Sunday, 2 June 2013

SHAUN J WRIGHT complete "Introduction To Ballroom" interview

As I noted in the Boing Boing piece, Shaun J Wright’s answers to my questions about ballroom, and how he was introduced to that scene, deserved an article in their own right. 

So, without further ado, here they are.

How did you discover the ballroom scene? What was your introduction to that world?

My entry into the ballroom scene was quite lengthy. I was familiar with some of the elements of ballroom culture because I would sneak into black, gay clubs in Chicago when I was 15. There would be vogueing and runway battles occuring in the club but I didn’t attribute those things specifically to ballroom. Around the same time I viewed “Paris Is Burning" and it helped me to make connections between what I was seeing in the clubs and the balls, which were still a great mystery to me. When I ventured to Atlanta to attend college I began to learn how to vogue by watching voguers in the club. I would test out my new moves and a few houses took notice. I decided to join the House of Escada as most of my friends were already members and it felt like a natural fit.

What was your first impression the first time you went to a ball?

I attended my first ball in the summer of 2001 in  Chicago. It was a really crowded ball with participants from around the country and I was extremely impressed and also a bit confused. I still remember that night in a hazy manner. Though I had been clubbing for about four years by then, balls were something different altogether. The energy just swept through the room and I was never quite sure if my eyes were seeing the events as accurately as they were occurring. It would take attending a few more balls before I was able to process their intensely complex dynamics.

What left the greatest impression that night was watching Legendary Mother Leonard “Lisa" Escada Mugler (R.I.P.) destroy Butch Queen Face. I recall him walking to the judges panel and sending every other competitor on their way without a single vote. All I could hear from the commentator was, “1 Escada, 2 Escada, 3 Escada…". I decided at that moment that I wouldn’t even consider joining another house. I wanted to be apart of a crew that had that type of mother. It just worked out that most of my college buddies were already members of or prospects for the House of Escada.

How was walking? Were you nervous? Which category did you walk in?

My first time walking was in 2002 at the House of Milan Ball in Atlanta. I walked Butch Queen Vogue Femme, my first and only category. It was a major ball with a lot of the big names from NYC in attendance. I remember spending hours practicing with my friends beforehand and emulating the attitude of the vogue divas that I loved watching.

My friend Randal helped me dress behind the upstairs balcony of the ball venue which was a huge converted chapel. I wore an over the shoulder sweatshirt, tulle skirt, blue Converse hi-tops, and my hair in a side ponytail. Very Punky Brewster and tres chic in 2002. I was a virgin in the category so I wasn’t very confident that I would win. I was pretty excited to walk but not nervous. Until I approached the runway…

Unlike most times when you walk individually to qualify to compete or “get your tens", we began with the process of elimination. Another unexpected twist  was the commentator, Jack Mizrahi, instructing us on which element to perform and when to switch to another element. So, we were told to give hand performance at the back of the runway, then catwalk towards the judges’ panel before duckwalking. As we approached the panel we were told to spin and dip and end with a ovah floor performance.  As you can imagine, I was petrified, especially after seeing more than a few people chopped who were in line before me. Some of these people were ballroom stars and statements, which heightened my anxiety. I didn’t get chopped and though I didn’t win my battle I did receive some votes and the congratulations of others who had been walking and making a name for themselves in the category prior to me.

I walked a handful more major balls and a dozen or more mini-balls after that in both Atlanta and Chicago and even won a few trophies.

Did you form many bonds with the people at the balls? Do you feel the balls work at building community? What about the fierce competitive aspect?

I did encounter some incredibly interesting and inspiring individuals within the scene. Most of my core connections occurred with members from my house and some of those connections still last. I wasn’t extremely social with people from other houses but I did enjoying vogueing in the club and would spend hours “passing the beat" with those who walked performance and even legends who would still vogue in the club for pleasure. A few people in particular come to mind. Icon Father Andre Mizrahi and Legendary Armani Milan, among others, were always so giving of their time and creativity when vogueing with me and really helped to shape my understanding of and appreciation for vogue.

Who are your favourite vogue DJs / dancers?

From my point of view, there are only a handful of dj’s who are actually entrenched in ballroom culture and help progress the culture forward. I have no expertise on who the dj’s were before I entered the scene but DJ Vjuan Allure created the greatest remixes of the “Ha Dance" by Masters At Work, which is the quintessential tune for vogue femme. It’s not the only vogue femme song but it’s the most enduring. Angel X is also influential. MikeQ has pushed the scene beyond it’s previous boundaries and has had a great impact on the infusion of ballroom into other fringe/underground music forms. He’s an incredible DJ, too. I had the pleasure of hearing him spin at Public Works in San Francisco this year and I danced uncontrollably.

I can go on endlessly about my favorite performance divas but I’ll compile a list in no specific order.

Femme Queen:
Icon Sinia Ebony
Icon Kristina Richards
Icon Alyssa LaPerla
Legendary Meeka Prodigy (my all-time favorite)
Legendary Desja LaPerla
Legendary Roxy Prodigy
Legendary Leoimy Mizrahi
Tamiyah Allure Khan

Butch Queen Up In Drags:
Chloe Mugler
Starr Revlon

Butch Queen:
Icon Andre Mizrahi
Legendary Armani Milan
Legendary Ricki Allure
Legendary Kevin Prodigy
Legendary Kevin “JZ" Prodigy
Legendary Pretty Prodigy
Legendary Marquise Revlon
J-Lo Allure
Boots Prodigy
Lollipop Prodigy

Voguing has crossed over into the mainstream once before, do you think that can happen again? Do you think people want it to become bigger?

Here in the States, the second cross over has already occurred, particularly with The Vogue Evolution team doing so well on the television show “America’s Best Dance Crew". It’s also made a major impact in mainstream video choreography and is constantly referenced by mainstream artists, both male and female. But as before, oftentimes, the source of the dance, the ballroom scene, is left without credit for their contributions to the larger cultural landscape.

I believe that a lot of this oversight has to do with several factors. When vogueing and ballroom culture began to enter the mainstream consciousness and be accepted, it was first dispersed by conduits who didn’t necessarily reflect those who were core participants within the scene. I think this is very telling particularly since members of the ballroom were already producing work that reflected the culture with very little mainstream fanfare.  

Also, it is an improvisational, ever shifting culture and dance form and I think many in the mainstream find it challenging to digest these changes. It’s often easier for those outside of the culture to hold on to that which has come to symbolize the essence of the culture, particularly films like “Paris Is Burning".  There is a sea of new ballroom footage flooding the internet but whenever ballroom cultural cool is needed, “Paris Is Burning" becomes the default go-to. This is not to dispute the validity of that particular piece of work, I just believe that ballroom is mistakenly reduced to something way more static and two-dimensional than it is truly.

It’s also difficult to fit ballroom into the very narrow commercial models that rule the mainstream. Ballroom, unlike so many other cultural movements, doesn’t ascribe to any particular marketable fashion or tangible product that can be bought and sold. Unlike punk or nu-rave, you can’t venture to the mall and buy garments that reflect ballroom sensibilities specifically. The music doesn’t fit into the traditional pop radio formats. You can watch balls from afar on YouTube but in order to truly participate you must actually attend balls and gain an insider knowledge on the culture. That makes it difficult to shift into the ballroom. However, with the increase in democratic media, ventures like Ballroom Throwbacks stand a great chance of permeating the mainstream while also keeping the presentation within the control of people who actually participate in balls.

These are not the only reasons that the mainstream has a hard time pegging the ballroom. I’m not sure exactly how people feel about an increase in the culture’s popularity. It seems to be happening organically with very little interference from the mainstream, most likely because of technology.

What would be your advice to a first time ball virgin?
Be prepared for anything to occur. Be prepared to be surprised and astonished. Relax and enjoy the entertainment and jot down as many mental notes as you can as you will find great inspiration from the experience.

Do you think balls and vogue culture has changed or even effected your life?

Absolutely! I can’t imagine my life without participating in the scene. Learning to vogue greatly expanded my dance vocabulary and my ability to improvise. It helped me become more comfortable with my gender expression as well as the complex gender expression of others. It exposed me to great art, creativity and broader ways of thinking. I’m less afraid to be bold and expressive. I got to witness some of the most energetic displays of dance and individual style that I’ve ever witnessed. My short time in walking the ballroom was amazing and I’m still an avid spectator.

As you can see, Shaun's answers are definitely worth an article in their own right. Here he is in action, taking vocal duties for the Stereogamous release "Face Love Anew". This video (and song) is gorgeous: 

stereogamous feat Shaun J Wright "FACE LOVE ANEW" from stereogamous on Vimeo.

No comments:

Post a Comment