Game changing. Iconic. Groundbreaking. These overused and overstated words – posted feverishly on social media platforms minutes into an episode of HBO Max’s Legendary – are common hashtags used to describe what is now lauded as the world’s first vogueing reality competition on television. The influential dance style, which Madonna popularized with her 1990 hit Vogue, has its roots in a much older phenomenon also called “ballroom” that grew out of drag balls in mid-20th-century Harlem. What was once clandestine has now hit the mainstream, big-time. Legendary is now aiming to do for ballroom what Rupaul has done for drag.
Legendary is a sometimes subversive, sometimes-Disney-fied production featuring competing “houses” of dancers – a nod to the original ballroom “houses” that often functioned like families for LGBTQ who didn’t necessarily fit in youth at home, but who found chosen family under one roof with other queer kids who loved to dance.
For Tati Miyake-Mugler, the self-proclaimed “Princess of Vogue” from Season 2’s winning House of Miyake-Mugler, the show is a means to educate and expand the very definition of what vogue is.
“This show has schooled people on what Black and queer culture has done and can do on a whole other level,” she says via Zoom from her home in New York. “I have people from around the world who don’t speak even English, reaching out to me and writing things like ‘Slay’ and ‘Yass Mama, werk’ about me winning the ‘spins and dips’ challenge in the finale.”
A significant part of this celebration of dance – which finds inspiration in the high-fashion poses of supermodels – is happening in Canada too, thanks to Toronto’s own Twysted Miyake-Mugler. In 2021, the dancer/choreographer/activist co-produced CBX: Canadian Ballroom Extravaganza for CBC Gem, wherein 10 queer and/or trans filmmakers battled one other in vogue categories such as “Sex Siren,” “Face” and “Runway” via short videos that sought to honor category conventions.
Over the years, Twysted has observed the Toronto vogue scene explode. “Everyone, from corporate lawyers, baristas [to] sex workers are competing in this city’s balls,” he says.
Inspiration for the queer ballroom scene can be traced back to the late 1800s, when clandestine balls could be a welcome site for gender-bending attendees who would otherwise be an invisible, or even endangered, minority. Ballroom also pays homage to early drag events in Harlem in the 1920s. Langston Hughes, an African-American writer and civil rights activist, defined these early balls in his autobiography, The Big Seaas being “the strangest of all Harlem’s events,” and “spectacles of colour.”
Ballroom culture inched towards mass recognition in the late 60s and early 70s, when the formation of Houses came to existence by way of two drag queens, Lottie and Crystal LaBeija. Soon, performers such as Jody Watley tipped their hat to these pioneers by including voguing in mid-80s videos that predated Madonna’s 1990 hit. Paris Is Burninga documentary on ballroom released the same year, simmered along as a cult classic for years, eventually earning a re-release in 2020. (Early attempts by white artists to showcase the art have been criticized for being voyeuristic or exploitative, but Paris Is Burning also shed a light on some of the important ways in which ballroom culture was an act of joyous resistance against the AIDS crisis, racism, poverty, homophobia and transphobia.) Most recently, the HBO ballroom drama Pose infiltrated popular culture in the grandest of ways.
Legendary‘s most formidable judge, Leiomy Maldonado, an Afro-Puerto-Rican-American trans voguer, regularly conveys the importance of ballroom’s history on camera, including its sharp rules (for example, “serving face” properly (as did fierce 90s supermodels Naomi) Campbell and Linda Evangelista).
In the competition, she is cast as a mother figure, an ode to the family structure seen in many ballroom houses.
In stark contrast, judge Law Roach serves sharp-tongued, no-holds-bar critiques if looks aren’t on point or do not “give life.” Each house’s hair, makeup and styling must complement their dance performances, and dancers strive to earn Law’s now-famous catchphrase, the appreciative “you did what needed to be done!” – a zinger that bootleg merchandisers are printing on T-shirts, mugs and tea cozies, among other things.
Yet, behind the glitz and word-play, Tati Miyake-Mugler wants to remind viewers of how much criticism not only comes with the territory but is appreciated as a form of coaching, in a subculture that is consistently trying to find its legs. “People don’t understand the work it takes to be in a House and how many mistakes you are called out on, but I think they are starting to,” she says, proudly noting that she is the mother of the House of Juicy Couture. , Legendary‘s season 3 winners, a family who came up through a younger, next-gen scene. “With the right direction, I see the future of vogue as something that can be seen as both an Olympic sport and an art form.”
Twysted, who is the house father of Toronto’s chapter of the Miyake-Mugler family, picked up on this futuristic vision. More than a decade ago he noticed that younger admirers had started taking an interest in voguing culture. Since the ballroom is a “very adult and mature battleground,” he co-founded The Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance (TKBA) in 2010 specifically for young competitors, modeling it off of high-school intramural sports and the early days of the 1960s New York ball scene.
This grassroots organization supports black and radicalized LGBTQ2+ youth – out of demand and necessity. “The next generation of voguers basically didn’t have anywhere to develop, they had no community, so we made a space for them,” he says. He says he hopes to provide a setting for young talent to carry the art form forward.
One such budding star is seven-year-old Sizzle Siriano, a beyond-their-years performer who started to identify as non-binary during the pandemic. Sizzle’s mother, Lisanne Lieberthal, quickly started to look for ways to support and inspire her child. The result was a visit to Sizzle’s first TKBA ball in July, 2021, organized by Twysted and the Toronto Kiki Alliance.
“The absolute joy in Sizzle’s face during that first ball was palpable. They didn’t want to just watch … they wanted to walk,” Lieberthal says. “They arrived with a ton of confidence and were ready to be celebrated as a nonbinary, Black kid who also has a queer family. They’ve always had a strong sense of who they were, but it hasn’t been easy to feel part of the community, especially during the pandemic.”
Sizzle’s first major appearance will be at the Living Out Loud Ball on June 25, which is taking place at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. “Some people are really excited to see a kid vogueing because it’s new and it’s cool to see a parent that supports their kid,” Sizzle says. “Lots of queer people don’t feel supported by their family but [my family] does and I wish other people could have the same support.”
“This is Black history that should be studied and loved because it changed and changed lives,” adds dance music icon Ultra Naté who found her beat – and her confidence – as part of the House of Revlon during her youth. Her Pride anthem Free exudes the ballroom ethos, as Naté reminds her audiences “You’re free / To do what you want to do / You’ve got to live your life / Do what you want to do.”
“The House of Revlon helped shape me and my own identity,” she says. “Now, it’s ballroom’s time to shine and the world is finally starting to see this community in a way that doesn’t make any of its talents an extension of someone else’s dream anymore.”
Tati Miyake-Mugler has been working in ballroom since 2010. She’s been able to perform for and teach admirers and students of vogue in four countries, reaching a virtual and real-life audience of thousands. After winning Legendary, “I’m able to see a new set of goals I didn’t even know I could have,” she says. “This is not a trend or a phase… it’s a culture.”
For more info about upcoming ballroom and Pride events:
June 24th, 2022: Grand March with Legendary’s House of Miyake-Mugler, pridetoronto.com
June 25, 2022: Living Out Loud Ball, pridetoronto.com
June 26, Sugarland Let There Be House Beach Party with Ultra Naté, prismfesttoronto.com
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