“Strike a pose.” The opening words to the ’90s Madonna hit could be the mantra for Archie Burnett’s class. Voguing, as the self-taught club dancer loves to remind his students, is all about posing for the camera. On a Tuesday evening at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City, he leads a group of advanced beginners through a series of swiftly changing angular arm and hand gestures, shouting out, “Click! Next step. Click! Next step.”
Voguing is a dance style that evolved out of the 1970s and ’80s gay club scene in New York, adapting movement for an imaginary camera. Burnett’s “clicks” are a constant reminder to his students that their poses should look clear from every angle. When watching the music videos for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” or Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”—which both feature voguing—it’s clear why precision is paramount. “You want the camera to get the best possible pose,” he says.
As the eager voguers in class strut in place to the heavy beat of electronic music, their hips pulsing from side to side, he tells them, “Make those hips do the work.” Burnett likes to work the lower body with “prancing” (marching on the balls of the feet) and runway-walking across the floor. Because voguing is so closely tied to club music, he stresses the importance of finding the beat and internalizing it.
Burnett demonstrates every movement on the balls of his bare feet, to resemble dancing in high heels. “Voguing is idealized female movement from the gay man’s point of view,” he explains. When one student places her hand on her hip, he adjusts her wrist so that it rests at a sharper, more broken angle. “This reads as masculine,” he says, demonstrating her earlier version, with an unbroken wrist and clenched fist. “This”—he shifts to the angular variation—“reads as feminine.” It’s easy to see the difference in postures, even on his 6’4″, broad-shouldered frame.
As he breaks down a series of gestures that circle the head, frame the face and push away from the body in quick succession, he warns his students, “Never sacrifice technique for speed.” The dancers later improvise their own vogue moves as he weaves through the room to give individual corrections and suggestions on how to transition between poses. Dancers begin to experiment with more advanced moves, like the dip, a floor pose that looks like a jazz-split-meets-layout. Burnett encourages experimentation, but he always comes back to his number-one rule—posing for the camera. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not voguing,” he says. “You’re vagueing.” DT
Archie Burnett was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and has been a self-taught club dancer for more than 40 years. On a chance encounter in Washington Square Park in 1981, he discovered voguing for the first time and was hooked. Soon after, he became a founding member of the vogue crew House of Ninja, created by vogue master and Paris Is Burning star Willi Ninja. Burnett has taught internationally throughout Europe, South America and Asia and has conducted lecture/demonstrations at Yale, Duke and Harvard. He has appeared in music videos, independent films and performances at Dance Theater Workshop, Performance Space 122, Danspace Project and Dixon Place. He teaches voguing and waacking (a style characterized by quick, spasmodic arm motions) at Peridance Capezio Center.
Eea Rajamäki is a dancer from Helsinki.
Photos by Kyle Froman