‘Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-1992’ by Chantal Regnault
Author: Curt Weber
March 12, 2012
Finally! It has taken much too long for a book of this type to come out, perhaps reflecting both a testament to the ball culture’s once-underground status and society’s dismissal of it. Thankfully it does not disappoint.
If all you know about voguing and the house ballroom scene derives from, or is limited to, a certain stylish pop-star’s catchy, hugely-successful dance song and video, you are only getting a fraction of the big picture. Chronicling the years when voguing exploded into public consciousness and went from uptown New York to downtown, from the ballroom to the boardroom and into people’s living rooms, Chantal Regnault’s photographs in Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-1992 (Soul Jazz Books) capture the excitement and longing of a sub-section of the city’s gay, creative energy of the time, giving even a more ardent follower something new to see.
From the Chanels to the Xtravaganzas, all the legendary houses are represented – a smart decision. With its subjects emoting for maximum effect in both black-and-white and color, the book intersperses photos with interviews with members of various houses, helping to broaden the perspective of the alluring images, fleshing out the lives behind the lifestyles. Some of the stories could do with an edit for better continuity, but they remain fascinating. An excellent history told for those who come after, we learn of the life lived behind the image.
The photos are presented documentary-style at various balls, reportage-style on location around New York City, and in studio portraits. Regnault’s eye is an admiring one: we are shown not only moments of tenderness and love, the bonding and familial care that belonging to a house provides, but, also, the sense of competitiveness between the houses for the all-glorious adulation and the trophies won in the various categories. With some of the studio portraits, we see the freeze-frame poses that voguing gets it name from, one of them used as the image on the book’s dust jacket. Though some are strong and informative, these shots as a whole are the weakest in the book and a little repetitive. This is not a book to judge by its cover, the contents are immensely more rewarding. One image, titled “Anonymous, Harlem 1990,” shows a femme-queen in mournful head-to toe black descending stairs, her dress cinched at the waist, the fabric falling in gathers to her black heels, an immense hat, canopy-like, with a veil shading her face. This is juxtaposed, to great effect, with “Anonymous, Grandest March ever (AIDS Benefit), Palladium, 1990” showing a man in a red suit, his red overcoat caught in mid-swing, twirling at the knee.
We are shown not just the creativity of the costumes, but the faces of the ‘children,’ eyes ablaze with hunger, ready to stand above and outshine any competitor. Ostracized by the larger society, their sense of urgency, their need to belong, shines through. They can do it just as well as you, even better. Poses that would give Hollywood stars cause to pause, faces longing to be immortalised, bodies contorted into the exaggerated runway poses in vogue (not the magazine, but that too), costumes appropriated and assembled in ways more creative than the final look, popping off the page. The images are not simply of the voguing categories but of the realness categories, highlighting the sexual ambiguity of the balls and its contestants, how they subvert the culture at large–flipping its norms and rules.
Tim Lawrence’s insightful introduction takes us through the history of the balls, their start in the mid 1800s, their growth in Harlem in the 20s, the racial categorising in the 60s, the introduction of houses in the 70s, to the downtown clubs in the 80s when voguing was invented, and beyond. Lawrence details the prominent djs and clubs at the time that influenced voguing’s evolution in New York’s legendary Black and Latin dance clubs; Better Days, the Paradise Garage, Peter Rabbits etc. The music is essential. An accompanying CD or playlist would have been a great addition. Crystal LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willie Ninja, Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra, Madonna, the seminal documentary Paris is Burning, and voguing’s crossover into mainstream are detailed. His story closes in on itself at the end though, seeming a little rushed. I wish there was a little more text to fittingly close off.
Bravo to Soul Jazz Books, the British publisher of this book. Was there no American publisher willing to add this document of national history to its roster? Does the sidelining of this creative force within the culture at large still exist on that scale? Let the houses and their members continue to walk tall and proud. And may the morphing of the styles of voguing continue to amaze and challenge both the dancer and the viewer.
Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-1992
By Chantal Regnault
Soul Jazz Books
Paperback, 9780955481765, 208pp.