It’s cold and snowing outside – the kind of weather in which one trudges, rather than walks, down the sidewalk. But inside Pulse Studios in Crescent Heights, the action is hot as dance instructor Tony Tran demonstrates some of the finer points of vogue to half a dozen students.
He catwalks down an imaginary runway, feet practically en pointe, hips forward, arms swaying to the beat. Then he stops, places one hand on his hip, and stares straight ahead at a mirror that runs the length of the room.
“When you turn, the head is the last to go, because that’s a photo opportunity,” Tran explains to his students.When he’s not burning up the dance floor, 25-year-old Tran heads up The Bad Girls Club YYC, a group he founded last year to help popularize vogue culture in Cowtown.
The group hosts its annual vogue dance party, Out of the Closet, on January 25 at Dickens Pub, inviting seasoned vogue veterans and curious onlookers to witness a new take on an old dance style.
Named after the venerable fashion magazine, vogue is a highly stylized form of dance that incorporates elaborate costumes, grace and lots of posing. (Think ballet dancers at a fashion show). Voguing emerged as a cultural phenomenon among black gay and transgender youth in New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood in the 1970s and 80s.
Marginalized by the black community and excluded from predominantly white gay bars, groups of gay black youth banded together into houses, which also served as second families. The houses would compete for trophies and bragging rights in elaborately staged dance pageants, called balls.
In addition to being judged by their dance skills, vogue dancers are expected to embody the roles suggested by their outfits, which can range from a military fatigues to zoot suits. Dressing in drag and androgynous looks are common.
“I always tell my students, vogue is 50 per cent movement, 50 per cent attitude. You need to invest in the role you’re playing, otherwise you’ll be cut down, or ‘chopped’ by the judges,” Tran explains.
In 1990, Madonna’s smash hit single “Vogue” hit the airwaves, giving the dance worldwide exposure. Later that year, the documentary Paris is Burning, which explored ball culture in New York City, was released to critical acclaim. (Watch Paris is Burning on Youtube.)
For much of the following decade, everyone wanted to strike a pose like their favourite celebrity. And though ball culture has largely faded from the public eye, voguing continues to evolve and attract new followers.
“The dance style that was popularized by Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ music video is known as Old Way Vogue. It’s very fluid and symmetrical,” explains Tran, who teaches regular drop-in classes in vogue at Pulse Studios. “There’s also New Way Vogue, which is more rigid involves a lot stretching and contortion, and Vogue Fem, which is very graceful and sensual.”
As a member of House of DangerKat, one of vogue’s most well-respected dance troupes, Tran has performed at balls in Toronto, Vancouver and New York City. But he says there was virtually no organized presence for vogue dancers in his hometown, which led him to take action.
“Calgary tends to get looked over for its arts and culture, and a subculture like vogue even more so,” Tran says. “I wanted to bring something different to the table.”
The first Out of the Closet event last year drew a wide range of participants, both gay and straight. “I was a bit worried that only the LGBT community would turn out, but I was wrong,” Tran says. “There were people from the dance community, a lot of young people. We had older ladies who just wanted to get dressed to the nines and watch the performers. It was a riot.”
Tran says vogue’s emphasis on individual expression and self confidence gives the dance form a universal appeal.”Realness is a word that gets used a lot in vogue. It means you are who you are, and when you’re in the spotlight performing, you shouldn’t be afraid to be yourself.”
Watch Tony Tran Vogue
The Out of the Closet ball is January 25 at Dickens Pub, 1000 9 Ave. S.W. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, visit thebadgirlsclubyyc.com