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PHOTO ESSAY

Origins of Popular Dance

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Willi Ninja poses

Willi Ninja, mid-1990s. Courtesy of Jayson Keeling.

In 1990 the video for Madonna's "Vogue" debuted on MTV, introducing much of the world to a little-known dance form with roots in early 20th-century Harlem. The song took its name from voguing, an exaggerated imitation of the poses spotted in fashion glossies (in particular its namesake) popular among various Harlem "houses," underground organizations of mostly black and Latino gay men that were equal parts social club, refuge, and performance troupe. Though Madonna's chart-topping song may have acquainted a new generation with the Harlem house, it wouldn't be the first time Harlem gay culture captivated the public. In fact, one of the most sought-after performances in 1920s and 1930s New York was the Hamilton Lodge ball, a burlesque that, according to an account at the time, assembled "effeminate men, sissies, 'wolves,' 'ferries' [sic], 'faggots,' the third sex, 'ladies of the night,' and male prostitutes . . . for a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking and advertisement" (Hill). So prominent was the ball, and ball culture, that Langston Hughes devoted a chapter to it in his autobiography. The drag queens performing at Hamilton Lodge—which at its peak drew thousands of jostling spectators, whites and heterosexuals frequently among them—vied in intense competition for various prizes awarded to the most fashionably dressed, most feminine looking, most masculine looking, and a hodgepodge of additional superlatives. Ball culture retreated back underground after the Depression and wouldn't again emerge in the mainstream until filmmaker Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. By the time Livingston shined a light back on gay Harlem, voguing had become a mainstay of house competition. A critical and commercial success, Paris brought several ball fixtures to modest attention, including house "mother" and highly accomplished choreographer Willi Ninja, called at his death "a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people" by Madonna (Silverman).

Hill, Abram. "Hamilton Lodge Ball an Unusual Spectacle," New York Age, March 1926.

Silverman, Stephen M. "Madonna's 'Vogue' Inspiration Dies." People, September 2006.

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