Words and photos by Sarah Logan
You may or may not be aware of CCNY’s voguing class. Taught by Jor-el Rios, the class meets on Mondays and Wednesdays in the lower level of Aaron Davis Hall. You may be thinking: “what is voguing?” I’m here to answer that question for you.
When I first tell people about voguing, I like to remind them of Madonna’s hit 90s pop song Vogue in which Madonna hits some fierce dance moves using her hands to frame her face. I also remind them of the fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue that pretty much every New Yorker has seen or heard of. However, voguing goes much deeper than these two surface-level components of popular culture.
Voguing was created in our own backyard of Harlem in the 1970s and 1980s. Popular among the black and gay community in Harlem, voguing gave its dancers a place to feel at home. Young black men that were being thrown out of their homes or judged by their families turned to voguing for a place to feel accepted and cared for.
Through this community, the LGBT and transgender subculture would hold “balls” where dancers would show off their best dance moves. Dancers would dress to the nines in their best clothes and makeup and “battle” other dancers. Voguing dance moves consist of sharp hand and arm movements. Each community would have its own “house” complete with its own “Mother” or “Father.” These parental figures served as a role model for the young dancers who lacked proper support in their own homes. The dancers, mostly young black or Latino men were deemed their “children.”
Amazed by this dance culture that I had never heard of, I knew that I needed to visit CCNY’s own vogue “house.” I was met with nothing but kindness and pure acceptance once I entered the studio. Marcos, one of Jor-el’s students, welcomed me with a smile and an outstretched hand. Before the class started, we talked for a while about Jor-el and the history of voguing. I was amazed by all the information that he had to offer and the pride that he took in being one of Jor-el’s own dancers.
“I define voguing as a form of expression, it’s an outlet to work out whatever you got going on in your own personal life,” said Marcos. “Simply, it’s the relationship between you and the beat,” he told me with a smile.
Marcos invited me to join in with the class if I wanted to. I felt unsure because I wasn’t prepared for dancing, I had been wearing boots and a full face of makeup. “That’s perfect!” he reassured me. “You should have seen the first day of class when everyone was dancing with button-down tops on,” I laughed.
The dancers then hit the floor for some relaxing stretching before beginning their high-intensity dancing class. “Stretching is very important for the dancers,” Marcos told me, emphasizing the need for a warmup exercise.
Marcos educated me on the organization of the class’s syllabus. He explained that the syllabus was split up into 5 different sections that focus on the varying aspects of vogue dancing. They had already completed a class on duckwalks and catwalks. They would use these two parts of voguing to practicing dancing on the day I visited.
As the dancers stretched, I watched as Jor-el went around the dance floor and observed his students. Every so often he would go over and readjust a student’s posture to allow them the optimal stretch. When I first met him, Rios introduced himself as “Prince.” “There’s a reason why they call him Prince. Jor-el is both a vogue and ballroom legend,” Marcos told me, emphasizing the major impact that Rios had on New York City’s dancing culture.
Next, Rios moved one of the three-wheeled full-length mirrors to the corner of the room. The dancers lined up and I joined them, feeling slightly apprehensive and nervous. I watched as the dancer’s duckwalked and cat walked across the dance floor with such confidence and grace. My fear slowly dissipated, and I proceeded to dance my own walk as the bass boomed. I walked back in the line, pride filling my face.
Before coming to college, I didn’t see myself as a beautiful person. I didn’t find myself worthy of the title “pretty girl” because I didn’t feel like I fit the description. Sure, I thought I was “average”, but I sure wasn’t confident in my physical or personality traits.
Coming to college changed this aspect of myself dramatically. Being surrounded by people of all different walks of life inspired me to be the person I truly desired. I came from a place where everyone practically acted and looked the same to a place where diversity poured from every angle.
I thought about this as I watched the dancers take the floor and as I talked to Jor-el and Marcos. “Most of my life I’ve been subjected to conforming to everyone else’s ideals,” Marcos told me. “Most of my time was spent by myself in my own shell,” I thought about how this related to me and my teenage years. “I’d look in magazines and see people who didn’t look like me and I didn’t have many people that looked like me to look up to,” Marcos told me after the class had ended. “However,” he continued, “seeing everyone’s true personalities come out on the dance floor enables me to find my own personality. I could be the sexy girl or the Beverly Hills blonde. The choice is up to me when I’m on the floor.”
When I talked with Jor-el, the theme of freedom and liberation remained prevalent when discussing the activity of voguing. “Voguing is an art form where you can express yourself and everything you are. It is a style of expression that you can practice anywhere. It’s freedom of space and movement,” Jor-el told me. Voguing is release and emancipation from your own uncertainty.
I wanted to know more about the role that Jor-el played in the dancer’s lives. “I go through stuff and so do my students,” Jor-el told me. He touched on the fact that everyone had their own issues and troubles in life. Even the most confident queens feel unconfident and self-conscious at times. “By giving them this experience, I feel like I’m giving back to my students. Through this form of self-expression, I’m hoping that my students feel liberated.”
When I asked if Jor-el if he felt like he was a leader for his students, he responded with a chuckle and a smile. “Leader isn’t the right word,” we went back and forth with each other until we settled on the noun “role model.” “I’ve realized that being in this position, I have a lot of responsibility for my students,” Jor-el added.
Towards the end of the dance class, Jor-el turned off the lights and the dancers found their own space on the floor. He explained to me that they would now do their own floor performance. This is where the students perform their own freestyle voguing poses and movements. Jo-rel turns off the lights so the students feel more comfortable; so the students don’t feel like they’re being watched and judged. “There’s no filter and no judgment for my students in this class,” Jor-el told me. “I strive to make my students feel comfortable.”
Before the start of the class, Marcos had explained to me how big of a deal the creation of this class was for CCNY and CUNY. “The main objective of this course was to bring Harlem’s culture to CUNY. To practice a dance form that was uplifted in these own streets is a huge deal for us. Voguing is now being represented by the largest public urban university system in the United States,” Marcos said with pride. Jor-el, also beaming with pride for his students, detailed his thoughts on the subject as well. “I feel like I’m holding a big torch for the community that I come from [Harlem]. I’m representing the voguing community in CUNY and I feel absolutely honored.”
I was most excited about the last sequence of the dance class. Before beginning stretching, Marcos had explained to me that the dancers would “battle” at the end. Meaning, they would circle up around two dancers as they showed off their voguing poses and duckwalks to each other. “I was nervous to get up in front of a group of strangers that I had never met before,” Marcos explained to me. “When you sign up for a class, you don’t know who else will be in there with you. But I’ve realized that voguing is about breaking barriers within yourself to grow.” I watched as each dancer entered the circle and began their own version of “vogue.” Their fellow dancers would clap and cheer to show their support. It was clear to me that the students had each other’s backs. It felt like a family.
When I asked Marcos what he believed he has learned from this class so far, he responded by saying, “I’ve learned that we all share something in common. I’ve realized that there’s still support left for people of all kinds. We live in a world where everyone is so alone. We spend so much time in our own bubbles. But with this community, I have a place where I can be what I want to be.”
If there was anything that I took from observing Jor-el’s class and talking to Marcos is that it is okay to be what you want to be. Seeing the dancers freely express themselves with so much confidence and bravery was incredibly inspiring for me and I took a lot of that confidence with me once I left the room.
“Next week is spins and dips!” Jor-el shouted out at the end of his class.
“It’s important in today’s modern society to love yourself and all of your flaws,” Rios perfectly surmises. “First be happy with who you are and then go on to love everyone else.” I think that we can all take this advice at whatever point in our journey we’re on.