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Strike a Pose

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Artist-in-residence Darrell Jones takes cultural studies to the dance floor with choreography that explores the social, racial, and gender roots of voguing.

By Lucia Mauro
Photography by William Frederking

Madonna took the notion of striking a pose mainstream with her 1990 hit, “Vogue.” But dancer/choreographer Darrell Jones’s research into the multilayered voguing dance aesthetic—a fashion-inspired style rooted in gay black culture—has nothing to do with commercial appeal. With support from a Chicago DanceMakers Forum grant, Jones, artist-in-residence in the Dance department, aims “to unravel the physical poetics of this dance form and how it has become a present metaphor for ideas of power and transgression.”

So Jones has been probing beneath the notorious runway struts of voguing (which takes its name from the fashion magazine) to extract the dance’s deeper connections to racism, sexual identify, and empowerment, as well as its fierce melding of movement styles: breakdancing, martial arts, gymnastics, and improvisation.

Jones, who holds degrees in dance and psychology from Florida State University (Tallahassee) and the University of Florida (Gainesville), is intrigued by how voguing stands at the crossroads of hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity. This idea is embodied in a life-changing experience he had in New York City. While walking up North 125th Street, Jones noticed a crowd of people suddenly “parting like the Red Sea.” Through the awestruck pedestrians emerged a tough-looking black man wearing baggy hip-hop gear and a pair of Manolo Blahnik sling-back mules. And, as Jones recalls, “he was pumping them.” But Jones was most struck by the man’s “strength of his convictions” and how he created a world for himself that allowed him to live those gender-toppling convictions “so freely and openly in the theater of life.”

Gender, after all, is at the heart of voguing, a dance style that dates back to the underground gay culture of 1930s Harlem. Its popularity rose among the African-American, Latino, and transgendered segments of the gay community in 1980s Manhattan—a phenomenon chronicled in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Voguers belong to specific “Houses,” such as House of Chanel, a structure that pays homage to fashion designers and allows the dancers to create their own surrogate families. The House, akin to a college fraternity, is where they are free to express themselves among their peers without being judged by mainstream society.

Because the dancers wear elaborate women’s couture, voguing is often confused with the drag scene. But Jones is quick to point out that voguing is not a drag performance, female impersonation, or lip synching. It’s a highly stylized and dangerously physical aesthetic that incorporates everything from hip-hop to Brazilian capoeira in a series of “balls,” which take place in empty warehouses or clubs into the wee hours of the morning.

To maintain the underground spirit of voguing, Jones presented the culmination of his project, Third Swan from the End, at Galaxy, a makeshift nightclub. Because he does not intend to mainstream the form as concert dance, he allowed viewers to observe real voguers battling it out on the dance floor. “The venue is key,” he says, “and it needs to be a club setting. The people observing have the potential to go up and perform. And the audience can very vocally judge the performers as if it’s a competition. They won’t hold back. They’ll let you know if ‘you’re feelin’ it’ or if ‘you’re not feelin’ it.’”

Originally called pop, dip, and spin, voguing is characterized by photo-model-like poses, sashays, and duck walks integrated with angular, linear, and rigid leg and body movements. But it’s so much more, says Jones: “It’s not just movement; it’s an attitude and a sense of defiance—finding a certain feminine aspect and turning it up to ten.” The psychology behind this, he theorizes, is tied to creating a world where a gay black man can maintain his power. “So,” he says, “if you label me evil, then I’ll become Alexis Carrington.”

The ultra-girrrl power is channeled through the music, which can include Robbie Tronco’s “Walk for Me,” La Cubanita’s “Toca Me,” and “Wonder Woman” by T-Pro vs Unknown DJ. Judges at the balls pay close attention to dancers with a confident carriage and “realness,” adds Jones, who says voguers perform duet “battles,” as well as solos in various categories, including Butch Queen and Femme Queen. “Voguing,” he adds, “encompasses a range of performers, from someone on their way to becoming a woman to those who like to dress like a woman.”

So how did Jones—an academic and trained postmodern dancer who has performed in the companies of Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Urban Bush Women—become interested in voguing, a form that has a general structure but is also highly improvisational?

“I was about 18 or 19 and went to a gay club in Atlanta,” recounts Jones, now 38. “I remember seeing a dancer named Andre Mizrahi [last name refers to the House of Isaac Mizrahi] doing really flamboyant, unsanitized movement. He scared me a little, but he also made me remember the first time I was told I was being too effeminate and that somehow that was inappropriate.”

Through voguing, he has met many gay men struggling with how much or how little they should display their femininity within and outside the gay community. Jones, a member of Chicago’s House of Avant-Garde (an underground voguing group), says that voguing gives him permission to be effeminate. But since it’s within the context of theater or fantasy, it provides a safe place for expression.

Most recently, the House of Avant-Garde opened the School of Opulence, a permanent West Side training ground for voguers and a stage for weekly balls. It may seem contradictory that the itinerant art of voguing has established a school. Yet Jones calls it more than a place to study dance moves. It serves members of the community dealing with HIV/AIDS and assists with job placement. Moreover, he believes a consistent space for voguing allows for an opportunity to preserve its history and chronicle its ongoing transformations. Ultimately, Jones has no intention of fusing postmodern dance and voguing on the concert stage. He stresses, “The last thing I want to do is gentrify it.”

On a personal level, Jones now teaches and choreographs from an approach he calls “embodied research.” He is currently choreographing a piece, Whiff of Anarchy, for Chicago-based company The Seldoms (scheduled to premiere at The Dance Center at Columbia in spring 2009). In it, he addresses the momentum that arises from riots. For his research, he attends political demonstrations so that he can physically put himself in the situation. He sees how his body responds, then goes back to the studio and re-shapes those responses into abstract movement. Voguing, he acknowledges, made this possible: “In voguing, you don’t just walk with an attitude. You walk with an effortful stride as a survival mechanism. These are things your body has experienced. And it’s not just movement—it’s life or death.”

Lucia Mauro is a dance critic and arts writer whose work appears in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and national publications. She is the dance contributor for Chicago Public Radio’s “848” program; hosts the monthly “About Dance” series at the Chicago Cultural Center; and is an adjunct professor of dance history at Loyola University. William Frederking is faculty in the Photography department and associate dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College.