As a SUNY with a large queer population, it is important for New Paltz students to have ample spaces for self-expression. One fantastic opportunity for this was the Dec. 2 vogue workshop, presented by the New Paltz Drag Collective in collaboration with New Paltz alum and drag icon, Venus.
Vogue is a dance and art form born out of Harlem ballrooms between the 1960s-80s, drawing inspiration from the poses of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Vogue magazine models. The dance style is associated with rigid movements and striking model poses, often parodying the concept of white femininity.
Madonna’s 1990 hit single “Vogue” brought vogue into the mainstream, and for many people, this was their sole exposure to vogue. However, the art form had far more cultural significance than what’s commonly understood. Harlem’s Black and Latinx queer communities invented vogue as a way to celebrate themselves while challenging social structures. Ballrooms would frequently host vogue battles and compete as houses, encouraging members who did not fit racist and homophobic beauty standards to come together and create their own interpretations of what it means to be beautiful.
“Vogue is a connection with Black and brown queer art. It’s life-giving, it’s beauty, it’s storytelling, it’s poetic, it’s everything,” said Venus.
At the vogue workshop, Venus provided participants with the opportunity to explore the art form. They walked the group through several common voguing techniques, such as the catwalk and the horse walk. The environment was extremely fun and uplifting, and Venus sought to build confidence in everyone.
“Every step is a pose,” they explained as participants worked on their catwalk. “There’s confidence in each walk. Every step I take, someone is snapping that.”
The catwalk is a way of walking that exaggerates femininity, as one must cross their legs with each step and thrust their hips from side to side. Participants at the vogue workshop certainly struggled with it at first, but before long they were walking perfectly to the beat. It was amazing to see everyone’s growth and the way they made it their own. For Venus, this is one of their favorite things about vogue.
“[Vogue] has become this thing that anyone, but especially queer folks can participate in, and what I love about it is just watching somebody do the damn thing. Whether they’re doing it on a masterful level or doing it for the first time, you just see somebody going and having a great time,” they said.
Venus has always been interested in queer artistic expression. They were first exposed to “Vogue” by Madonna as a child, and quickly fell in love with the art form. They began watching voguers on MTV and wanted to be just like them. Living in Hopewell Junction, New York, they did not have access to the type of dance classes they wanted. However, they managed to teach themselves through countless videos.
“It was just learning from watching lots of YouTube videos. Thankfully, I was born with a sense of rhythm and ability to move. It all came super naturally,” they said.
When Venus came to New Paltz in 2017, they helped build the local drag scene to where it is today.
“I was one of the artists doing drag in the town. We were doing drag in Bangkok, at Snugs, at Bacchus, at this place called Oasis. It was amazing to be a part of the scene and bring up the scene as well. Me and my drag family were really something special. The raw talent that was here was a moment in time, and I don’t get to see what the new generation is bringing, but I am excited to see where it grows,” they said.
While Venus is fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to perform, many New Paltz students who are interested in drag are either minors or do not feel comfortable performing publicly. This is where the New Paltz Drag Collective comes in, opening doors for students who are interested in drag and creating a safe place to practice and perform.
“Most of the shows that are off-campus are in bars, which is very frustrating because most people aren’t 21 here. So [the Drag Collective brings] a chance to perform in a way that allows you to put your name out there without putting yourself at risk or having to deal with the nightlife,” said fourth-year and Drag Collective E-board member, Miki DiFrietus.
Even for those who are not interested in performing, the Drag Collective is a great way to be a part of a positive community.
“It’s a really open and welcoming space for anyone that is interested in drag. You don’t necessarily have to be a drag artist to be a part of this club. It’s just a good queer trans community for people to get to know each other and have a safe space on campus,” said DiFrietus.
The Drag Collective makes drag accessible for everyone, and events like the recent vogue workshop give students the opportunity to learn new things. The event brought vogue right to the Student Union Building, a place practically all students find themselves at one point or another. Many participants came in without a lot of knowledge on vogue, and were able to walk out with some new skills in their back pocket.
Although it is great that vogue is reaching more people, many also worry about the appropriation of the art form.
“There will be people who bastardize it. People have already been bastardizing Vogue and ballroom and will continue to do so. But the good part about it is that the representation will be there to counterbalance that. There’ll be education out there,” Venus said.
Despite people misrepresenting vogue as it becomes more popular, at the end of the day, Venus believes it is worth it if vogue going mainstream means more people have the opportunity to appreciate it.
“Some of our trans actors that we see in the mainstream started in ballroom. With mainstream recognition of ballroom, we get to see artists like that make their way onto our movie screens and be a part of culture in the mainstream media. We get to have representation that we don’t usually see and are starting to see more of now,” said Venus.