Ryan Murphy’s hit show brings New York’s ballroom culture to the BBC. Its stars talk about taking the subculture to the masses

  • The songs of Pose

Ballroom culture has been merging into the mainstream for a while, but last year it was inescapable. There was voguing in Yorgos Lanthimos’s award-winning The Favourite and the video for Calvin Harris and Sam Smith’s Promises; it even crops up in a recent Boots advert. These glimpses of a displaced New York subculture are cute but Ryan Murphy’s new show on BBC Two, Pose, takes you back to the source.

Contrary to popular belief, Madonna did not invent voguing. Her 1990 hit Vogue was a euphoric celebration/appropriation of a dance form that emerged from the Harlem ballroom scene in the 80s. “Balls are part of a broader history of black queer performance and spectacle that stretches back at least to the early days of the 20th century,” says Madison Moore, assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I’m thinking of the Hamilton Lodge Ball, the so-called Faggots Ball of the early 1900s where up to 1,500 spectators came to see the best black queer performers, drag queens, female and male impersonators. Poet and playwright Langston Hughes described these balls in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea as, ‘spectacles in colour’.”

The world of balls is as complex as it is fabulous. It has its own language: “shade”, “reading” and “kiki” all come from ball culture. Then there are houses. Houses are teams of participants who have come together to form a quasi-family unit. The children (not actual minors) of various houses compete for trophies in runway, realness, face, body and vogue battles, where the objective is to present unclockable simulacra of runway models, kids going to school, street thugs or business execs; to revel in your ripe physical beauty; and, of course, to vogue. The original style of voguing recreated in Pose, now referred to as Old Way, is performed with graceful movements inspired by model poses, old Hollywood, kung fu and Egyptian hieroglyphs, while today’s Vogue Femme presents a frenetic combination of moves – duck walk, floor work, hand work, and spins and dips.

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