Text and photos by LORENA O’NEIL
If you did not know what you were looking for, it would be easy to miss the black tiled entrance to Escuelita Night Club. This is a shame, because on Monday nights the nondescript building holds a world of competition, of dance, and of familial bonds.
As members of the underground ballroom scene know, Escuelitas is the hub for voguing, a dance where a performer fluidly moves through a series of stylized poses that imitate fashion models. People arriving at midnight are greeted by a group of young black and Latino dancers, moving their bodies to the beat of hip hop song as rays of red lights and green dots emit from the disco ball in an otherwise dark room.
At 2:00AM the energy shifts: the lights on the dance floor come on and a commentator calls the leaders of ballroom houses to the stage as judges. It is time for a “realness with a twist” competition. Participants are judged on whether they could pass as heterosexuals. “You come out, you look real and then you twist it,” said House of Mizrahi father Melvin Miller. Miller explained there are different types of voguing, including “dramatic”, the feminine style called “soft and c*nt”, the “new way,” which places emphasis on flexibility and the “old way,” which is stripped down and about making shapes with your body.
The dancers individually “vogue down” for the judges, encircled by shouting audience members. They dance solo for the first round, then are matched up to battle each other. Three hours later, only one voguer is left and he or she takes home a cash prize.
Quaneice Harris said she uses voguing to channel her emotions. “If you’re going through anything, you can show that in your performance,” she said. “Whether you’re dramatic or soft, you put your feeling into your performance and it makes your story come out from the shape and movement of your hands.”
The art of voguing is often what initially attracts people to the ballroom community. “When I first joined the ballroom life I came into it as a dancer,” said Omari Wiles. “I was just coming out as a bisexual male and was looking for a family and friends like me.” Wiles joined the House of Khan, and then the House of Chanel before settling on Mizrahi. “Mizrahi was not my first house, but it was my first home,” he said.
Ballroom culture “originally started because kids were getting thrown out of their houses for being gay,” said Miller. The different ballroom houses do not refer to physical structures, but communities. For many, they are still seen as a safe haven.
Francisco Gonzalez, known as Chi Chi, has been a Mizrahi for six years. He became even more seriously involved with the house when his mother and stepfather divorced and he found himself looking for a physical and spiritual home. One of the Mizrahi founders, Jack Ceran, offered him a room in his Harlem apartment, and Chi Chi still lives there, five years later.
“The House of Mizrahi put the backbone in my back. They taught me how to embrace myself as a gay male. They taught me how to be a leader, “Chi Chi said.
“The House of Mizrahi has been my family. I would fight tooth and nail for this House because this is what they gave me in life.”
Chi Chi now runs a Kiki house, the House of Unbothered Cartier, which is a beginner ballroom house, mainly comprised of LGBT teenagers. He also works fulltime at Faces NY, a nonprofit helping people infected with HIV/Aids. Many of the people he counsels are in the ballroom community.