The Metropolitan Museum’s Battle of the Legends on June 11 showcased six of New York’s best voguers vying for the winner’s title. The temporary stage, positioned in the Met’s David H. Koch Plaza, had been fortified by a crowd of hundreds: there were the voguing crews who came to chant for their houses—Balenciaga, Xtravaganza, Ebony—and pedestrians drawn by the commotion, curious to find out why Anna Wintour, Vogue Editor-in-Chief and a judge for the competition, was so uncharacteristically smiley.
In addition to Wintour, the judges panel boasted Jose Xtravaganza and Our Lady J, a producer and writer on the FX series Pose (the second season of which premiered the same day as the Met’s Battle of the Legends). The audience held up phones to catch the dancer’s spins and drops for their Instagram stories. Jack Mizrahi, as M.C. for the event, spat out ka-ka-ka-boom’s during the Unification of the Kings category, as Ty Ebony and Malik Miyake Mugler competed to see which of their crowns—made of plastic and fabric—would be legitimized. Malik walked away the winner—he wore white tights, a white matador’s top bejewelled with costume diamonds, and camel-colored stiletto boots. After winning his final battle against Asia Balenciaga, Mugler posed for a photo then left the stage, dragging behind him two human-sized trophies and a giant novelty check which read “Legend Slayer.”
Mugler, 24, whose birth name is Malik Brehon, grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. He started dancing in hip-hop groups when, during a talent show in Harlem, he saw his first voguing performance. He knew instantly it was for him. “When I was in hip-hop dance groups,” Brehon told me, “no one knew about my sexuality. It was once I found ballroom that I had the confidence to say: this is who I am.” Ballroom houses often act as surrogate queer families, allowing dancers to express their sexuality with flamboyance. “I had no idea there were even so many people who were gay,” Brehon said. “Ballroom opened that door for me.”
A month earlier, when the Met launched the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit with the annual Met Gala and celebrities, dressed in competitively-opulent regalia, struck their own poses on the front steps, Lena Waithe schooled the crowd with a pinstripe suit which read “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp.” Also true of voguing, a dance invented by black drag queens and trans folks, and prone to gestural campery and exaggerated dress. There are conflicting accounts of exactly how vogue dance emerged (as with all dances, an origin point is nearly impossible to locate). Inmates at Rikers Island used to perform a version of dance battling much like voguing—an alternative to fighting for the gay, black prisoners. But the name Vogue likely attached itself thanks to a drag queen named Paris Dupree. Dupree established the House of Dupree in 1975. In 1981 she held her first “Paris is Burning” ball, which would later inspire the title of the famed 1991 documentary. Dupree’s “Paris is Burning” ball formalized the ball categories, including “executive high fashion,” “Hollywood evening wear,” and “shopping through famous avenues.”
One night, (according to an account by DJ David Depino in Tim Lawrence’s book Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene) Dupree was at Footsteps, an after-hours club on 2nd Avenue and 14th Street, when a dance battle began between queens. Dupree, joining the face-off, took a copy of Vogue magazine out of her bag, opened it, and, on the beat of the music, mimicked the pose of the model. Dupree turned the page and struck the next model’s pose—a simple yet defiant act of emulation; an image of wealth and glamor appropriated by a body typically ignored by society. (As a product of the 1980s, voguing mirrored the era’s want for opulence, wealth, and fashion, and ballroom culture created a space where black, trans, and queer folks were the most glamorous and desirable, distinct from the outside world where they were often neglected and economically disadvantaged.) Other queens started copying Dupree, replicating the Vogue poses—the dance style becoming forever linked with the glossy fashion magazine. It’s hard to say whether this story is more legend than fact, but the ballroom is a place for legends.
For a distinct representation of this particular voguing style, see Malcolm McLaren’s video-clip for “Deep in Vogue” from 1989, featuring Willi Ninja and Lourdes striking poses for an uninterrupted ninety seconds. In synchronicity, they snap between poses—sometimes just a change in the angle of the face or the placement of a hand from hip to shoulder—playfully improvising the progression of poses but arriving into each with certainty. They evoke fashion models, but also hieroglyphs—the dance presenting itself ideally for the two-dimensions of television. Willi Ninja later drew inspiration from kung-fu movies, bringing to voguing a fast pace that combined demure poses with roundhouse kicks. This is closer to the dance voguers perform today: frenetic and athletic, less about the coolness of a single pose than the adrenaline of a hundred poses in a minute.
Today, ballroom culture is in the midst of a renaissance. RuPaul’s Drag Race repopularized the drag ball, adopting the language of the ballroom houses: “throwing shade,” “realness,” “10s across the board.” The FX series Pose—featuring the largest ever cast of trans people of color on an American television series—has recentered trans voices as custodians of this language. Last year, when posters of the upcoming series appeared in New York on billboards and subway entrances, I was wary, mostly because the name Ryan Murphy was attached. Happily, after using his name to launch the series, Murphy handed the show over to a predominantly trans team of writers, including Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The show has since become a faithful adaption of ballroom culture—albeit one that depicts the scene in far more grandeur than the original settings, bringing some of the fantasy of opulence to visual life. “I think Pose has been doing a great job of authentically representing our ballroom culture,” Brehon said. “Having so many people who were engineers of our ballroom culture, having those consultants on the show, even having so many ballroom participants on the set—whether its background acting, small roles on the show—watching Pose, I see my community.” Even more important for dancers like Brehon is that people show up for the community to see them perform live.
At the Met’s Battle of the Legends, when announcing the battle between Asia Balenciaga and Tamiyah Mugler, Jack Mizrahi conceded that “there is no real winner, because we are all winners being exposed to and being around these women, and everything that they offer the world; they are my trans sisters in arms.” Acknowledging that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots—when trans, gay, and lesbian people violently pushed back against years of police harassment and gender oppression—Mizrahi continued: “If it were not for these women, we would never be able to celebrate Pride this year, because they were the ones who were fearless enough to bust the doors down. So in the name of all my girls, let’s start this battle!” The beauty of this ballroom scene is its celebration of queerness through fierce competition, sharing love and mutual respect as the dancers try to destroy each other on the dance floor. There was in fact a winner of that battle—it was Balenciaga. But between you and me, Tamiyah Mugler—with her precision hair-flip, whip-crack wrists, and seismic booty—was robbed!