The voguing scene has a long, turbulent and fantastic story in America. Here, we speak to the duo writing its next chapter in London.
When Paris [was] Burning in New York in 1990, there was no mention of London. When Madonna commanded her legions to let their bodies move to the music in the same year, her Blond Ambition tour only stopped in London for three nights. While New York and Paris were ablaze with voguers and balls throughout the 80s and 90s and up to the present day, London was barely a sputtering flame. Well, the fire has been stoked, because now London is burning and it’s set to burn brighter.
“London is experiencing an exciting moment right now,” says Sydney, one half of the English Breakfast duo behind the vogue balls now cropping up over London. “When I first moved to London, the scene was much smaller and lacking in terms of technique. There are standards and rules in voguing as it’s a complex field of competition, which you see in Paris, Amsterdam and New York. I’ve already seen a significant change in the time I’ve been here. Also, the expansive nature of voguing, beyond the traditional performance categories like Realness, is beginning to appear in London. The more people attending balls and studying their craft, the better the scene becomes.”
“We are a young scene,” says Jay Jay, co-founder of English Breakfast, “but we are growing.”
Voguing has a bright and colourful history. With roots in Black Atlantic traditions and 19th century minstrel shows in the US, it found its home in New York’s underclass in the 20s, evolving into its most recognised style throughout the 60s and 80s. It earned its name from the way the dancers would imitate the wealthy models and mannequins along Fifth Avenue in NYC and in the pages of fashion magazines. With influences from all classical forms of dance, twisted and expressed into new movement, voguing is about aspiration, celebration and absolute beauty. Drag queens, dancers, queers and trans claimed the art as their rain dance against the oppression they felt from society.
Seeking solace in the scene, many rejected by their families, the voguers formed their own ‘Houses’, creating a new family in their peers. Each House has a mother and a father, and the members are their children – some even change their surname to the house name to which they belong. The House of LaBeija was the first to be founded in 1972. Since then, numerous Houses have established themselves, each one nurturing a family of passionate dancers, committed to the values of voguing and community. Sydney is part of the House of UltraOmni and Jay Jay belongs to the House of Revlon, two of the most iconic and reputed Houses in the scene.
“We have to remember where this comes from, the voguing and the culture and ballroom community: it’s a safe haven for queer people, started from queer people of colour,” says Jay Jay.
Listening to its practitioners, they describe voguing as a transcendent experience. It’s not just about the movement, however, but the way in which voguing defies social norms, gender constructs, usurps class and education. “I walk in the Old Way style, because when I started, I found my body was giving a more masculine energy,” says Sydney, who began voguing in 2012. “I am a transman and back when I identified as a butch lesbian, being able to celebrate my masculinity through movement was such an incredible and exciting feeling. Finally, I could find a space to tap into who I am unapologetically. This is voguing for me.”
“When I was 14, I saw a video of a voguer,” says Jay Jay. “She was moving like I’d never seen someone move before. I was in love from that point. It spoke to me on a whole higher level. It felt like I could hear her speaking through her performance.” Each dance is an expression and in that expression, there is a story. And when that story is told, the community listens.
The scene, its form, the Houses – they are all steeped in a rich history, one of oppression, empowerment, celebration. It is an art that deserves to be respected. Now, however, in London, there are voguing fitness classes popping up at gyms all over the city. You can even do voga, a hybrid of voguing with yoga. “Like most artistic expression created by and for black and Latino/a queer people of colour, we find our culture being appropriated by rich white people who have little interest in understanding its history or culture,” argues Sydney. “There is no acknowledgement of history, no communication or participation with or for the community who made these art forms possible. We would see them learning how to vogue from people who actually train as voguers, are in houses, and who participate in balls.”
Perhaps what is most frustrating about this, is that while voguing is blossoming in high-priced gyms and costly exercise classes, authentic voguing is struggling to find a foothold. Gentrification and inflated rents continue to dilapidate London’s nightlife. “Black and POC queer identities bear the brunt of the consequences around nightlife in London being squeezed out of existence,” says Sydney.
And that’s why balls like those hosted by English Breakfast are so important. Before that voguing flame can be priced out or white-washed in Sweaty Betty leggings, it needs to fanned up into an arsonist force. “We want to have that feeling, like back in the day in New York,” says Jay Jay. “We have balls to have a good time and grow this scene for the LGBT community, and to live within a history of the scene that started before my time. Paris has it – why not London?”