What Is Voguing?

Voguing is a gender-bending dance style that was created by the Black and Latinx LGBT+ community in Harlem.

Mar 1, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy
what is voguing


Voguing is a dance style inspired by the poses of fashion models. While voguing evolved during the 1980s, the drag balls” that formed the epicenter of the Harlem ballroom movement goes back to the 1960s. Drag balls were events reminiscent of beauty pageants.  During these get-togethers, the mostly Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ contestants would show off their outfits, poses, and dance moves, competing for titles in various categories.  Read on to find out how this revolutionary movement continues to empower people of all genders, sexual preferences, and backgrounds.


Who Created Voguing? 

Vogue Masque Ball in The National Museum of African Arts. Source: Wikimedia


Voguing and the ballroom scene were a subcultural movement created by some of the most vulnerable communities in American society. On top of being part of a disadvantaged group because of their skin color, the Black and Latinx LGBT scene suffered because of their sexual orientation or gender-bending way of dressing.


Life in Harlem wasn’t easy, and being Black, Latinx, or Queer did not make things any easier either. So, the ballroom scene became both a home and refuge for this vibrant community. The ballrooms were a magical wonderland, where even those who could not openly live their lives were able to be seen in all their glamour and beauty.


By allowing themselves to dress up, walk and pose like the models in fashion magazines, the members of the queer community created a parallel reality in which everyone could be who they truly were. Given this sociocultural context, voguing is much more than a dance style. It is an art of resistance created by and for those who were invisible and vulnerable.


The Birth of the Ballroom Scene 

vogue dancer masque topless pose lgbtqi black
Vogue Masque Ball in The National Museum of African Arts. Source: Wikimedia

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


While the voguing movement is rooted in the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s, it peaked during the 1980s and 1990s. While drag ball competitions involving participants competing for the title of most convincing impersonator of the opposite sex go back as far as the 19th century, these balls continued to be biased towards white drag queens. Being fed up with the discrimination she experienced within the drag community, the legendary Crystal LaBeija began organizing her own ballroom events. Little did she know that she had given birth to a cultural movement that would come to be even more famous than traditional drag balls.


Born in Harlem

crystal la beija ballroom voguing drag dance
Crystal La Beija, one of the founding members of New York´s ballroom movement. Source: Revere Public Library


Even today, Harlem remains one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York.  And yet, this cultural melting pot has been a fertile breeding ground for artistic movements like jazz, blues, hip-hop, and poetry. Having given birth to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and serving as an important stage during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood also became the primary site of the so-called balls organized by the LGBT+ community.


It did not take long for these drag balls to become a widespread phenomenon in New York’s queer subculture. These underground events were a cross between a beauty pageant, a fashion show, and a dance battle. The queer contestants would compete in different categories like drag queen, femme queen, or butch queen. By giving themselves a space where they could be anything they wanted, Harlem’s LGBT+ members created an alternative reality that stood in stark contrast to a society where trans and gay people continued to suffer from prejudice and oppression. Harlem’s balls quickly became a thriving cultural phenomenon, proving that the act of allowing yourself to be seen can be a revolutionary act.


A Gender-Bending Safe Space

voguing dancers ballroom drag new york
The voguing subculture Harlem, photo by: Chantal Regnault. Source: Mixmag


While the 20th century saw some advances when it came to civil rights, the reality of life for those identifying as queer continued to be tough.


When you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk and how you act, a member of the Harlem ballroom scene reflects in the film Paris is Burning. In contrast to this, Harlem’s ballroom scene served as an escape and space of self-empowerment for its queer community: It’s like crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland. You go in there, and you feel 100% right being gay. But it wasn’t just about being accepted as homosexual or transexual. Vogue balls gave disadvantaged communities the chance to be whatever they wanted to be. They could act and present themselves in any way they pleased.


venus xtravaganza voguing ballroom scene harlem drag
Venus Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning film. Source: Criterion


Harlem’s ballroom community understood the socio-political power of an outfit better than anyone. By dressing up in clothes that resembled those of elite businessmen, fashion models, or movie stars, members of the ballroom movement imagined themselves living a life that remained inaccessible to them in reality.


As the drag queen Dorian Corey put it: In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of your social standing in life…In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. In this sense, the drag ballroom movement did not just play with gender roles or sexual identities: It also subverted socio-economic barriers.


A New Kind of Family: The Ballroom Houses 

drag queen dressing room ballroom vogueing lgtbq
A Drag Queen getting ready in the dressing room. Source: Pexels


Another important aspect of ballroom culture was the formation of so-called houses. The houses served as a kind of substitute family, usually headed by queer mothers or fathers. Older, more experienced members of the ballroom movement would teach others the tricks of the trade. More importantly, these constellations formed an important support system for those who could not be themselves around their biological family. Houses like The Royal House of LaBeija, The House of Balenciaga, and The House of Dupree became substitute families for those who did not have a strong support system.


Fierce Competition

royal house labeija voguing ballroom subculture dance fashion
The legendary House of La Beija. Source: Royal House of La Beija


During the ballroom events, members of different houses would face off against each other, creating an atmosphere that was fiercely competitive but also fiercely supportive. According to Ms. Mizrahi, a member of the ballroom scene in Paris: You definitely need a tough skin to enter the world of ballroom, the judgement is hard, and the competition is tough.


The element of competition seemed to be part of the fun, however. Many members of the ballroom movement had been silenced, ignored, and victimized since they were young. The possibility of letting their light be seen and engaging in a non-violent battle helped thousands of young members of the LGBT+ community feel more empowered around their identity and self-expression. Over time, the throwing of shade (verbal insults), face-offs, and dance moves became an intrinsic part of the competition.


voguing vogue dance photogaphy fierce magazine ballroom
Voguing poster. Source: Mixmag


According to DJ David DePino, the voguing dance grew out of a face-off:


It all started at an after-hours club called Footsteps on 2nd Avenua and 14th Street. Paris Dupree was there, and a bunch of Black queens were throwing shade at each other. Paris had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat. Then another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose. That was all shade-they were all trying to make a prettier pose than each other- and it soon caught on at the balls. At first, they called it posing and then because it started from Vogue magazine, they called it voguing.


Little did they know that this unique dance style based on poses found in fashion magazines would soon be imitated by artists as famous as Madonna.


The Evolution of Voguing

drag pride parade panama voguing colorful lgbtqi
A Pride Parade in Panama, photo by Betsy Arosemena. Source: Unsplash


Originally, voguing emphasized clear poses and the fluid transitions between them. In the late 1980s, this old way evolved into a new way, which gave precedence to complex hand movements and poses inspired by contortionists, gymnasts, and fashion models. This was followed by vogue fem which introduced influences like jazz and ballet, as well as duckwalks, catwalks, spins, and dips. The fact that members of the black and Latinx LGBTQ+ community were copying the poses of models who were represented by ideal figures of white women made this dance form highly subversive.



Although voguing started as a subculture movement in the ghettos of New York, Madonna’s music video and the Paris is Burning film pushed voguing and ballroom culture into mainstream society. While some have criticized the commercial take-over of voguing, most would agree that this is a good sign. Today, vogueing and ballrooms continue to thrive in many places around the world, giving a new generation of LGBT+ communities a space to share their identities. The release of the Netflix series Pose and shows like Drag Race also helped the popularity of this art form. Therefore, the dance style created by marginalized communities continues to inspire people across the world.


Voguing: Art of Resistance

drag queen beauty glitter photoshoot posing voguing.
Drag Queen, photo by Greta Hoffmann. Source: Pexels


The fun, glitter, and glamour associated with voguing and drag make it easy to forget that the art of posing and the art of dressing up are in fact highly political. Members of the LGBT+ community continue to be persecuted around the world. Racism is also still a problem. No matter how colorful or light the exterior may feel, underneath it all, ballroom culture continues to break stereotypes and give freedom of expression to those who have been repressed for centuries. As we move into the future, this dance style born in the ghettos of New York will continue to change the world, one pose at a time.

Author Image

By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.