There seems to be a rumor that if you choose to be a critical consumer of media that you are just grumpy all the time. This is not always the case and in many ways this is a myth. When there are new ideas, images, representations, and conversations occurring that challenge the status quo and our culture, this to me, is exciting. Case in point: MTVs Randy Jackson presents America’s Best Dance Crew (ABDC) . I rarely watch ABDC, but this season I’ve found myself not only watching the show, but watching all of the behind the scenes and crew interviews! This is definitely out of my usual TV watching routine, so I’ll admit my lack of knowledge on past seasons and crews.
Many conversations are occurring regarding the first all out queer dance crew Vogue Evolution, and for good reason. Not only are they the first out queer crew, but also they are the first Black queer dance crew, and the first to have an out Black transgender woman. They are also the first crew, to my knowledge, who has represented the Vogue and Ballroom dancing genre. Unfortunately, conversations about Vogue Evolution usually stop at their queerness, not this time. Instead, I’d like to start with their queerness and finish up with the many other identities and representations they give us to demonstrate that their existence is important in multiple ways.
One of the more in-depth conversations about Vogue Evolution was in the form of an interview with the members : Dashaun Williams, Devon Webster (aka Pony), Malechi Williams, Leiomy Maldonado and Jorel Rios (aka Prince). Here we get a glimpse into what their life is like while competing, how they met, and what they hope to achieve. I admit I’m excited to see each episode, but I’m kind of surprised at MTVs choice of words when writing about Vogue Evolution. For example, in the bio for Vogue Evolution, MTV uses the terminology “the guys,” twice! There are so many other terms to use when referring to Vogue Evolution, such as their crew name, call them dancers, New Yorkers, but don’t attempt to ignore the gender identity and expression of the crew by using sloppy and disrespectful terminology. Somebody needs to tell MTV about themselves. Oh wait; did I just do that?
One of the aspects of Vogue Evolution that I adore is their activism. Not only do they work within our community to educate us about HIV and AIDS and the importance of getting tested regularly, but they also are seeking to combat sexism. Here we have representations of LGBTIQ youth of Color from New York City who are working in social justice. We just don’t see them often and rarely do we give recognition to the youth leaders in our community.
In the Getting to Know The Crew Interview, Pony explains that they are “Voguing Femme” which is part of the evolution of Vogue. He shares that they are “flamboyant, feminine, this is us, forefront, gay Hollywood.” He argues that it is sexism from which some “straight” people may be having a problem with their crew. Pony makes the case that because the four Black gay male members are “acting like girls” and dancing feminine, versus the fact that they are gay, is where the main problem lies. I find this fascinating! Often we forget the privileges that people have when their gender identity and gender expression match and fit neatly into performing what gender roles we are expected to act out or participate in. The four men of Vogue Evolution are challenging these expectations that many people find safety and privilege in. Pony points to Leiomy as being the member of the crew that “straight” people feel comfortable approaching because she is a woman. I think Pony is right.
In each of the episodes I’ve seen, the judges, Lil Mama, JC Chasez and Shane Sparks, have either focused on providing the entire group with critique and encouragement or focused on Leiomy’s performance. Pony is correct that the judges find Leiomy’s performance captivating, not simply because it is, but because she is the only woman dancing in the crew. In many ways, I believe, Vogue Evolution has used this to their advantage. They know how “straight” people may react to their performance and may find more comfort in Leiomy, so they place her front and center in each routine. I think the most obvious reaction from the judges this season that demonstrates Pony’s point, was this past Sunday with the Martial Arts challenge. If you watched it then you know that JC Chasez spoke like “Pootie Tang” !
I can only speculate that there was more to Chasez speechlessness than he was blown away by Vogue Evolution’s performance. As he stumbled on his words, Shane Sparks leaned over to him, sandwiching Lil Mama between them, to laugh with him and we hear him say: “you don’t know what the f*&% to say.” This approach works for them, for this competition, but I hesitate to call this complete acceptance of transgender people or an end to homophobia or sexism. It’s a step in a series of steps, and one that is necessary and may help them win the competition!
What won me over wasn’t just their activism around HIV transmission and sexism, or their pride for being who they are and representing their communities. It was two other things: first, the diversity in the skin colors of the members and second the diversity in their body shapes and sizes. Yes, these two characteristics are present in some of the other groups, but when you add their queerness, their activism, to these other aspects of their identities, I began to see a more complete representation of who I am, the communities I am a part of: the faces we rarely see.
We can begin to see the many shades that communities of Color come in and this is rare. Many of the television shows that we see either have one person of Color (too many to give examples of) or the shows with a majority of characters of Color are being canceled (again too many to give examples). I find encouragement in their representation because they are each unapologetically people of Color, racially Black people. They also have diverse body shapes and types in their crew. As a fat woman who loves to dance, watching Malechi cut a rug makes me proud. There’s much talk and critique about representations of “real bodies” in the media , and how fatphobia is rampant today which leaves me wanting to see a representation I can believe is accurate. Malechi and Vogue Evolution offer this to us. If you are to visit Vogue Evolution’s Myspace page (like you haven’t already) and visit their photo gallery, all the photos with Malachi have many people of size and Color thanking him for his representation of us. This is the type of representation I’d like to see more of in the media.
My hope is that these accurate and more complete and complicated representations of us do not get stuck in the “dancing” or “sports” genre. The love we see Vogue Evolution being given is not only because they are gay or transgender, it’s because of the multiple identities they represent. They are not a single-issue dance crew. The queerness of Vogue Evolution goes beyond sexual orientation and gender identity and includes many of us who have experienced exclusion and isolation from media representations. For this reason, I join in the high-pitched chant of VEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!