THIS IS THE fourth and final PART OF A SERIES OF FOUR ARTICLES.
Read PART 1: BANJEE BALL
READ PART 2: AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON
READ PART 3: THE FAMILY THAT PLAYS TOGETHER SLAYS TOGETHER
Note: The first part of the series (“Banjee Ball“) received criticism from the ballroom community due to how the history of gay ballroom culture was originally written in the article when it was first published on February 12, 2017 and in a later revision on February 14, 2017.
And for that, Faglandia truly apologizes.
The last thing we want is to provide false information, misrepresent a culture, or misinform a reader.
Although we hope that the change in the trivia part about the history of gay ballroom culture has cleared the confusion, Faglandia welcomes all opinions and will not decline any opportunity to be educated.
In primary school back in Indonesia, when my classmates were fanboying over Michael Jackson, I was dancing to Kylie Minogue and Lisa Stansfield. It wasn’t until 1994 when I discovered Madonna and used all my monthly allowance to buy the soundtrack of With Honors just so I could listen to “I’ll Remember” over and over again (I couldn’t care less about the other songs). “I’ll Remember” was the gateway to years of Madonna fandom, and in the deluge of her videos, I found “Vogue,” one of the three videos that have made a galactic impact on my life as a young, feminine, gay boy in Jakarta. Along with Annie Lennox’s “Why” and RuPaul’s “Supermodel,” it helped me survive six years of all-male Catholic high school (three of which were quite horrid).
Madonna released Ray of Light, and she became MTV Asia’s Artist of the Month for March 1998, which means there were reruns of her videos, including “Vogue.” Every time the video came on, I’d try to copy the dance moves.
One month went by. Someone else became Artist of the Month and MTV Asia no longer played Madonna’s videos that frequently.
Since I wasn’t much of a dancer, I still didn’t know the moves to “Vogue.” And the dream of mastering the clean lines and the attitude and the hands and the twirls was swept deep inside my brain, crushed under mediocre piano lessons and remedial STEM classes and failed relationships.
Almost two decades later, at Banjee Ball in January 2017, I met Luis Camacho — of the House of Xtravaganza — one of the pioneers of New Way Voguing, and one-half of the mastermind behind the “Vogue” choreography (the other half being Jose Gutierez, also from the House of Xtravaganza).
There are currently three styles of Voguing: Old Way, New Way, and Femme. Old Way emphasizes on poses and clean lines. In New Way, dancers compete by showing off their flexibility and intricate hands and arms lock. Vogue Femme, like the name suggests, is about channeling one’s femininity.
“Voguing as a category started out as just posing, like a supermodel in Vogue magazine,” Camacho tells me. “It wasn’t a dance form when it first started. So literally, the category was ‘Vogue’ and it was ‘pose like a supermodel.’ And through the years, those poses became faster and faster, thus creating this dance form. It’s like when somebody walks, the next year somebody rollerskates, the next year somebody takes a bike, then a motorcycle, then a car, then a spaceship.”
Camacho, with his extensive dance training at the prestigious LaGuardia High School helped this revolution from Old Way to New Way. In addition to Gutierez, Camacho credits Willi Ninja for being one of the people who put the poses together to create a dance form.
“Wili Ninja was right there at the cusp of Old Way into New Way. He was the person that was the vessel for the transition. Wili was good at both. That’s why he was the threshold, right in the middle, where Old Way was becoming New Way,” Camacho says. “I think the five elements [of voguing] were always there. Definitely the cat walk and the poses. But I think, for a lack of a better term, Willi brought them into consciousness. He was a magnificent voguer and person.”
Although Willi Ninja wasn’t in the “Vogue” video and the two dancers who were chosen by Madonna to choreograph the dance and be on The Blonde Ambition World Tour (and be featured on the Truth or Dare documentary) were from House of Xtravaganza, there was no animosity in the gay ballroom community.
“I honestly think that the community was happy for us and proud that we represented [voguing] in a positive way,” Camacho tells me.
He had always wanted to be a part of the House of Xtravaganza, which only accepted Latino members at that time. Camacho was one of the lucky ones who joined a house not because they were kicked out of their actual homes for being gay. Indeed, his parents were very supportive when Camacho came out of the closet.
“My father came and pick us up at the ball one time. He actually came inside and was like, ‘Whoohoo! What’s going on here? Party, party!'” he says.
Members of the house would meet at a place and hang out with each other almost every day to practice, sew, and get ready for the next ball. They’d also hang out with other members of other houses to practice voguing.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t house members who lost their families and homes because of their sexuality, but houses don’t actively search for disenfranchised LGBT children.
“It honestly depends on how people’s paths cross. If they have something to offer the house, then we’ll start considering them for membership. For us, not just anybody can be an Xtravaganza. It takes a little bit to hang out with us first. Do we like you? Are you ballroom-ready? You have to win a trophy to at least be considered.” Camacho adds that it’s not an audition, but merely a consideration.
Born in New York, Camacho moved to Los Angeles a few years after The Blond Ambition World Tour wrapped up. In the back of his mind, he knew he’d end up in LA. He loved the weather and the palm trees. He was fighting addiction and his parents gave him a plane ticket to Los Angeles for Christmas. And so he settled in the West Coast.
A few years ago, the New York House of Xtravaganza threw a ball, and Camacho attended.
So, what changed?
“It was held at a night club,” he says. “It was more open to everybody, rather than just the ball culture. Now balls get a lot of people who are not in houses, who are just interested in seeing what it’s all about.”
He thanks Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning for this “infatuation” and thinks much of the film is still relevant today — and not just in regards to the gay ballroom scene, but society in general.
“[Paris Is Burning shines] a light on this world that operated underground for a long time and it gives people who normally wouldn’t have had a voice, a voice to express themselves, to show a larger audience that we are more than just what they say we are. That we have many colors, many facets, and opinions, and strength. There’s a strength there, and it’s not to be discounted.”
Then of course there was Strike a Pose, the documentary by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan that brought back the seven out of eight dancers of the Truth or Dare/Blond Ambition World Tour.
Camacho tells me he’s very happy with Strike a Pose and calls it a “love letter” to who the dancers are, what they’ve gone through, and where they are today. He’s very pleased the directors didn’t create a sensationalized story.
“We came to find out [the directors] were looking for us for seven years, gathering information and data so that when they did finally approach us, they were armed with facts and were ready,” Camacho tells me. “And when they said they were coming in three weeks, they actually showed up in three weeks. They were authentic to their work. At first I was baffled and surprised that a European crew was interested. At the end, I was like, ‘Yes of course. It had to be them.’
“I’m a believer there are no coincidences. Everything happened the way it supposed to. And it happened in its own time. It felt right for me. I’m glad it turned out really well. I’m really happy.”
Camacho, who was inducted in the Ballroom Hall of Fame in 2006 along with Jose Gutierez, has advice for baby voguers: “Know thyself.”
Camacho was one of the judges at the January 2017 Banjee Ball. I decided that I was ready to go and compete. So I walked in the Virgin Voguer category. I didn’t get chopped, but I didn’t win either, and Camacho gives me a few tips.
“Were you scared?” he asks me.
Yes, very much!
“So it showed. The next time when you go out there, I want you to know who you are. I want you to honor where you come from. You should take your culture and infuse it into your vogue. Not costume-wise, but body movement wise.”
When judging, Camacho looks for confidence, commitment, and self-expression.
“You should always look up, because you’ve been looking down. And always commit to your movement, whatever it is. If it’s just your arm, stretching out to your side, make that arm stretch out to the side, with definite commitment. It should not be a question, ‘Oh maybe I’ll do this, maybe I won’t.’ No. It has to be a definite movement. Commit to a movement. And trust me, your performance will change. Your style will change.”
Featured image: Luis Camacho in Strike a Pose promo, photo by Linda Posnick.