Voguing – according to the Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History & Culture – refers to a “highly stylised form of dance created by black and Latino LGBTQ communities” that evolved out of drag contests known as balls in Harlem, New York, between the ’60s and ’80s.
With moves inspired by poses of the models in the fashion glossy from which it gets its name, it’s got a much overdue turn in the mainstream spotlight in recent years.
Pop icons ranging from Rihanna to FKA Twigs have adopted its style for their performances. Ryan Murphy’s 2018 hit drama series Pose provided an intimate if somewhat fictional lens into its culture, so much so that it revived interest in the landmark 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning that inspired it.
In Singapore, a collective known as Vogue In Progress – founded by nightlife impresario Bobby Luo, drag artist Vanda Miss Joaquim, choreographer Amin Alifin, Rachel Lee of the street dance duo Scrach Marcs, and creative Jess V – held what was reportedly the very first voguing ball here in 2019 with plans for a follow-up derailed for now by, well, you know, Covid.
“Fashion and costuming are an integral and huge part of ballroom culture (he is seen here dressed up for one such night). It’s the first thing that the judges see. Sometimes you get eliminated from the dance floor because your look isn’t on a par with that of your competitors,” says Choo. “What people wear varies depending on the theme – for example, it could be ‘alien invasion’. It’s crucial that you adhere to it or the set dress code. Most people conjure up their look from Taobao while some get pieces custom-made. Then there are the rare few who will go so far as to design and sew their own costumes.”
Over in the Chinese city sometimes dubbed the “Paris of the East’’ – one of the first places in the world to see nightlife resume after the onset of the pandemic with clubs opening for business post-lockdown as early as last March – it’s taken root in the underground community. It’s also taken on its own form and cultural significance, as Choo tells us.
“The voguing-slash-ballroom scene here took off around 2016 when the dancers Irina and Shirley from the House of Milan (one of the most established houses in modern-day ball culture) started to give voguing classes, then hit a high after the release of Pose,” he says.
“I got my start after a roommate dragged me to one such class. He got so inspired that he used up all his savings to start Voguing Shanghai – a studio and the first platform dedicated to the movement in mainland China – in 2020 (Choo’s part of it). In July last year, it even organised one of the city’s first ballroom competitions.”
“The first thing one experiences when at a ball is LSS – or Legends, Stars and Statements – a segment in which people who have made a contribution in the ballroom scene make their entrance. Then comes the different categories in which anyone can compete – just start your moves, or battle, and hopefully you’ll win a trophy. Don’t be afraid of looking like a fool because we all did when we first started in the scene. Be open to different voguing styles and try all of them before you decide which one suits you best.”
He adds: “Balls in Shanghai have since become more grandiose with bigger sponsors and more publicity and visibility (Calvin Klein, for example, featured the Voguing Shanghai crew in its CK Performance campaign earlier this year).”
“The culture however remains niche. Here, people approach balls with a different mindset from that of people in the New York ball community. In the US, many depend on the ball’s cash prizes for their livelihoods and really go all out. In Shanghai, most of us have regular jobs and vogue as a hobby.”
Choo adds that bigger balls that have seen as many as 2,000 people in attendance are held twice every year: once in the middle of the year and another at year’s end.
He says: “Locations vary, but we have had them in art spaces and nightclubs. Smaller balls spring up once every month or couple of months and they are more laid-back and have fewer categories. Anyone can take the stage. You have to be aware of the rules of the category that you are ‘walking’ in if you want to survive the first round, but everyone is welcome!”
“While voguing and ball culture offers an outlet for those who feel pressured by society to behave in a masculine way to reveal publicly and safely their feminine side, it’s equally popular among straight women as traditional Chinese culture expects them to be modest,” reveals Choo. “There are very few avenues for them to explore their sexuality, let alone express it. Voguing is one of them and lets them take back their sexuality from chauvinistic men. They dance for themselves and not for the eyes of anyone else.”
As for Choo, voguing is another outlet to be himself. “Dance has always been a passion of mine, be it dancing at a club or other forms of dance, so voguing – with its music and celebration of self-expression – just made sense for me.”
“From there, I explored walking the runway at the balls and found the experience so natural; as if I’m meant to do this. Though I still get nervous when on stage sometimes, the amount of confidence I have gained has grown by leaps and bounds.”
Ahead, Choo shares his visual diary.