Vogue Evolution Strikes A Pose

8.20.2009

By Parker Anderson

While gay marriage, ending "don't ask, don't tell," repealing DOMA, dealing with hate crimes, and working for adoption rights have recently received the lion's share of attention from gay activists, two critical agendas have fallen to the back burner: HIV/AIDS and trans rights. Now, out of the depths of New York City's underground ball scene -- an important space for queer people of color for nearly 80 years -- comes Vogue Evolution, a dance group who are using their visibility as competitors on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew to touch on both of those issues.

The elite group consists of five members: four black gay men, Malechi Williams, Jorel Rios (aka Prince), Dashaun Williams, and Devon Webster (aka Pony) and a black trans woman, Leiomy Maldonado. In its work, the group references decades of competition and complex pop culture connections, from the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning to Madonna's hit song and video, 'Vogue,' to Beyonc's recent appropriation of ball scene dance moves.

Balls are not just about dancing and competition -- they represent a lifestyle and a dedication to activism. HIV/AIDS non-profits -- from the Gay Men's Health Crisis to the People of Color in Crisis, where Vogue Evolution began -- have long been intertwined with the ball scene, which have served to educate the community about prevention and treatment. Each member of Vogue Evolution is also a peer educator within the underground community.

Out sat down with four members of the crew to discuss the show, activism, and bringing voguing and the balls out into the open.

Out: How do you feel about being on the America's Best Dance Crew?
Pony: We're all excited. It took a while to sink in. I don't think it all sunk in until like 10 seconds before we got on the stage. Then it was like reality checked in. Everybody's just ready to do their thing. We all felt after the show we couldn't wait for the next show. We were already thinking that night about what we were going to do on the next show because we love this and the experience of it all.

How long have each of you been in the ball scene?
Dashaun: We've all been a part of the ballroom scene for a number of years. Pony and Malechi are legendary participants in the ballroom scene for their category, voguing. Myself and Prince, we've been doing it for about nine or 10 years. Leiomy has been doing it for a number of years also.

Obviously, your presence on the show is a big deal for a number of reasons. What you are hoping to accomplish -- other than winning -- by being on the show?
Pony: We're hoping to accomplish giving our community value and recognition for what it's created, and to continue a legacy that's been going on for nearly 80 years. We are hoping that everybody will realize who they are and what they can create and, you know, reach for the stars. So we're here just to be heroes in our community and take what we can and run with it.

What do you think is important about bringing the ball scene into the mainstream?
Pony: That it gets recognized, that it is hip-hop. Ballroom is hip-hop, ballroom is pop. It's just like nobody knows. That's the thing -- nobody knows that ballroom is all these different things and how it's affected videos and artists and models and the runway. We're really far out there, you know what I'm saying? The only thing is that we don't get recognition for it. They push us to the back burner when we should be on the forefront.

There was a lot of talk surrounding Beyonc's 'Single Ladies' video and exactly what you're talking about: mainstream artists being inspired by and drawing on ballroom moves. Do you find it flattering or frustrating to see what you've created being showcased on such a large scale but not getting credit for it?
Leiomy: For me it started off flattering because it started off with Fish 'N Chips on season two [of America's Best Dance Crew]. They actually had my name in their track while they were doing my signature move. But, once I started seeing videos and all these celebrities doing it, that's when it started getting kind of frustrating. I'm not getting recognition out of it, and they're doing it wrong.

There have been big media stories attacking trans people in the mainstream recently, like with Silverton, Ore., mayor Stu Rasmussen. Are you worried about causing a similar media storm?
Leiomy: No, I'm not afraid of it. I'm actually ready. I don't know, it's not something that's going to bother me -- I'm ready to educate the world.

What do you think this is going to do for the trans movement?
Leiomy: I should be an example for them not to be afraid of the world and to help change the world's views towards us -- to keep us from hiding. There are a lot of trans people who are talented out in the world and they're probably afraid of using their talents because of what society has to say about their life and how they live their life.

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