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Vogue Dance Celebrates Gay Roots Long After Madonna's Craze Faded

By Janet Upadhye | June 22, 2012 5:17pm | Updated on June 22, 2012 5:56pm

MIDTOWN — Dance teacher Nunney Karma arched his back and spread his arms wide across the studio floor.

“Let the music hit your body, not your mind," said Karma, 26, whose real name is Edwin Zapata, to a class full of Vogue students at an Eighth Avenue dance studio.

Long before Madonna brought Vogue into the mainstream in 1990 by borrowing some of the pioneer dancers from underground Chelsea clubs and penning a song by the same name, it was a mainstay in New York City's LGBT community underground club scene.

Decades later, the dance lives on in clubs and dance studios from upper Manhattan to the other side of the world with the help of teachers like Karma, who attracts students from Russia, Sweden, Japan and Trinidad and Tobago among others.

At the start of NYC Pride week, his regular Monday night class was so full, he had to book a larger room at Ripley Grier Studios on Eighth Avenue and 37th Street.

One of his students, Nicole Renojo, who describes herself as a “Hip-Hop and break dancer," said that Vogue helps her to practice how to express herself and “the results translate to my other practices.”

Karma saw Vogue for the first time when he was 17 years old. He had just come out as gay, and went out that night to meet boys. 

Instead, he found a dance that would change his life.

“I was walking around seeing what was going on when I saw this guy in the corner who was literally capturing the attention of everyone in the building.” said Karma. “I gravitated towards him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.”

The magnetic dancer was Willie Ninja, a legendary fixture of the Harlem ball scene.

Ninja taught dance to kids late into the night on the Christopher Street pier and at the underground clubs and he eventually became the mentor who taught Karma everything he needed to know about Vogue.

Ninja was HIV positive and died from complications of the disease in 2006. He was 45 years old.

“That was a very hard time for me,” Karma said. “He touched so may lives. And he did it all through Vogue.  I strive to be what he was, as a dancer and as a person.”

He said that HIV took a devastating toll on Vogue but it never stopped people from dancing. “It’s amazing,” he said. “We just keep surviving.”

Karma begins each class by teaching pieces of the dance’s history and culture. In fact, he weaves those facts throughout every part of the class. “I think to the drag queen pioneers of the past, Vogue often meant survival,” he said. “For me it’s about honoring their lives.”

By most historical accounts, Vogue was first danced by black drag queens in Harlem.

The drag queens would emulate the rich and glamorous white women they saw strutting down Fifth Avenue and posing as models in the magazines. Using exaggerated hand gestures and elaborate poses, they stood in front of club mirrors and slowly spread the dance across the Fifth Avenue scene.

Eventually they began to create their own scenes, using their hands to tell the stories of how they dressed in drag, put on make-up, pulled up stockings, and teased their hair. The result was a glamorous string of poses they named Vogue, after the well-known fashion magazine.

“To the drag queens of that time, Vogue was a beautiful escape, a way to dance away the pain and oppression they were experiencing,” said Kevin Omni Burris, member of the community since 1975. “But beyond that, it was a celebration of their beauty.”

Janese Bussey is a Vogue dancer. A transwoman, originally from Hartford, Conn., Bussey took solace in dance while growing up in multiple group and foster homes.

As a child she would gravitate toward her middle school gym, a lone figure on a dark stage, dancing until she would literally pass out.

At age 15 she left for New York City and immediately went to the Christopher Street Pier, where other kids from LGBT communities of color were congregating. There, she saw Vogue for the first time. Immediately hooked, Bussey wanted more of the dance. Her friends took her to a ball to see how the legends were doing it.

Her form of dance has evolved into something very different than the style performed by the pioneering drag queens. Her style is highly demanding, athletic, a specialized dance with fluid arms, straight lines and graceful backward falls, combined with feminine accents that almost seem out of place in such an energetic genre.

“Voguing is not easy,” Bussey said. “And it absolutely has to come from the heart.“

Beginning in the late 80’s, Vogue started to involve the whole body with four new elements — or the “new way” — to enhance the hand performance.

The “Duckwalk” involves crouching down to the floor, knees bent but remaining on your toes and slightly kicking the legs out while moving arms fluidly to the beat.

The “Catwalk" is performed by sashaying the hips back and forth while remaining strongly on the toes of the feet. Arms and hands are free to pose and move to the beat of the music.

“Spinning” is a majestic series of turns that often times leads to the last element called “the Dip.”     

Bussey describes "the Dip" as a “free fall onto the ground, back first, but then you tuck your strongest leg quickly underneath yourself and let it catch you.”

But just as it was in the beginning, Vogue is essentially still a tool for storytelling.

Vogue contests started in the early 1970’s. In order to compete, the community began to divide itself into houses, named after famous fashion designers such as Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel.  The houses served as places where people found close-knit families, support, and acceptance. Houses also hosted and competed against each other in elaborate and glamorous competitions, called balls.

After 17 years as a Voguer, Bussey has won several competitions and now sits on the panel of judges at various balls. She also teaches LGBT youth ages 10-16 to dance in a group called New Agenda.

“Each time I vogue I tell a different story,” said Bussey.  “If I am mad or excited it will come out in my vogue. It is the ultimate form of self-expression”

In the mid- 1980’s the AIDS epidemic hit the community hard, and the population has continued to be affected by the virus, although the rise in HIV/AIDS cocktail drugs have reduced the number of fatalities. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 48 percent rise in new infections among black gay and bisexual men ages 13-29 between 2006 and 2009. Today an estimated one in five gay men is HIV positive.

“I have lost 454 friends to that disease,” said Burris.  “No,” he quickly corrected himself,  “455, Paris Dupree died last year.”

Omni’s experience is not uncommon for members of the ball community.

Luna Ortiz, 42, hosts Vogue Tuesday at the Escuelita Club. A member of the community since the 80’s, he also works for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and runs a YouTube channel where he interviews and documents members’ stories.

He found Vogue through HIV. “I was infected at age 14 with my first sexual partner,” he said. “I thought I would die by the time I was 16 so I tried to fit a lifetime into two years.”

Attempting to do just that, Ortiz came out as gay and began to dance and go out to clubs. It was there that he first saw Vogue and became inspired by its artistic value and talent. When he turned 16, still alive and healthy, he decided that he would beat the disease. Voguing, fashion and the ball community have sustained him.

But the epidemic, he says, forever changed the ball scene. Ortiz says it was common during the early AIDS years to attend balls and hear who was the latest person to die. 

“I became numb to the fact that all of my friends were dying,” he remembers today. “From my group of 30 or 40 people, there a only three of us left."

"But the newer generations are still voguing," he added. "As a community, we have survived."