While gay marriage, ending "dont ask, dont tell," repealing DOMA, dealing with hate crimes, and working for adoption rights have recently received the lions 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 Citys 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 MTVs Americas 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 Madonnas hit song and video, Vogue, to Beyoncs 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 Mens 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 Americas Best Dance Crew?
Pony: Were all excited. It took a while to sink in. I dont think it all sunk in until like 10 seconds before we got on the stage. Then it was like reality checked in. Everybodys just ready to do their thing. We all felt after the show we couldnt 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: Weve 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, weve 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: Were hoping to accomplish giving our community value and recognition for what its created, and to continue a legacy thats 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 were 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. Its just like nobody knows. Thats the thing -- nobody knows that ballroom is all these different things and how its affected videos and artists and models and the runway. Were really far out there, you know what Im saying? The only thing is that we dont 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 Beyoncs Single Ladies video and exactly what youre talking about: mainstream artists being inspired by and drawing on ballroom moves. Do you find it flattering or frustrating to see what youve 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 Americas 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, thats when it started getting kind of frustrating. Im not getting recognition out of it, and theyre 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, Im not afraid of it. Im actually ready. I dont know, its not something thats going to bother me -- Im 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 worlds views towards us -- to keep us from hiding. There are a lot of trans people who are talented out in the world and theyre probably afraid of using their talents because of what society has to say about their life and how they live their life.
Your crew, in large part, started at the POCC (People of Color In Crisis) center. Can you talk a little bit about Vogue Evolutions HIV/AIDS work?
Dashaun: Each and every one of us are peer educators and contributors to the HIV and AIDS awareness industry. You have a person like me who has been working in the field for a while, like Pony and Malechi, and it is the number 1 spotlight into the house and ballroom community. And we played our major parts with POCC, GMHC [Gay Mens Health Crisis], The Hetrick-Martin Institute -- organizations that help us or educate us and allow us to get this information and provide it to others.
What about including HIV/AIDS education in what youre doing on the show?
Dashaun: Youll have to watch to see.
Is Vogue Evolution just the five members seen on the show or did you choose from a wider pool of members?
Dashaun: Vogue Evolution is our community. Its every voguer who has ever touched the runway and we chose to deliver the message. So far these people were handpicked for this package, but Vogue Evolution is every person thats stepped on the floor in our community. Vogue Evolution is about voguing -- just evolved. Its what were doing, not who we are. We are the evolution of Vogue.
The ball scene is normally split into houses, which have mothers and fathers, and the houses compete. Are you all from the same house or do come from different houses or is Vogue Evolution sort of its own house?
Dashaun: No, were all separate. All five of us come from different houses.
Dashaun: Leiomy is in the house of Mizrahi, Malechi is in the house of Garcon, Prince is a Milan, Im in Ibizu, and Pony is legendary father Zion.
In ball scene there are different competitions that go on. Is the type of dancing that you do on the show simply voguing or are you bringing in aspects of some of the other competitions at well?
Pony: Were a voguing group, but were going to bring every kind of style that we can bring. Its going to be voguing/hip-hop, voguing/modern, voguing/river dancing, you know, voguing/flamingo, honey.
Looking beyond the show, where do you hope to go from here? Have you thought about what your next step will be?
Malechi: Oh no, we live in the moment. We all have goals and aim for the clouds but reach for the stars. So were not really thinking about afterward because its a lot. Were still gagging ourselves with everything thats going on -- from the press to the photo shoots and just being loved by so many in front of so many. That right there is just it for us right now. But youre definitely going to be hearing a lot more from us after this.
If as a group you had one thing to say to the community at large about the ball scene what would it be?
Malechi: To vote and send our love. Tell everybody to use their heads and then vote.
Pony: Were here, honey! We are here, baby. Our doors are open, run through them.
America's Best Dance Crew airs on MTV on Sunday nights.