“It’s kind of like a sport,” says Ralph Escamillan, explaining the form he teaches in a by-donation dance class every Tuesday night.
The genre involves elements of hand performance, catwalk, floor drops and spins, and embodying the iconic poses of fashion magazines. It’s a street dance, freestyle form. It’s a battle to name the most iconic of two dancers. It has its roots in New York’s underground drag culture of the 1980s. It’s about finding—and owning—your confidence on the floor.
The form is also known as vogue. It’s been popularized by mainstream artists like Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Azealia Banks. Until recently, it was nowhere to be found in Vancouver. With his weekly classes, Escamillan has brought the fundamental tools of vogue to interested people, including the yoga practitioners he shares a space with and the finance workers of Robson Street.
And next Monday (July 31), Escamillan’s not-for-profit organization VanVogueJam is hosting a special night to kick off Vancouver’s Pride Week with Dynasty Ball: An Homage to the 80s.
Presented at the Penthouse in collaboration with B-Roll—a local group that hosts monthly movie-themed drag shows—Dynasty Ball pays homage to the traditional vogue ball form. Judges will be on site to hand out prizes for the best performances in a number of categories related to ‘80s culture, including Maxi Pads (embracing the power suit), Getting My Fitness, Glam Rock, and Big Hair Don’t Care. First-time vogue dancers are encouraged to participate. VanVogueJam is also offering a chance to learn from a master of the form at Harbour Dance Centre on Sunday (July 30), with a class led by Dashaun Wesley, self-proclaimed “King of Vogue” and background dancer for Rihanna.
The evening’s collaboration with B-Roll is indicative of Escamillan’s vision for VanVogueJam—to bring Vancouver’s disparate arts scenes together for mutual support and celebration.
“So many communities are thriving and growing, but they don’t cross paths,” says Escamillan. “I try my best to bridge all those gaps.”
The ‘80s theme for Dynasty Ball developed partially in response to the film-focused work of B-Roll. Originally, the idea was to base the night on Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which brought the faces, dance moves, and stories of New York’s ballroom culture to wide public attention.
The film will be screened at Dynasty Ball, and Escamillan considers it an important part of the night. While vogue can be fun for everyone, he tells the Straight that it’s essential to be aware of the form’s history as a safe space for New York’s Black and Latin American queer communities in the 1980s, when the AIDs crisis was at its height and many people lost their homes and their lives to the deadly disease and to racist, homophobic hate crimes.
“We can’t manufacture the hardship and sorrow they have, we can’t imagine it,” says Escamillan.
Escamillan wants to ensure that the judges and teachers involved in his events are well trained in the form’s traditional roots. He travelled to New York City to study under his New York “house mother”, Leiomy Maldonado, an icon of New York’s ballroom scene who is known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue.” Escamillan is also bringing trained judges to the Dynasty Ball, including New York’s Wesley, Portland’s Leigh Sachiye, Vancouver’s Evan Clayton, Dayne Tank, and Jaylene Tyme, in order to give authenticity to the event.
“It’s really important to do your research. I’m not angry at anyone, I think it’s systematic of our culture to take what we want,” says Escamillan. “I’m excited to see people learning vogue, I just hope they learn about it.”
If the openness to learning is there, Escamillan thinks vogue has a role to play in communities outside of New York City, “as something that can make queer people come together and appreciate each other.”
For Escamillan, this means doing what he can to make classes and events accessible. His weekly classes are pay-what-you-can—one of his goals is to “cut out that barrier of money in dance.” He hopes to make the Vogue Ball an annual event, presenting future iterations as an all-ages show with enough sponsorship and support that it can be free. He’s got his eye on the Vogue Theatre as an ideal venue.
He’s also planning to work more with queer outreach groups starting this fall, to help introduce people to an art form that can be a powerful tool for celebrating one’s identity.
“It’s exciting as a queer person to have something you can call your own and have a dance form that’s for you,” says Escamillan “It’s nice to know that there’s more to being a gay man than going out clubbing and having the stereotype of being promiscuous.”
Escamillan says that aside from working on his dream events, part of his desire to bring vogue to Vancouver has always been to build a community he can share his passion with. With his weekly classes, he’s found it. He’s been particularly inspired by a fourteen-year-old student who comes to class with his mother, and both of them are embracing the form beautifully.
“I want to have people I can train with and dance with, and have people who push me. And I’m already feeling that. I’m feeling it from a fourteen-year-old boy,” says Escamillan with a laugh.
Escamillan hasn’t lost his passion for vogue and he says first-timers are encouraged to come out, dress up, and compete for a prize on Monday. There are spectator tickets, but they’re priced a bit higher.
“Competing is cheaper than watching,” says Escamillan. “If you’re there, why not?”