by Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – Vogue: a dance form, illustrated by fierce stares, whirling limbs, and fabulous costumes, that emerged out of African American and Latino LGBTQ communities in New York drag ballrooms during the 1960s. The expression is celebratory and theatrical — an embodiment of pop culture iconography, as well as an escape for those experiencing discrimination. Like drag balls, there’s a pageantry and categories to compete in. Houses, which function more as supportive families, reinforce the community component even deeper. The 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, brought more attention to ball culture and vogue, when it won the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize that following year.
Dancer and choreographer Ralph Escamillan is the founder of Van Vogue Jam — a local, by-donation dance class open to anyone interested in learning more about vogue and ballroom culture. VVJ began in February, as a way for them to supplement the lack of training available in the city and, also, to maintain motivation in exploring vogue. After being introduced to it by fellow Vancouver dancer Jojo Zolina and then spending time in New York training with the legendary Leiomy Maldonado, Escamillan started teaching vogue at Harbour Dance Centre, though didn’t feel the class was going in the right direction — attendance was low and, with vogue being a freestyle form, there wasn’t choreography to learn, which made things challenging. The idea of what dance meant for Escamillan — coming from a street and contemporary background — also began shifting and they recognized a divide between those who could afford classes and those who couldn’t.
“My goal through Van Vogue Jam is to create an inclusive training space for people to learn dance,” they continue. “It came from that: the necessity of people who actually need dance to learn it. And taking the money aspect out really helped, and it’s great, because, I mean, I feel we wouldn’t have got the bankers, the 15 year old boys and their mom, that girl on Granville Street that doesn’t know how to walk in heels. You know? It’s like the people who wouldn’t take dance class and they’re coming in to learn, in a really safe environment.”
To secure that safety net even tighter, there are check-ins throughout VVJ classes (held Tuesdays at the Karma Teachers studio on Hastings). “We always get to know who we’re dancing with, before the class starts,” Escamillan says. “So we’re always asking for people’s names, what the pronouns are, and something positive just to get people into the mood of the class, because, for me, dance is more than just a form.”
On December 15, VVJ is hosting its second-ever ball, the BALL-OoZA. There are five categories of competition, all Christmas themed — Bazaar, Performance (the only dance performance category, so non-dancers: don’t feel intimidated), Runway, Realness, and Sex Siren — and in which contestants are welcome to enter up to the day-of. Prize money is pooled. The most important component of the ball, though, Escamillan emphasizes, is that it’s for all people, of all ages. “I remember being a queer kid and being like, ‘oh, the only way in was seeing it online or going to a club.’ They’re not the best ways to experience queer culture and vogue is a really amazing opportunity for queer youth to see queer culture more than just this over-sexualized thing,” they say. “It’s the community and there is a community that supports each other and that is here to be there for each other.”
The BALL-OoZA takes place on December 15 at the Russian Hall. Van Vogue Jam runs on Tuesdays at Karma Teachers. Learn more about it at http://ralphescamillan.comor follow Ralph Escamillan on Instagram at @ralphescamillan.