Upon hearing of “vogue”, magazines and its corresponding models are the first figures that spring above one’s head. However, the real essence of vogue lies in its history and significance to a certain group of people: the LGBTQ+ community.
In a juxtaposition of graceful yet sharp movements, one finds a dance that illustrates the community’s fight for rights, representation, and freedom. This is their outlet, gagging rivaling houses—ballroom culture’s tight-knit communities led by genderless house mothers and fathers—in fierce competitions. In it were structures for big families: gay, lesbian, straight, those in between and outside the umbrella, and the ones who appreciated the culture. Between and beyond drag competitions and the ballroom scene, vogue continues to evolve since its inception during the 60s to portray the dancer’s self-embodied expressions.
And so Twyloit Mizrahi, a vogue performer and instructor at the first Philippine voguing community—House of Mizrahi—screams, “As a queer [person], I should be proud of that.”
Strike a pose
The classic voguing performance presents a rapid-fire set of positions luring any curious eye within the audience. Caught in a whiplash of movements, the onlooker is beholden to the dancer capturing a raw theater of expressions.
But simply put, “Voguing is the art of posing,” Gabriel* (II, MKT) begins. “It can make you live the life you’re not able to live yourself as.” Discovering voguing at a local dance group after initially specializing in the contemporary style, Gabriel points out that the freestyle choreography of voguing is what originally set it apart from other genres.
Meanwhile, Mizrahi echoes that voguing is a way to help them accept their person—their identity—and express themselves. “You have a unique style [of] how you interpret the movements. So [as a teacher], you cannot really impose your style [on] other dancers.”
As voguing evolved outside of ballroom culture, Gabriel maintains that new and specific choreographies sprouted out of the field. Explaining voguing’s transformation from the linear Old Way to the dynamic New Way to the sassy Voguing Fem, he illustrates how the dancer’s hip and leg movements translate into an expression of both femininity and masculinity; on the dance floor, the careful positioning of angles and lines mirror this identity.
Razor precision is also found in the fundamental elements of vogue. Mizrahi furthers that the dancer’s hands and arms symbolize communication, whereas their spins and dips represent their elegance. “Ang voguing, parang siyang painting; when you see an empty canvas, you paint figures,” he declares. Thus, the execution of these movements is at the behest of the performer.
(Voguing is like painting.)
It was precisely these characteristics that drew Mizrahi into the dance, with him cheekily recalling how his mentor recommended him to vogue because of his long arms. At this juncture, Mizrahi became one of the pioneers of voguing’s entrance to the Philippines through the House of Mizrahi. Trained by vogue dancers hailing from the Philippines and abroad, he began diligently trekking the path to create spaces for voguing within the country.
Behind the scenes
Digging deeper into the culture of vogue only reveals the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. Going back to the 60s, vogue dancers would dance underground. At that time, being queer meant marginalization—that one was on their own. They were painted as dangerous beings to society and dismissed from their jobs; police harassment against the gays was also encouraged. They were violated by simply being queer, resulting in a protest through hiding. Their chosen form of protest? Vogue.
Mizrahi argues, “It’s very important that you teach [its] history [and] why vogue was created.” Without a crystallized understanding of vogue’s sociocultural backdrop, students are unable to embody themselves in the profundity of the performance. To this, Gabriel agrees. “Before, [I saw vogue as] just learning it as a dance. But since sineryoso ko na, I also learned more about [its] history [and] kung bakit nangyari siya in the first place.”
(But since I became more serious about dancing vogue, I also learned more about its history and why it came to be in the first place.)
Fast forward to current times, acts of discrimination continue to ensue, particularly in the Philippines. The country is marred with derogatory and insulting comments, as well as microaggressions and violence. Even the SOGIE Equality Bill, which seeks to prohibit forms of discrimination and marginalization solely based on sexual orientation, is not yet a law.
“Through preserving [voguing’s] history, [we use it] as a blueprint on how to further solidify the community pa especially if history will, unfortunately, repeat itself,” Gabriel notes. Indeed, the systemic oppression borne out of vogue can often be erased by those outside the community. “There are people who [want] to exploit the dance style [and] the culture as a whole, so we need to protect that,” Mizrahi warns.
And so, the purpose of the vogue houses remains the same. “Kahit nakikita na namemainstream na ‘yung voguing…we still offer the same family values, and the same safe space to everyone,” Mizrahi remarks.
(Even though it can be seen that voguing is becoming more mainstream….)
Gabriel stands for not separating the art form from those that perform it: the gay community. Regardless of what one identifies with, he believes voguing is by the community. Thus, the struggle of being an LGBTQ+ person remains. But whether a place is accepting of them is a game of chance. “Whatever happens in that community happens to the [voguing] community and vice versa,” he reiterates.
Reaching for the stars
However, Mizrahi posits there are a number of limitations that hinder vogue’s growth in the Philippines. He chuckles that learning voguing is expensive, “You need to go out of the country to [fully] experience the culture.”
Even in their own homes, the issue of inaccessibility of resources remains. Mizrahi shares their house and invited “[voguing] idols and legends” to teach their students online. However, he again reiterates that not every Filipino has the resources to learn. “The pay [here] is really low, so it’s really a struggle [to go out],” adding to everyone’s lack of access to good internet connection. Apart from this, there are funds—on both sides of the teachers and students—that need to go to students’ actual learning.
Taking the matter into their own hands, House of Mizrahi considers personally disseminating the culture of vogue throughout the country. “I suggested [to House of Mizrahi], why not connect with other dancers [in the provinces] and teach?” the voguing instructor recalls, musing how this is Mizrahi’s way to pay forward their international education in voguing.
Calling to mind the voguing events hosted by House of Mizrahi both before and during the pandemic, Gabriel agrees that more balls can disseminate the art of voguing. “[Ballrooms] are where things happen…In order to grow, [we] want to bring people together.” Needless to say, all of these paths remain rocky. However, these dancers are firm in their stance that voguing must be shared.
Underneath the iceberg of voguing’s sass and leotards are a complex set of challenges, found both in the past and at present. Nevertheless, the cogency of voguing lies in its power to transcend the norm and to enter into the radical. Consistent with its 60-year tradition, the dance intimately provides the LGBTQ+ community a renewed sense of agency.
Though countless gaps are waiting to be filled in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, voguing captures the hopefulness of what is to come. So in spite of all, their refrain—as Gabriel aptly puts it—remains: “[Voguing leads us to] a chosen family in a community.”
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms