Vogue is alive and I feel it as I strike a pose on Polk, tut my wrists down Market, whack the wind through Valencia, duck walk across 24th Street, and slide my hips across a dance studio floor at Dance Mission Theater. The theater is where I vogue every Tuesday night, following the chants, beats, and moves of instructor and free-agent star Jocquese Whitfield.
Voguing, as most may know, is a style composed of striking model-esque poses to a beat. It’s a dance form birthed in drag balls in Harlem during the 1960s. At its basic level, the process goes as such: take a Vogue magazine. Flip through it really fast so it looks like the models are changing poses. Now imitate those poses on the dance floor.
The underground dance style achieved public recognition in 1990 with the release of Madonna’s single “Vogue” and the documentary Paris is Burning, where director Jennie Livingston profiled legendary queens like Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, and Venus Xtravaganza. From there fandom spread, and balls were hosted in major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, and San Francisco. The style had a renaissance in the late aughts when dance troupe Vogue Evolution competed on the TV series America’s Next Dance Crew, and balls are still hosted across the country.
Jocquese tells me that voguing is more than just striking a pose. “Your quads are on fire when you’re doing duck walk or runway in your heels,” he explains. “And right now I have a knot in my arm from doing tutting,” he adds as he flicks his wrist in a King Tut–like fashion to demonstrate this pain-inducing move.
Jocquese teaches his class, Vogue and Tone, twice a week. On my first visit, I am a meek individual. I’m used to performing my amateur voguing skills for small groups of friends in various kitchens and living rooms. In a dance studio among strangers, I suddenly feel more inhibited. But one of the first rules of vogue is to let all inhibitions go. “Having sass and attitude, that’s vogue,” Jocquese tells me.
A legitimate vogue ball involves judges, categories, an MC, and most importantly, houses. A house is a family of voguers, with everyone playing a specific role. Novices are called “up-and-coming” and “statements,” while voguers who have won a number of trophies and gained recognition are considered “stars,” “legends,” and “icons.” Those last three are the Mothers, Fathers, and Grandfathers of the house. Those not in a house are considered “007 free agents,” who compete in balls with the chance of being recruited. Top houses, which have chapters in major cities across the U.S. as well as in Europe, include the House of Ninja, the House of Xtravaganza, and the House of Mizrahi.
The Miss Honey Ball, considered a mini-ball since everyone competes as a free agent, started five years ago. Jocquese has held the title of Miss Honey for the past three years and is now a judge and performer, sizing up fashion-forward individuals, drag queens, and dancers as they vogue onstage.
At the most recent Miss Honey soirée, which took place at Rebel, Jocquese sat onstage with ball founders Terry Tsipouras and ManiCure Versace, while the third founder, Errol Valentino, DJed. Jocquese and Terry took the role of MC by chanting in the microphone, or “gay rapping,” as they call it, as competitors vogued to their beats and a soundtrack heavy on the Rihanna.
Only one female dancer, Xanthia Van Ewijk, vogued that night. Wearing a minidress, striped nylons, and five-inch heels, Xanthia sashayed across the stage, snapped her hands in the air, dipped to the ground, flicked her wrists, and caressed the floor. She was later joined by self-described drag baby Brendan Cameron, who looked like a goth French boy in his skinny black jeans, black mesh top, and black lipstick. A few other drag queens competed, as well as a guy dressed in chinos and skate shoes who started skanking. He was immediately chopped.
At balls, men and drag queens usually outnumber biological women, who are often derogatorily referred to as “fish.” But Xanthia says, “What they push for, I naturally have. With the hip switches, the model walks, or the duck walk, the way the hips move is very feminine. So when girls do vogue, it’s more natural.” By the end of the night, she is crowned Miss Honey, and Jocquese officially passes down his crown. Jocquese says he has been dancing since he was in his mother’s womb, where he would kick his fetal feet to the beat whenever music was playing. He started voguing at 16 when he discovered Paris is Burning. Fascinated by ball culture, he went on to receive his training from YouTube videos, and then decided to attend a ball in Oakland.
That initial experience wasn’t a positive one. “People were rude to one another, people were not on time, people were threatening to fight people, and for me it was just too much,” he says. This was in 2004, and Jocquese recalls attendees throwing purses full of bricks at each other and smashing car windows. “I was like, ‘Hey, I need to go!’ I’m all about the kumbaya; let’s be peaceful.”
The violence of the Oakland balls didn’t deter Jocquese. He started his class two years ago to create an environment more akin to what he saw in Paris is Burning, where voguing is a celebration of self. His class radiates this ideal, as he tells students to tap into their inner diva, or Devo.
also teaches us the five elements imperative to voguing:
1) hands and arms, which we use to elegantly frame the face, or just in the air like stiff Barbie limbs; 2) duck walk, where we walk in a squat, knees pointed towards the ground; 3) catwalk, where we give what he calls “a little chi-chi fou-fou” model attitude; 4) floor, which includes sliding on our hips across the ground and dipping to the floor, a move also called “shablam” or “the death drop”; and finally, 5) spins, where we twirl, sometimes to a state of great dizziness.
After I’ve attended class for a couple of months, Vogue and Tone has become my Cheers. Regulars greet each other with enthusiastic hugs before stretching. We then walk the runway to house and hip-hop beats, and pull all the elements together in a fancy routine, often to the 1984 George Kranz dance-club classic “Trommeltanz.” We also improvise like crazy and lose ourselves completely to vogue.
Jocquese is currently planning to host his own ball in the fall, where he will debut his own house, the House of Black & Denim, named after his ensemble of choice. In comparison to balls in New York and Oakland, which can be very competitive, the ball scene in San Francisco has taken a more nurturing approach, mainly because of events like Miss Honey and people like Jocquese spearheading the movement. Jocquese says his upcoming ball will maintain that vibe. “I want everyone to do [vogue],” he says, “Or at least know what vogue is. And everyone should feel like grand divas all the time.”
After a couple months of voguing with Jocquese, I’m not quite a statement, but I would like to think of myself as up-and-coming.
I’m striking poses out of the confines of my home, dramatically flaunting my moves as I walk down the street, shop for produce, and even as I jump into swimming pools. The beauty of voguing is that it can be performed anywhere. It’s also the perfect medium for anyone who has ever felt like a 12th-floor reject (the 12th floor being home to Vogue magazine’s New York headquarters). But when you vogue, you are never a reject.
Jocquese’s upcoming ball is in progress. To prepare, check out his class every Tuesday at Dance Mission Theater and Thursdays at ODC. Or vogue in the comfort of your own home. Some voguing classics include The Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh I Love It,” Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” or First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder.” But really, you can vogue to anything that inspires you. I’m partial to voguing to Loleatta Holloway, Talking Heads, Justice, and Philip Glass.