With six words uttered during the judging segment of the premiere episode of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, guest judge Vanessa Hudgens summarily gave voice to a long gestating though no less seismic cultural shift: the movement of vogue from a peripheral art form long the province of those belonging to the outlying margins of the queer community to a centre stage act beloved of Hollywood actresses with a penchant for dressing like a dream catcher.
“I’m so into voguing right now,” Hudgens fatefully acclaimed of a routine performed by one of the show’s drag queen contestants, Aja, who delivered a spectacular performance that involved no fewer than three costume reveals and a death drop to the stage executed from atop a raised platform (a daring feat that gave birth to a second, instantly iconic meme). “That gave me life”, continued Hudgens, blissfully unaware of the storm brewing on the sidelines.
The actress was swiftly pilloried on social media for her comments (and continues to be so; Hudgens’s remarks are born again in the comments on almost every Instagram post she has published since her appearance on the show), which some interpreted as another instance of the perpetual commodification of queer culture by mainstream audiences. Wherever you fall on the divide between appropriation and appreciation, one factor implicit in her remarks is irrefutable: vogueing as a means of expression through dance, and the ballroom culture it stems from, is ready to step into the spotlight. Perhaps more accurately, it has long been in the spotlight; now, it’s ready for its closeup. It would appear that, disregarding the transience implied by ‘right now’, we’re all so into vogueing right now.
For decades, voguing has been an outlet for LGBTQ* individuals seeking a means of expression and community denied to them by a culture that has relegated them to the sidelines. A complex form of dance that draws inspiration as much from the pages of high fashion runways and magazines – hence the name – as it does the angular lines of hieroglyphs and visual art, vogueing and its attendant ballroom subculture have long been a haven for the African-American, Latinx, gay, and transgender communities, most famously in New York City. At balls, participants compete by walking in different categories that require varying means of expression; within vogue as a dance form, however, are a further five elements: floor performance, spins and dips, hand performance, catwalk, and duck walk. Competitors often represent a house, the name given to the communities that form around disenfranchised youth that all too often are rejected by their birth families. A house will often make a mother of its most established member, whose role is to guide the children of the house through the intricacies of both the world within a ball and the world outside it. Those competing in the category rounds aim to score perfect 10’s from a panel of judges, who either award those perfect 10’s across the board or chop those whose performances don’t make the cut. Tens are not guaranteed; a chop sounds terrifying.
Vogueing, of course, was first introduced to mainstream popular culture through the thankless work of Madonna; today, it has found extraordinary resilience in global youth subcultures from Berlin and Paris to Auckland and continues to inspire new audiences from diverse walks of life in the form of high fashion and music videos, reality television series – Drag Race, So You Think You Can Dance – and documentaries alike (two extraordinary documentaries, Paris is Burning and Strike A Pose are both available to stream now on Netflix).
Locally, a resurgence in the prominence of vogueing is most visibly discerned in the arrival of the Sissy Ball, a sell-out event taking place in Sydney tomorrow. The one-night-only event will see four houses from across the Asia Pacific region – the Houses of Slé, Fafswag, Coven and Envy – compete in a showcase of unparalleled style and precision. The dancer, choreographer and multidisciplinary artist Bhenji Ra is the mother of the House of Slé and at 27, her age belies a confidence in her craft that, so far at least, is keeping her fast encroaching nerves at bay – for now.
“There is so much excitement around everybody coming together for the first time,” Ra tells GRAZIA in the cavernous entry foyer of Carriageworks, where the Sissy Ball will make its debut. “It’s the first time that we’re actually starting to feel nervous about voguing. We’ve always, especially my crew, [rehearsed with] ourselves. We’re always dancing with ourselves. We know what the competition is, it’s just us. So [this is] the first time we’re actually thinking, ‘Oh wow, I might get chopped,’ or, ‘I might not get to the battle section,’ or, ‘There is somebody there that might actually be better than me,’ so it’s actually real competition nerves. I think that’s really important for us as well – to continue to keep building and growing.”
The Sissy Ball, so named in an act of defiance and reclamation of the word once (and still) used as a pejorative against the queer community, will have six categories. First, there is Female Figure Performance, which requires competitors bring their best interpretation of the theme ‘school girl twist’ (props are encouraged); then there’s Face, which asks competitors to serve an evening glam look befitting the attention of the Goddess herself; Hand Performance, a gestural marvel, requires competitors tell a story through precise and hypnotically articulated hand movements; Runway in this instance encourages the proud demonstration of a national costume (in a stroke of genius, Australian flags are an automatic chop); Sex Siren sounds as though it speaks for itself but actually invites a subjective interpretation of the phrase; and then, ultimately, there is Vogue Fem – the battle-through-dance for the night’s premier trophy and glory for days.
The Sissy Ball promises to be an event unlike anything Sydney has seen before, on a scale that the local vogue scene is unaccustomed to. On the day that we meet, Ra has been deeply embedded in rehearsals with her crew for days with a goal of finessing each members’ specialised categories. Some, the artist says, are quadruple threats able to traverse multiple skillsets; others, conversely, will practice a single talent – face, for example – meaning that they “have the best faces and they know how to work [their face] and they don’t do anything else… That’s what they train to do.”
The ball is taking place with the logistical support of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Red Bull Music and marks a move from both organisations toward staging events for a crowd that is not only younger, but also more gender diverse. That it has sold out completely is testament to the desire amongst audiences for events that cater toward a crowd that doesn’t identify with prevaling notions of what constitutes queerness. At first, Ra says she was suspicious of the opportunity to curate an event of this magnitude, but those doubts were assuaged by the broadening of its scope to include communities from the Asia Pacific region. “Our scene is so small,” she says.” We’re like the infants of the global vogue scene and we don’t even have any kind of recognition anywhere. But if you look outside of Sydney at the Asia-Pacific as a region itself, there is starting to be a growth of [vogue communities].
“The coming together of all those communities for me is like the most important [thing],” Ra continues. “We’ve never, ever come together at all. Some of the girls have never ever met each other and so for the first time we can actually compete. We can actually be affirmed that this is something that is real for us and we’re actually really partaking in a ball setting.”
The validation of community that the scale of the Sissy Ball has offered its participants has only been doubly reaffirmed in the cosigning of the international talent who have also agreed to be a part of the proceedings. One of the leading figures of the long-running ballroom scene on America’s east coast, MikeQ, will provide the evening’s pulsating musical accompaniment; New York-based rapper, Quay Dash, will open the evening’s extensive musical agenda; and, perhaps most significantly, judging the vogue battle is the internationally acclaimed New York-based choreographer, Leiomy, who has worked with the likes of both FKA twigs and Willow Smith. You may remember her as the spinning, dipping, floor incinerating teacher in Smith’s video for Whip My Hair.
While vogueing, ultimately, forms a small part of Ra’s larger practice as an artist working across a variety of disciplines, it’s something she says was imprinted on her on a cellular level when, at 18, she moved to New York to study contemporary dance and soon found herself deeply ensconced in a community whose spirit of inclusivity traverses any number of subcultures. A desire to establish a similar sense of community on her return to Australia soon eventuated into the building of a house and introducing vogueing “as a way to bring us together and collectively strengthen us as well”; the act has doubled as a rebuff of a city that, in both geography and mentality, somehow manages to both widely spread out and still does not make space for those who do not so easily fit into readily available categories. For all its pejorative baggage now resigned to the past, the term ‘Sissy’ also signals something of a similar act coming together for Ra and her crew. When time came to name the event, it was to ‘Sissy’ as a term of endearment that Ra and her team turned. “I was like, ‘Sis, what are we going to call this? Sis, I don’t know, let’s just call it Sissy Ball.’
“‘Sissy’ is such a popular terminology amongst all of us, like we’re always just like, ‘Sis, Sissy, Sis,’ – everyone’s a Sister,” says Ra. “Especially throughout all of the straight and gay Polynesian community, ‘Sissy’ is just such a strong name to acknowledge somebody as a part of your community.”
For those attending the inaugural event or making their debut as both performer or crowdmember at the Sissy Ball, Ra offers the following words of advice: “Give as much as you can because they’re giving as much as they can. It’s definitely a conversation; don’t just sit back and watch; it’s not a safari, but definitely don’t touch.
“Don’t touch and just look fab,” she says, issuing her final pronouncement with a knowing smile. “Come in your own, be ready to work your own category. It’s also about being a part of that kind of expression as well” – and perhaps most important of all – “Come with a look.”
The Sissy Ball takes place February 24, with support from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Red Bull Music at Carriageworks, SYDNEY. The event has sold out. More information is available here.
Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Sissy Ball