Set in New York City in 1987, and lit by the shimmer of a glitter ball, ‘Pose’ aired on BBC Two last night (21 March). The drama serves as a deep-dive into the city’s ballroom and voguing scene, an underground LGBT sub-culture in which people ‘walk’ (compete) to win trophies at elaborate balls.
Judged on four key skills – voguing, costumes, appearance and attitude – most people compete as part of a house. Many of the people involved in the ballroom scene are young gay, gender non-conforming and transgender people from the Black and Latino communities.
Created by Glee’s Ryan Murphy, American Horror Story creator Brad Falchuk and writer Steven Canals, Pose first hit screens in the US last summer, and a second season is now in the works. The show boasts a formidable writing and production team, including Janet Mock, Transparent writer Our Lady J. Pose also stars the largest trans cast in the history of scripted television.
Mj Rodriguez, who has been involved in New York’s ballroom scene since she was 14, plays Pose’s lead character Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista. In the show, Blanca splits from her overbearing house mother at House of Abundance and forms her own breakaway house, House of Evangelista, after receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV. In her new role, Blanca also becomes a surrogate mother figure for the young, queer people of colour who join Evangelista in her new family.
Paris Is Burning
One of the definitive films about ballroom culture, this 1990 documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, gets fully immersed. After coming across a group voguing in New York’s Washington Square Park, Livingston began attending balls. She spent six years filming at the events and interviewing key members of the competing houses. As well as giving an insight into the family networks that people found in the ballroom scene, the film sheds light on many of the issues they faced; their struggles with racism, poverty, violence, homophobia and AIDS all feature. Paris Is Burning also demonstrates how much of the slang that many people might now recognise from Ru Paul’s Drag Race or stan twitter communities originates from the ballroom scene (ballroom gave us shade, reading, and snatch, among many other expressions)
“This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they’re gay or not,” Livingston told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy. It’s a little story about how we all survive.”
Strike A Pose
Due to the enormous popularity of her single ‘Vogue’, Madonna often gets a lot of credit for introducing the dance style to the mainstream. While she certainly played an indirect part – recruiting dancers from ballroom to join her on her Blond Ambition tour, showcasing their skills in her ‘Vogue’ music video – it’s members of the scene who ultimately taught her the way. Jose Gutierez and Luis Camacho, who choreographed ‘Vogue’s video, are both members of New York City’s iconic House of Xtravaganza; many characters from Pose are based on various real life house members of Xtravaganza.
Strike A Pose features both Jose and Luis, and follows Blond Ambition’s dancers in the 25 years after the landmark tour took place. “ It was bigger than we ever dreamed, and being a part of that was breathtaking for me,” Luis Camacho Xtravaganza recently told NME on the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’. “I mean, I was a kid who grew up on the Lower East side of Manhattan. I didn’t have the foresight to know it was going to be as big as it became. I was a kid from the projects, so a camera following me was very, very… nice.”
As a more intimate look at the lives of the dancers who first brought voguing to the mainstream, Strike A Pose is a must-watch. We learn that all of them have continued dancing, while some dealt with AIDS, drug use and homelessness in the years following the tour. One of the original seven, Gabriel Trupin, died from complications related to AIDS in 1995, and in Strike A Pose he is represented by his mother.
This 2017 musical film stars Luka Kain as Ulysses, a young gay man whose father has just died. At home, he struggles to fit the masculine expectations of his family, who want him to step up as man of the house. At school, he’s ceaselessly bullied because of his sexuality. One night, he meets a group of LGBT+ people out in New York who invite him to their Saturday church; a place where young people can dance, access support, and get food and shelter.
There, Ulysses finally finds a place where he can be himself, but when his family find out about Saturday Church, they disown him. Sadly, his situation is not unique; in the USA, 40% of the country’s young homeless population are LGBT. The film also stars Pose’s very own Mj Rodriguez, as Ebony. As a modern depiction of ballroom culture, this is an essential watch.
A present-day look at how ballroom continues to thrive in New York City, Viceland’s ten-part documentary series follows competitors Tati 007, Alex Mugler, Jelani Mizrahi, Lolita Balenciaga, and Relish Milan, along with ball commentator Precious Ebony. “You can dream big in ballroom, but any bitch can be replaced!”, they state in the trailer, and My House is a modern window into a world of creativity, and fierce competition.
Inspired by Paris is Burning, which explored people’s lives outside of the ballroom, Kiki focuses on young people involved in the scene. A younger version of the ballroom scene, kikis began when LGBT+ people started holding gatherings in order to hang out and practice for upcoming balls. Kiki became a place for younger queer people to gain more experience in ballroom. It also connects people to HIV testing and information about STIs, and puts a lot of emphasis on education.
30 years on from the AIDS epidemic, Sara Jordenö’s 2016 documentary explores the Kiki scene. Many of the people interviewed in the film are younger members of the ballroom community, and highlight the importance of education and activism. Kiki also looks at the ongoing effects of HIV in the LGBT+ community, and examines the discrimination that young queer people face in detail.