The History of Voguing

Voguing at Masquerade Ball, 2016, S Pakhrin from DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by_2.0_, via Wikimedia Commons

Feature image: Voguing at Masquerade Ball, 2016, S Pakhrin from DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The History of Voguing

“Strike a pose,” command the first lyrics of Madonna’s hit 1990 single “Vogue.” Immediately, Madonna’s striking, precise, avant-garde movements featured in her accompanying iconic music video come to mind.

To vogue is to partake in a form of radical self-expression that dates back much farther than Madonna’s generation-defining hit. The history of voguing synthesizes a unique blend of influences from fashion, photography, art, dance, and music. These elements of culture combine to create a phenomenon that is still evolving today and traces its roots as a pivotal movement within BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history.

Dancers vogue at Madonna
Dancers vogue at Madonna's Blond Ambition tour in 1990, photograph by Hans Schaft, MadonnaUnderground, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

What is voguing?

Voguing is a style of improvisational dance that features rigid, angular arm and leg movements performed as the dancer quickly transitions from one “pose” to another—as if they are modeling for a photoshoot. Vogue is typically done within the context of ballroom drag, an LGBTQ subculture that allows contestants to perform exaggerated forms of masculinity or femininity in a series of categories that judge the participant’s ability to “perform” stereotypical aspects of gender through dance.

Voguing’s name stems from Vogue magazine, as the dance shares similarities with the dynamic poses struck by models on the covers of fashion magazines such as Vogue.

A dancer voguing, 2009, Chris Willis from Palo Alto, California, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A dancer voguing, 2009, Chris Willis from Palo Alto, California, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Origins and influences

Voguing’s origins hail from New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and the Black and Latino population in the ballroom drag scene. “Ballroom drag” is an underground subculture specific to African American and Latino LGBTQ individuals. The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revival of Black music, art, dance, fashion, and more, which lasted from 1918 to the mid-1930s, greatly influenced the neighborhood’s advanced perceptions of the fluidity and intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Voguing first emerged in the early 60s but rapidly rose in popularity in the 80s and beyond.

During the 1980s, ballroom culture evolved from the elaborate pageantry of the 1960s and 1970s to include vogue dance battles, where participants would “throw shade”—subtly insult one another through nonverbal actions—to impress audiences and judges. In this context, voguing could be done as a form of throwing shade. Voguing’s exact origins and specific creator are unknown, with some claiming that Black gay prison inmates on Rikers Island first vogued for the attention of other men and to throw shade at one another.

The Fabulous Kiki Ball, CA2M via Flickr
The Fabulous Kiki Ball, CA2M via Flickr

As a dance style, voguing takes visual influence from fashion modeling and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. As an expression of house dance, a freestyle street dance that is typically done in nightclubs, voguing emphasizes “creating angles, boxes, and lines with the body and arms on the beat,” according to the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD).

Styles of voguing

As voguing exploded in popularity across the country in underground drag spaces throughout the 90s, the specific intricacies of the dance style changed with time. There are now three distinct styles of vogue: Old Way, New Way, and Vogue Fem.

The “Old Way” style of vogue was most often performed pre-1990. It emphasized hard angles and straight lines and did not prioritize speed as much as its later iterations. In old vogue, dancers “frame” their faces with hand and arm movements. Old Way vogue is typically meant to be performed as a duel or battle between two rivals to throw shade at one another. In addition to Vogue’s general inspiration from fashion modeling, Old Way Vogue borrows elements from breakdancing and martial arts.

Old Way voguing via RUSSH
Old Way voguing via RUSSH

After voguing burst into the public consciousness, primarily thanks to Madonna in 1990, it once again evolved with New Way vogue. This style added enhanced hand performance and emphasized the dancer's flexibility with “clicks,” or limb contortions at the joint. It can be described as a modified form of mime, with its poses being inspired by contortion, gymnastics, and yoga.

Voguing CDMX 2015, Miguel Martínez Díaz, Miguel Martínez Díaz from Ciudad de México, México, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Voguing CDMX 2015, Miguel Martínez Díaz, Miguel Martínez Díaz from Ciudad de México, México, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Vogue Fem is the most recent style of vogue. It emerged around 1995 and is still being performed today. Vogue Fem is similar to New Way but focuses on flow, speed, and stunts. There are five core elements within Vogue Fem: hands, catwalk, duckwalk, spins/dips, and floor work. As the name implies, femininity is more emphasized in this style when compared to the previous eras of voguing. Vogue Fem takes inspiration from ballet, jazz, and modern dance styles.

Voguing in pop culture

“Vogue” - Madonna (1990)

Madonna’s double platinum 1990 single is widely credited with making voguing a “dance craze.” A house song, its lyrics portray finding escapism on the dancefloor in a club no matter one’s identity.

The music video, shot in black and white, was directed by the acclaimed David Fincher, who directed films like Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010). The video pays homage to Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and Hollywood portrait photographers such as Don English, George Hurrell, and Horst P. Horst, with the featured dancers imitating poses from their works. The music video was also choreographed by Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierrez, two individuals who were already known within the voguing scene thanks to their involvement in House of Xtravaganza, a ballroom drag “house” heavily chronicled in the Paris Is Burning documentary, also released in 1990.

“The song ‘Vogue’ was inspired by walking into a nightclub [...] and seeing the Xtravaganza crew voguing. And I was like, ‘Whoa. What the hell is that?’ And it was just the most amazing thing.”

Madonna told iHeartRadio in 2019

“Vogue” has consistently been named one of the greatest pop songs and greatest gay anthems of all time by several different outlets. Despite the song’s popularity, though, Madonna has been accused of cultural appropriation by some within the LGBTQ, Black, and Latino communities for whitewashing and separating voguing from drag, with which vogue was heavily intertwined. Many mistakenly believe that Madonna was the inventor or creator of vogue although the dance had been performed in non-white communities for at least a decade before the release of “Vogue.” By others, Madonna is held in high regard as a “gay icon” due to “Vogue” and her consistent advocacy for the LGBTQ community. “Fighting for all marginalized people was a duty and an honor I could not turn my back on, nor will I ever,” Madonna said in 2019.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

Only a few months after Madonna’s iconic song was released, the documentary Paris is Burning was released, exploring the ballroom culture of the mid to late-80s. Directed by Jennie Livingston, the documentary heavily features the Black, Latino, and transgender participants of New York City ball culture and the issues they face outside of the ballroom world, including AIDS, racism, poverty, violence, and homophobia. The title comes from the ball of the same name once held annually by late voguing pioneer Paris Dupree, who is also depicted throughout the film. Viewers follow drag “houses,” social networks, and chosen families of drag performers who “walk” in categories under the guidance and mentorship of a house “mother.” The houses featured in Paris Is Burning include the aforementioned House of Xtravaganza, House of Pendavis, and House of LeBeija.

Although the film covers the origins of voguing, director Livingston asserted that the film was not just about dance: 

“This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they're gay or not. It's about how we're all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity, and energy.”

Modern drag culture

With voguing being such a large aspect of drag culture, it’s no surprise that vogue can be seen being performed in modern drag routines and reality TV drag competition shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” On “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the two drag queens up for elimination each week compete in a “ Lip Sync for Your Life,” similar to the vogue battles of the early 80s, with the winner of the lip sync remaining in the competition and the loser being eliminated.

The terms and slang used in the 80s within ballroom drag culture are, of course, still being used today within drag communities and the larger LGBTQ community as a whole, with phrases like “throwing shade” and “mother” even being known amongst those outside of the LGBTQ community. The increased appreciation for drag and its cultural contributions to pop and queer culture as a whole proves that it is here to stay, despite recent legislative attacks on drag shows and LGBTQ history education.

Empowerment en vogue

Art is one of the most valuable disciplines, as it allows its viewers to feel seen and represented within it. It also provides a deep catalog of inspiration for those wanting to innovate and create something new, like the Black and Latino gay men who pioneered voguing after being moved by the confidence of fashion models walking the runways and gracing magazine covers.

Getty images via Vogue Australia
Getty Images via Vogue Australia

Voguing’s rich history and more recent mainstream success showcase the dazzling influence of Black, Latino, and LGBTQ culture creators while cautioning us of the dangers of appropriation—so often carried out against people of color and the queer community—when they introduce groundbreaking cultural innovations, often risking their safety to do so. More importantly, voguing provides a creative outlet for self-expression among those within marginalized communities who feel at home on the dance floor.

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