In a year of lockdowns, TikTok has acted both as a source of both respite and procrastination for Gen Zs all over the world. The platform has provided a space for LGBTQ+ voices and stories, enabling LGBTQ+ creators to teach young queer and trans kids everything from the importance of community to sex education and queer history. Fresh fascinations emerge each day, and as one passes, another is introduced.
What is not disappearing, though, is the “vogue TikTok” movement, fronted by faces such as Jocquesé Whitfield, or Sir Joq, and Gravity Balmain of the House of Balmain. Vogue tutorials have long existed on YouTube, but the viral trend aspect of TikTok has given vogue the space within which to flourish. Vogue is often interpreted as a relic of the past or a media phenomenon, restricted to the historic ballrooms of New York City or the glitzy shows of HBO and FX, Legendary and Pose included. Vogue TikTok has reinforced that everyday people are the lifeblood behind the dance-form. It’s not distant: it is very much alive.
So, what is vogue? Contrary to popular belief, Madonna didn’t invent it. Emerging from the ‘ballroom’ scene of Harlem, vogue, a stylistic dance form composed of lines and shapes, forms one category in the wider context of ballroom. Ball culture denotes the specific “balls” which originated in New York City, in which queer and trans POC “walked” in categories to compete for trophies. The balls emerged as a sanctuary for ‘misfits’: those who wanted to pretend for an evening that they could participate in areas of society’s high life which they were generally excluded from.
Jocquesé Whitfield, also known as Sir Joq (@sirjoq), is a legendary figure on the San Francisco scene, taking to TikTok to teach a new gen his skillset. Working as a dancer, choreographer, and performer in the Bay Area, Sir Joq is platformed as a ‘queer socialite’, performing at local Cabaret shows and San Francisco Pride alike. Whilst Sir Joq focuses on teaching physical vogue moves, Gravity Balmain (@gravitybalmain) is passionate about telling the story of and history behind vogue, ensuring that it is not misinterpreted or misrepresented.
Vogue & tone.
Sir Joq was introduced to TikTok by a friend: “I wanted to share my love and knowledge of vogue with everyone on TikTok. Vogue is not a dance style, it’s a way of life.” Now teaching the popular dance class ‘Vogue & Tone’ in San Francisco, Sir Joq first started to perform vogue after discovering it on the internet: “When I was sixteen, I was introduced to vogue. I was a dancer in a Hip Hop Dance Troupe, and I used to watch many vogue clips on YouTube.” Gravity first took up voguing in 2015: “my first class was a new way arms class with Javier Ninja, and then I walked virgin vogue, a category for people who are new at ballroom, at a ball in LA in August 2016. Here, I met my current house and started attending Jamari Balmain’s vogue classes.”
On the history of voguing, Gravity explains: “The first style of vogue (now known as Pop Dip and Spin, or Old Way) is largely characterised by lines and poses. Over time, vogue developed into other sub-styles, like New Way, which added elements of contortion and arms control, and Vogue Fem, inspired by the trans women who walked Old Way.” Sir Joq adds: “Vogue consists of five elements: Cat Walk, Hands, Duck Walk, Spins/Dips and Floor Performance.”
The balls allowed poor queer and trans POC to strut the runways dressed to the nines, competing in realness categories from ‘Military Realness’ to ‘Executive Realness’, as well as face, runway, vogue and fashion categories. The idea was about creating an ‘illusion’, convincing judges and spectators alike that you were what you were walking as: despite what RuPaul’s Drag Race might purport, this is the true meaning of ‘realness.’
The original demographic of the Harlem ballroom scene means that vogue has often been practised by a very specific set of people, and as Gravity recognises, “ballroom and vogue are the creation of Black and Latinx queer and trans people and any scene, event, or group that fails to centralise, honour, and respect that ongoing legacy doesn’t have a place within ballroom.” Sir Joq continues: “Vogue is an inclusive dance form, but folks shouldn’t forget who created it.”
Since 2016, Gravity has been teaching both in-person pre-COVID and on Instagram and YouTube. On their motivation behind joining TikTok, Gravity states: “I decided to start teaching vogue because I noticed there was a huge gap in knowledge. The average new potential voguer searching “how to vogue” will be inundated with inaccurate tutorials often produced by people with no connection to ballroom whatsoever.” Vanessa Hudgens’ proclamation as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race “I’m so into voguing right now!” springs to mind here.
Vogue or nogue?
Often, dances are incorrectly tagged on TikTok as being #vogue, leading legendary voguers such as Amazon Mother Leiomy and Dashaun Wesley Lanvin to coin the term “noguing.” Vogue technique is often poorly imitated in the wider dance world, leading to the proliferation of incorrect terminology such as “death drop” rather than “dip”, and “helicopter hands” rather than “figure eight.” This gap in knowledge and misinterpretation of vogue technique is, sadly, very prevalent despite the efforts of teachers such as Sir Joq and Gravity: “A lot of the “vogue” on TikTok is anything but. I’m one of the larger vogue-specific accounts on the platform, but the way the TikTok algorithm is tuned and the brevity of the content lends itself to the proliferation of misinformation”, expresses Gravity.
Vogue is for everyone to celebrate, but it is of fundamental importance that its history is not forgotten, misconstrued, or misinterpreted: the popularisation of drag through RuPaul’s Drag Race has achieved milestones for LGBTQ+ representation in the media, but many linguistic terms born on the floors of the Harlem ballrooms, ‘realness’ included, are thrown around by drag performers and fans alike without nuance or knowledge of their true meaning. Gravity states: “Ballroom has never been monolithic and has always been diverse, but it’s especially important for people who don’t fit the mould of who ballroom was originally designed for to understand their role, respect the history, and acknowledge their privilege within and outside of ballroom spaces.” Championing queer spaces and queer histories is important, and vogue TikTok is carrying the legacy of the floors of Harlem with it.
Also from Eleanor Noyce: How RuPaul’s Drag Race redefines the concept of fandom.
Watch series one and two of Pose on BBC iPlayer here.