by Andy Cataldo
Choreographer Karole Armitage and voguing pioneer Benny Ninja appeared just as you might expect them to – she a tall blonde with the perfect posture of a seasoned dancer, he quite stylish in a hat, sports coat and loud red Louis Vuitton scarf.
They came together recently at the Center’s event, Strike a Pose: Choreographer Chat with Karole Armitage and Benny Ninja, to share their experience with an audience of fans. The tone was surprisingly conversational; each icon took turns speaking about his or her background and asking the other questions as they told the story of their involvement in the phenomenon that is ballroom culture and particularly voguing.
Karole built a reputation in the early 80s as a “punk ballerina,” a marginal and wild free-spirit. She was introduced to the scene when she was invited to judge a ball at the Roseland Ballroom in 1983. She recounted the experience as she remembered it – someone shouting out categories such as “eyeglasses” and “handbags” followed by participants walking accompanied by motions down a runway. She described the movement as “guerrilla warfare” – a non-capitalist form of dance existing purely outside of mainstream culture. That is, until Madonna caught on.
Benny entered the scene as a protégé of the late Willi Ninja in 1988 after seeing a quick flash of voguing on TV during coverage of the Love Ball, an AIDS fundraiser. It was that brief introduction that led him to the Red Zone, a historic New York City nightclub of the late 80s.
When asked about how he learned to vogue, Benny explained that he observed everything. He would pay to enter a club or attend a ball and study his surroundings for as long as eight hours, sitting on a speaker, taking in the movement, the emotion. He spoke of meeting Willi Ninja on the dance floor, asking “What is it you’re doing?” Willi responded “What I’m doing is called voguing.” When asked to define what that was, Willi replied “Darling, it is an exaggerated interpretation of the runway model.”
Benny explained that he saw voguing as an art form, where a dancer painted a portrait for others to interpret. During his lessons with Willi, the icon expressed that he wanted someone to take voguing to the next level, i.e. corporate (where the money’s at).
So can you blame Madonna really? Described by Karole as someone who has a knack for picking things just when they’re ready to be consumed by the mainstream, even though she has the reputation of being an envelope pusher. Karole says she has “a certain kind of genius” in that respect, but perhaps not the genius of a true creator. She took advantage of the desire expressed by Willi himself. Perhaps a contribution, enabled by Karole’s choreography in the music video “Vogue,” acted to preserve the cultural movement in time. Benny spoke of the true story of voguing – the houses involved and the disadvantaged wanting to emulate what they could not have. In that sense Madonna’s interpretation was a robbery of the true spirit of voguing.
The most interesting perspective shared by both Karole and Benny was the explanation of voguing as a form of dance. Benny spoke of the hardships and physical injury encountered in learning to vogue, which included for him pain and hospital visits. Karole chimed in “that’s exactly what being a dancer is!” Both spoke of structure and fitting a motion to sound: combined with deliberate movements of the body as well as the spiritual connection that performers have to the work. “It’s my way of praying. It makes me feel free,” Benny told us. “Each movement should be saying something. If not, it’s wrong.” While ballet is made up of five positions, voguing according to Benny, is made up of ten points, sides of the face, lines and broken lines (clicks).
Karole spoke of how dance slipped away from the spotlight it once had in American culture, making her work less in public demand. But she spoke of the strength of her passion, much in the same way as Benny spoke of his.
Today Benny teaches upcoming legendary children the art of voguing all over the world – Moscow, Taiwan, here in New York. Even now, Karole draws inspiration from what she experienced in the 80s. She incorporates the rawness and the emotion into her work. Voguing has truly evolved into a form of dance.
At the end of the discussion we – the audience – got what we wanted: a live voguing demonstration by two female students of Benny’s, which he joined in the end. Click here to see for yourself how things got legendary.