, rockers, burlesque people, alternatives, very fashion-conscious, stylistic muscle Marys, leather queens… You just don’t see that hybridity any more, people coming together, because it’s so segregated.”

And coming together they are. On February 8, 2014, the House Of Suarez ball ventures out of Liverpool and down the road to Manchester, where a mini-ball will be held at the Contact Theatre with the participation of some of Manchester’s premiere houses, including our own House Of Tranarchy and Darren Pritchard’s House Of Ghetto. Unfortunately, the event is already sold out, but there will be more, no doubt, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for future functions in both cities.

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The untold story of the UK's vogue scene: part two
Darren Suarez

Away from the North West, although Horse Meat Disco have thrown some balls over the years in their native Vauxhall, there is still no regular or annual ball in the capital. That doesn’t mean there’s no voguing, though. One thing the capital does have is a showcase for the ‘ballroom’ sound that is synonymous with modern voguing, and in particular the energetic, athletic style known as ‘vogue femme’.

House Of Trax is a highly respected night that has been happening in East London, mostly at Birthdays in Dalston, for the past two years. The promoters regularly bring modern ballroom scene legends like Vjuan Allure and MikeQ over from the U.S. to grace the decks. I played there with Vjuan back in September and was pleasantly surprised to see some actual, honest-to-goodness voguers going off on the club’s stage. I spoke to House Of Trax resident Matthew Thomas, a.k.a. Rushmore (whose second release on the Trax Couture label is out now), about the club and its relationship to voguing.

NC: You’re probably at the forefront of the ballroom sound in the UK right now – do you see that sound being picked up by many other clubs?

Matthew Thomas: “That’s a nice comment, it wasn’t exactly at the front of my mind! We aim to showcase the sound and culture where best. There are other key nights in London like Banji Boy Realness, Paris Acid Ball and Night Slugs that represent and support the sound too.”

NC: Do you see many voguers coming to the night?

MT: “We have some friends who come regularly and there are a few more that have become friends since we’ve started. Naturally more dancers come when people like MikeQ and Vjuan Allure play, but there’s also those that mix other dance styles and everyone throws it down, you know.”

They really do. One of the best things about House Of Trax is that it’s a capital club night where people come to dance and sweat, not to look trendy or be papped. I was so impressed with the dancing, I reached out to one of the dancers who was there on the night, David Magnifique, to ask him some questions, starting with his own introduction to vogue:

David Magnifique: “My first encounter of this dance style was through Madonna’s music video ‘Vogue’. But due to family religious values I was forbidden to have anything to do with the dance style, so it then became something of a faded memory, or even part of my subconscious. But growing up there was always some kind of reference or gesture made to it because of my feminine mannerisms or my fierce fashion sense. It was not until early 2011 when I was introduced to the London dance scene by a friend that I came across vogue dancing again, this time in the flesh.

“At least, I thought what I witnessed was voguing (by this time I was out of the closet and proud). I began asking for training sessions and I was told that the dance style I was learning was called waacking – I had no clue that there was a difference and felt a little embarrassed. From then I decided to research the dance style, its history and culture. I immediately realised that waacking was definitely not for me and that voguing had my name all over it, it came so naturally to me. I noticed that there was little to none vogue dancers whenever I went out to clubs, dance nights, even vogue nights, so I knew for sure that I wanted to be at my best and known for being a legit voguer wherever I went. I studied and trained hard almost 24/7 and I have been voguing since April 2011.”

David’s own learning experience reflects the scattered, underground nature of voguing in the UK:

DM: “With regards to my learning and training I have not really been under anyone. My learning and training came from studying videos on YouTube, reading material, contacting and chatting to several iconic, Legendary voguers such as Muhammad Omni, Dashaun Lanvin and my House Mother Princess Magnifique Royalty. When studying videos I made it a priority to study the original children from the 80s and 90s because I wanted to show and reflect the original art form and vocabulary of the dance style. There aren’t many of us in the London scene that truly vogue down, but of what I do know there is only a handful of us, maybe 6 to 8, being male and female.

“One of my favourite clubs to vogue down at is Madame JoJo’s in Soho. This club has always felt like a second home to me, this was in fact the club I first got a chance to vogue. My second favourite is a club called Birthdays, but only because a night called House Of Trax is held there almost every month and they play an amazing selection of vogue tracks and hold Vogue Nights, which of course I get down like crazy to. A big thank you to the organiser of the club night Matthew Thomas. But then again, whatever club you see me in you will find me voguing down to the ground getting my life!”

Ah, those guys again. Interestingly, the promoters and organisers of House Of Trax are straight and white, so I was curious to find out what attracted them to such a marginal culture:

Matthew Thomas: “We’re attracted to the raw energy of the whole ballroom culture, from the beginnings right up to where it’s at now.”

NC: You recently went to Vogue Knights and The Lates Ball [one of the best known annual functions] in New York. How were they? What is the difference between vogue in the US and the UK as you see it?

MT: “Vogue Knights and the Latex Ball were amazing. Seeing Mike and Vjuan on their home turf was super dope! It originated in the US so naturally a more developed culture lives there, and the UK can learn a lot, but there is a certain special energy that I have only seen in NYC so far.”

One aspect of modern ball culture that has yet to cross the pond is the vogue MC, also known as the commentator. At a recent gig in Berlin I shared the stage with MikeQ and Vjuan Allure, plus Vogue Knights commentator Jack Mizrahi. The energy and the atmosphere of having someone from the American scene on the mic helped the event, organised by Mvschi Kreuzberg for the Berlin Festival, really go off. It also helps the audience, not to mention the dancers, appreciate voguing as a fully fledged, immersive culture, not just a popularised dance fad from the late 80s, and not just something cool to look at in a club, but a way of life that takes the most divisive aspects of its parent cultures and turns them into something to be proud of and excited about. As well as the DJs, it would be great to see the MCs being booked here too – commentators like Jack, Kevin Prodigy, Gregg Evisu, Dashaun Wesley, Sugur Shane and lots more.

Although it’s still very small, and with a lot of catching up to do with our continental neighbours, there is a vogue scene here in the UK and it is growing and expanding, with the ballroom sound beginning to slowly infiltrate the more typical deep house sounds we know and love. Although it may never relive its Madonna-endorsed early 90s spike, vogue and house ball culture is perhaps in a much healthier position now than it was back then, with a solid, 30-year heritage to lean on and a new generation who treat it with respect. It still has some way to go, but as the UK is a country that openly embraces both queer culture and American music of black origin, I think it’s only a matter of time before we also fully embrace voguing and its cultural legacy.

Read more of Niall’s writing on vogue, ballroom, dance music and queer culture at his blog CVNTY and hear his music as CVNT TR4XXX on Soundcloud.

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