Dancing Giving A Voice: the power of voguing in the Colombia protest
You probably know something about Voguing. That colourful and feminine style that has been appearing on TV lately in series like Pose or Rupaul’s Drag Race. However, you may not know that it emerged in the 70s as a form of protest from the LGTBIQ+ community in NYC against the homophobia they encountered in society. Today it is not only something we see on TV or learn in dance studios but there are those who continue to dance this style as a sign of vindication.
In Spring 2021, thousands of people took to the streets of Bogotá, Colombia to demonstrate against the oppressive actions of their government. Inequality, increasing poverty and police violence were just some of the reasons why people are calling for change. But during one of these demonstrations, we saw more than just banners and voices in unison calling for peace; we saw three people on a stage where the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) were Voguing. However, at this point, you are probably still a little confused and wondering what Voguing is and what these three people were doing on this stage. Well, let's head back to the 70's in New York City.
"Born to stand out, the ballroom subculture emerged as the paradigmatic anti-heteronormative indictment against ills and flaws sustained by the dominant American lifestyle." C. Chatzipapatheodoridis, 2017. The second half of the 19th century in Harlem was an era where White supremacy reigned, and Afro-American and Latino communities lived in marginal neighbourhoods and impoverished areas of the city. The ballroom scene emerged with beauty pageants and fashion shows by mostly white drag queens. This was a revelation to wider society and politics as the community known today as LGTBIQ+ was not only not accepted but publicly condemned. Even so, within the ballroom there were still exclusions towards black and Latina drag queens, who, led by Crystal LaBeija, rebelled and created a ballroom scene where black and Latina drag queens were the only protagonists. From this point on, these pageants lost the character of a show designed for the white LGTBIQ+ community and became stages for the militancy and vindication of "racialized" minorities. That's when racialised people decided to stand up to society, "changed self-perception within the subculture: from feeling guilty and apologetic to feelings of self-acceptance and pride" (Balzer, 2005:114).
Thus began a culture that housed all those people who found themselves living on the streets after being expelled from their families and homes because of their sexuality. Many of them were teenagers who had to turn to crime to survive. However, thanks to Voguing, they were able to find a home. They started to form houses: groups in which there is a mother and a father who protect and guide their children in everyday life as well as in the ballroom scene. The arrangement of the houses resembled the expanding certainty of the gay freedom development creating safe and protective spaces where they supported each other and made them find a place in a society that repudiated them. Therefore, the ballrooms were full of houses like LaBeija house, or Ninja house that competed against each other in competitions where they characterised themselves and played roles that wealthy whites occupied in society. This was a way of claiming their strength and showcasing their abilities to be whoever they wanted to be. It was their way of saying we are not less than you.
From the 1990s onwards, with songs like Malcolm McLaren’s Deep in Vogue and Madonna's Vogue, vogue was at its peak. Thanks to music videos, tours and the documentary Paris is Burning, vogue travelled around the world offering hope to the other communities outside New York. However, this meant that little by little, over the years Voguing became disassociated from the culture and the place it took root and started to become a style taught in dance schools. Even in some of the current houses, members are not exclusively from the LGTBIQ+ community and I think some of them have lost a bit of that vindictive character to be visible and present in front of societies and governments. But some have definitely not. Enter Piisciis, (aka Akhil Canizales), Nova (aka Felipe Velandia), and Axid (aka Andrés Ramos), who continue to use Voguing as a listening and claiming weapon.
In May 2021 a video of them dancing vogue femme with those waving hand, arm and hip movements in front of a huge line of armed police went viral. Although it may be that if it wasn’t for a lady from outside this culture, this phenomenon would not have happened, as Piisciiss told me: "Well, it was on the recommendation of a lady who appeared out of nowhere that we went up to that stage. We went up to dance and once the music started and we began to move, everything went "out of control" as we opened up the space for everyone. Although there was fear and uncertainty, I let the energy of the people, the struggle and the resistance of Mi Pueblo inhabit me and express itself. We broke through the ESMAD barrier and best of all we disarmed them without using any weapons other than our art, our bodies and vogue.”
It was a brave action in which although they felt fear, as Nova says, "the people and the love of the public was our fuel to go up and confront the police.” But although they didn't imagine getting on that stage and having the media power they had, their initial idea went beyond simply showing up at the demonstration and dancing. The three dancers went with a piece of prepared music that Piisciiss had composed and dressed in yellow and black cordon tape with the words "danger, no trespassing" on them. The composer tells us a little more about this staging: "Well, at that moment the inspiration came from everything that was happening in those days. Thanks to me, Voguing in Colombia is now done with guaracha (a musical rhythm indigenous to Colombia) and guaracha has taken hold in the community and well, the song had to be a guaracha.
Piisciiss continues: “On the other hand, we live in a country with politicians and a corrupt and criminal president. Charlatanism, politicking and violence are the languages of communication between the government and the people. So I wanted to make a song out of it. It doesn't have great lyrics but it says the right things. Also thanks to a pejorative comment - "Guaracha consciencia'' - that also went viral on Facebook. Through the guaracha, I wanted to send a message to whoever listened to it and I wanted it to be danceable. I thank DJ Deivy and Rosli Murillo for following my lead and creating this song - "Por Colombia hasta el fin" - together.
Regarding the costumes, those "danger, no trespassing" ribbons are normally used to protect or restrict passage. So we used them in the same way, as a warning and as armour."
Piisciiss, Nova and Axid in the protest. Credit Camilo Vargas
Film of Piisciiss, Nova and Axid dancing in the protest. Credit Karen Montaño
With their video, they have not only managed to make Voguing visible all over the world but they’ve shown that this dance and culture is still being used to fight for the political and social rights of oppressed communities. They made Colombia listen to them, without words, without violence, without weapons, and only through the art of their three bodies. Reminding us that art is a form of expression that makes us stronger and braver and, when it comes from within, it makes others respect and value us. I believe they did justice and continued the fight that started decades ago in the neighbourhoods of New York.
Ballroom culture was born as a safe space where you could be everything that society wouldn't let you be, and for Piisciiss this is still the case. Although it’s no secret that within the community and these "safe" spaces there is discrimination, hatred and segregation between the same people who make it up. Even so, these spaces continue to provide the opportunity to be, to meet and rediscover each other. Lives continue to be saved through the ballroom.
But why have they been listened to? What makes this form of protest different to the crowds with banners and chanted slogans? According to Piisciiss, "The difference is made by the energy and the history of the movement; voguing is born from the real experiences of many people who were struggling not only within an oppressive society but also with themselves. That internal battle between what you are and what society expects and decides what you are, was and is something very strong and mobilising.
When bodies and identities use voguing to express themselves, they connect with that feeling of freedom, of empowerment. With a feeling that defies the established rules and norms and allows the being to be. And for LGTBIQ+ people this is a way of showing the diversity that exists and resists within us."
Piisciiss continues: “That is why it has had such an impact in Colombia; a conservative, macho, religious and moralistic country. It is no secret that diversity continues to be synonymous with what is wrong, sinful, perverse and depraved, when the reality is that diversity is in everything and everyone, it complements and enriches us. There are still countries that criminalise and penalise things other than heterosexuality and binary. There are still hate crimes against LGTBIQ+ people. There is still social and racial discrimination and even more so when you are LGTBIQ+."
When I first discovered Voguing it was like a mere lesson in a studio. Little by little I started to get into the culture and learn about the underground scene that was hidden behind these outlandish and mysterious moves. I knew I loved Voguing because it allowed me to be feminine and enjoy what I was doing. However, it wasn't until I discovered the culture that I understood that Voguing allowed me to be me. It allowed me to enjoy my sexuality and my body without fear of people judging me for my size or how sexual my movements were being. I felt accepted in a community where I was also understood. People share that feeling of being rejected by society for simply being you, which creates a strong community. Hence, in Voguing, you are only accepted if you are completely you. You with your essence, with your "flaws", with your quirks. And only if you make it something to be proud of and show it to others with attitude and without shame. Voguing gave me the identity that the world was stealing from me.
Piisciiss, Nova and Axid have broken the rules, but luckily they are not the only ones. They have challenged society with their freedom and reality through dance. The truth is that Voguing has gained momentum in different kinds of street protests all over the world in recent years. Voguing is fashion, catwalks, and dance. However, Voguing is also about politics and saying "I am here." From its beginnings with police repression and the fight against AIDS to the present. Voguing fought for black rights at the Black Live Matters protest in Chicago, Illinois in 2020 with Gorgeous Karma Gucci, Adonte Prodigy and Amya Miyake-Mugler. Voguing fought for feminism when Rosa Venus Apocalipstick came out to dance to defend herself from sexual harassment by a teacher in Mexico to be heard. Sir Joq and Julian Marciano Xlanvin took to the streets of San Francisco to fight homophobia and transphobia. Anya Knees and John Crim vogued in Madison, Wisconsin. Murylio Hills in Sao Paolo, Brazil. And these are just a few names. Because not only did people come out to protest with Voguing in the streets, but in the last year due to the pandemic, people have also taken to social media with voguing dance challenges and videos.
Although Voguing has gone viral and is known worldwide, there are still people who still reject it, as has happened to Piisciiss in several performances. Several clubs and venues in Bogotá - and the rest of Colombia - continue to deny Voguing performances on the grounds that they are associated with the LGTBIQ+ community. "Beyond being lgbtqi+ we are human, we are people and we have the same rights as everyone else. If they don't let us inhabit a place or belong to a space, we will create a new one. We will create a new one and we will take the place that is ours and that we deserve." Courageous actions like the ones that happened on that stage are necessary not only for the ballroom and Voguing community but for society as a whole. People need to understand the equality of each human being and respect everything, even if they do not share the same beliefs. Voguing culture and dance shout inclusion, respect, equality and peace.
It's true that society often still doesn't understand that we express ourselves so freely, and that's why we continue to be rejected. It is also true that it is scary for some. Yes, it is scary for people to see how someone shows their essence to the world without fear, without judgement. But it is also true that Voguing is born out of the struggle. The struggle for identity, for different people; the struggle for acceptance and equality. And that struggle will not stop. Because we are getting stronger and stronger.
Finally, I would like to close this article with a few words from Piisciiss. The purpose of this accumulation of words is to give visibility to Voguing and the community, as only by sharing and informing will we achieve respect and knowledge, so I want to offer the final words to the main protagonist of the article, Piisciiss: "Finally, I want whoever reads this to believe and trust in themselves and in everything they have to contribute to the world. Your existence is neither coincidence nor chance. You will encounter many trials, which will put you in doubt a thousand and one times, but all this is to strengthen you and prepare you for the world. To all those who feel alone and different, tell them that we are here, resisting, fighting and making connections for a better world. Don't hide, it's time to raise your voice, your body and transcend. Thank you for this space." And now, slay.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Evelyn Ramírez is a Spanish dance performer, researcher, writer, and choreographer who graduated from the University of East London with a BA (Hons) in Urban Dance Practice in 2020. Throughout her journey at UEL, she was selected to study a semester abroad at Columbia College Chicago in the US and she is currently studying an MBA in Performing Arts Management and Cultural Industries at IESA, Paris.
Evelyn started dancing professionally at the age of 14 competing internationally in Hip Hop and during her time in London and Chicago she immersed herself in the Voguing community and culture, organizing, producing, and participating in balls and events. Her professional career focuses on creating dance pieces as director and producer and the dissemination of the urban dance culture through articles and dance reviews. She seeks to deliver the urban dances with their history and background to all the audience to make them understand the why of each movement and dance.