Don’t miss the second part of The Untold Story of the UK’s Vogue Scene.
Author’s note: this being FACT, a venerable resource for dance-music related writing and discussion, I’m going to assume that the readership is familiar enough with house music and voguing culture to understand some of the terms being discussed (“house”, “ball”, “walk”, “function”, etc.). If not, please take the time to watch Paris Is Burning (embedded below) which is not just a useful introduction to the house ball culture and the issues of identity politics that surround it, but a brilliant documentary in its own right and a valuable document of some of dance culture’s hidden history.
There are many great things about living in the UK.
Of course, it’s not perfect here, but two of the main reasons I like living in this country are the acceptance of gay culture by the mainstream, and the importance accorded to dance music – all music really, from classical to pop. Which is why it’s always been a mystery to me that there is not more voguing going on here.
Vogue culture, or “ballroom” as it is also known, is a highly-developed, immersive culture that originates in the working class, black/Latin@, LGBTQ/drag subcultures of New York City, and more recently other major cities in the United States. Like hip-hop, it encompasses many different forms of self-expression, from music and dancing to art and fashion, while highlighting alternative modes of gender, race and class expression. Without being overtly “political”, vogue culture deals directly with highly politicised issues.
The UK was one of the first early adopters of Chicago house music, not to mention other black-originating music genres from the States like jazz, soul and hip-hop. It’s also traditionally pretty accepting of queer culture, from homegrown heroes like David Bowie and Elton John all the way to the commercial success of acts like the Scissor Sisters. So you would think that the UK would be the perfect breeding ground for vogue. In my experience though, that has not been the case. That’s not to say that there is no voguing happening in the UK, but that, for once, we are far behind some of our European neighbours when it comes to the acceptance and adoption of an American dance music subculture.
World-class voguing houses have sprung up all over the continent, from Germany and Holland to France and various Scandinavian countries, all the way to mother Russia (despite that country’s draconian anti-gay laws). Last year’s most popular voguing video is a truly international affair; a viral hit featuring an extended battle between Wonder Woman and Sailor Moon, filmed at the Streetstar dance contest in Sweden and featuring performances by French and Finnish dancers. As far as I am aware, no British-based voguer has yet competed in a global, or even European, tournament.
So, why would this be? Why isn’t the UK voguing more? Well, one of the reasons, as I see it, is not that voguing has been actively rejected here – far from it – but that it has not been massively exposed. There are a few different reasons for this, which I will explore in these articles, but first we should backtrack and look at the history of voguing in this country.
Britain is not completely bereft of vogue. There have been (and still are) some highly respected voguers in this country. The House of Child was Britain’s first ever vogue house, which was formed in the late ’80s by the professional dancer and choreographer Les Child, inspired by the voguing he was seeing over in the States:
Les Child: “I would go to New York about three or four times a year back in the day, because that was the place to party. It was a bigger world then, you didn’t have the internet and it was like taking a rocket ship and going somewhere else. At the time I was a dancer, I would do some bits of choreography for friends, for films and for pop videos. I was dancing with Michael Clarke at the time, so I would go to New York with him a lot.
“I went to house balls there in the mid 1980s, they were these amazing events. Otherworldly was a good way of describing it! It was like nothing I’d ever seen, it went on for hours, it was a bit intimidating because it was a different culture, a different attitude, a different language, the whole thing. But it was just so brilliant and so captivating. And of course it came from the black experience.”
The second core member of the House Of Child, after the founder Les, was Roy Brown, who as well as being a dancer, choreographer and model, is also a recording artist going by the name of Roy Inc:
Roy Brown: “I found out about voguing through Les, and his passion to put a dance troupe together. I went to NY in 1988, I think it was, as a young fledgling kid, we went down the pier and that’s where it was all kicking off. It’s funny, ‘cos the time we went down there, the director of Paris Is Burning [Jennie Livingston], was actually filming. I think she took four years, filming absolutely everything.”
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Although styled on the New York houses, the House Of Child was more a dance troupe than a surrogate queer family, with some of its members even travelling to the UK from New York for performances.
RB: “‘House’ is an American term and it was down to the black and Puerto Rican kids, and a small minority of poor white kids who got thrown out onto the streets. It was really the older gays who were already part of an establishment that took them in and called it a house. There was always a mother and a father of the house. And that is different from what we call a ‘house’, even though in London we called it a ‘house’ because of the NY connections.”
LC: “It’s different from the American thing, which, as you know, was about kids being rejected by their families and being looked after. We looked after each other, but not to that extent. I didn’t really want to become a mother or be their caretakers. I guided them and gave them opportunities. Some of them had never been on a plane before. And I gave them a wad of cash in their hand, which gave them confidence and a reason to work. I mean, they could be really belligerent and difficult, ‘cos some of them were young and beautiful and confident, but very hard to handle.
“I don’t want to sound like I was a social worker or anything, but I really wanted to give these kids a chance, these fabulous children. My job as a choreographer is really about spotting talent, and giving that talent a platform. And there were brilliant children, there were members like Marc Massive, the only white member, there was Selvin Smith, Stefan St James, Mark Dalrimple, who was fantastic, and Roy Brown, of course.”
Voguing was still very much an unknown quantity in the UK at this point, for the most part not even happening in the clubs. Because of the connections of the various members of the House Of Child, the functions they performed at tended to be more highbrow than their American equivalents – perhaps another reason why voguing doesn’t have as strong, club-based roots in as in other countries.
LC: “The first ever gig we did was a fashion show in the House of Harrods. That was good, and we started to get more gigs abroad, on television, and for charities. We did fashion shows for Pam Hogg, we would go and do shows in Italy and Spain, we’d go on tour. Holland had a very keen interest in vogue, more than we had here. I would only do performance for about a minute and a half to two minutes because it was exhausting. We would keep it short and very colourful, very impactful. People would say, “That was amazing I want to see more!” and I would reply, “If you want to see more you have to pay to see more.”
RB: “Word got out because we were so well connected with certain people really, and before we knew it, we’d been asked to do certain clubs, venues, openings, fashion week. Then, when it got a lot bigger, we did the Designer Of The Year at the Albert Hall. We did two of those, actually. House of Child was chosen to model all the accessories for Manolo Blahnik. I didn’t get to wear the shoes unfortunately! So that started kicking off, and then we did videos for musicians and artistes. After that, touring started and we began to travel outside of London, to France, Italy, Spain quite a lot, and we went on tour in Japan.”
Though still very niche, vogue was growing, and despite the lack of the dance in the clubs, it was an Englishman who helped bring voguing to international attention at the tail end of the 1980s. Though not the first house track about vogue (that honour would go to ‘Elements Of Vogue’), Malcolm McLaren & The Bootzilla Orchestra’s ‘Deep In Vogue’ was hugely influential, alerting a young audience to this new dance style, and showcasing it with a video starring Willi Ninja and members of his house:
RB: “Before Madonna’s video, it was all about Malcolm McLaren. When we started voguing that track hadn’t dropped yet. I think it dropped in ’89, and by that point we were already voguing in London.”
LC: “After Madonna’s record came out, word got out and everyone knew about this dance. But it was always put in the background really, if there were other forms of dance in a video then vogue would be at the outer edges, or the camera would flash by very quickly. It was almost like a fear of acknowledging it too much because of its association. Madonna celebrated it of course, but it was very much a diluted, watered-down version.”
Ah, the M-bomb. If there is one artist associated with voguing, for better or for worse, it is Madonna. With the help of McLaren and Madonna, interest in voguing was beginning to grow. Of course, you can’t have voguing without a ball, and in 1990 the UK held its first ever vogue ball at Busby’s nightclub, called La Vie En Vogue. Hosted by the legendary performance artist Leigh Bowery (appearing here sans-pants) and organised by British Vogue magazine, La Vie En Vogue was filmed for posterity by the documentary-maker James Le Bron. Featuring performance from House Of Child members George Long, Roy Brown, Sel Child and Marc Massive, the film was released commercially on VHS in 1990, and even though it lays bare the differences between voguing in the UK and the US, it is still an invaluable document of the British scene’s early days. Marc Massive has uploaded the film to YouTube in four parts, but as parts two and three have been blocked unfortunately (presumably due to music licensing), here is part one:
Voguing was growing in London, and beginning to spread to other cities in the UK. Although, as it turns out, some people were already voguing away from the capital. In Liverpool, a young dancer by the name of Darren Suarez was making his first, tentative steps into the world of gay culture, when he encountered voguing for the first time:
Darren Suarez: “My first experience of voguing was coming out on the gay scene at the age of 15, sneaking in to the back allies of the Curzon Club, and also Jodie’s, which were very common gay clubs to go to in the ’80s. While I was partying, a group of three or four people turned up throwing the movements of this dance style, with attitude, with poise… I had never seen anything like it and I fell in love, completely, straight away.
“When I got used to going on the gay scene a bit more, I started hanging around and talking to these guys, and copying them. There was Dean Murphy, who was actually one of the people who brought it from London to Liverpool, and Tommy Draper, who was a voguer. There was a guy called Phil, too, and that was pretty much it. Then there was me and a guy called Carl who had come out at the same time as me, and we both started to practice it in the clubs.
“Back then there was no access to what was going on, and I was a bit young to be going to London by myself, to go clubbing. All we’d had was Paris Is Burning. We’d go round to the mother of the House Of Banjee Realness, and she’d throw it on and we’d watch the documentary. The older voguers like Dean would be getting influenced by other sources, and I would try and copy them. Kenny Strickland was the mother of the House Of Banjee Realness. He wasn’t a voguer, he was just an older queen who had a flat where we could all chill. It wasn’t like the American houses – a house was like a chill out where people would go back to. Kenny’s door was usually always open.”
Like America, it was after-hours, post-club functions where voguing would come into it’s own (although the setting could not be more American, or even more Scouse):
DS: “What was really exciting was after the clubs finished, we used to go into the Anglican Cathedral and go into the grounds where the cemeteries were. There’s a brick wall we would use as a runway, and we would practice voguing and have mini-battles. And that went on for a few years, from about 1989 to 1993. A lot of us would go out from Wednesday to Saturday, and end up in the cemetery ’til the sun came up, voguing. Later on I produced a piece called ‘Dancing With The Dead’ which told the whole story of the cemetery voguing.”
Darren Suarez is now a professional dance teacher, and mother of the House Of Suarez, founder and organiser of the UK’s biggest annual vogue function, Liverpool’s House Of Suarez Ball. We’ll be coming back to Darren, and some of his star children, in part two, when we’ll be looking at the current vogue scene in the UK. Thanks to Marc Massive for the archive material, with more available here.
Don’t miss the Part Two of this feature.