Vogue Evolution Forever Part 2: The Racialicious Roundtable on America’s Best Dance Crew

Compiled by Special Correspondent Thea Lim, with Guest Contributors Robin Akimbo, Alaska B, Michelle Cho and Elisha Lim

…continued from Part 1!

Vogue Evolution is all about getting folks to recognise that queer culture is responsible for sooo much of contemporary dance.  So it’s a radical history lesson – what’s VE’s relationship to Paris is Burning?

Michelle: I love what Pony from VE said in an interview.

Elisha: This is Pony’s quote:

The difference between us and all the other crews is that you can tell a crew by their team, not the individual. The left girl looks like the right girl. You don’t know the difference. Cindy looks just like Cassie. With us and our community, we’re all leaders. It’s like an All-Star cast, a league of extraordinary gentlemen, as we like to say.

My clips have a hundred thousand views, Leyomi’s clips have a hundred thousand views, our MySpace is packed. We’re already legends in our community. That’s why this is big for us. Our community is like, “Wow. The big ones are getting bigger.” It’s not like, “Oh, we’re survivors.”

The problem with voguing is that it’s always been portrayed as coming from a sad place, and that’s not really what it is. We’re here to show the beauty of the scene, and the art, and the happiness and the joy. We’re the good news. It’s not like Paris is Burning where at the end of it you go, “Aww…that’s sad.” This is like, “Work! It’s over!” That’s where we’re at with it.

Thea:  What does that mean, “vogueing comes from a sad place?”

Robin: A.I.D.S., racism, rejection from families, hate-crimes, poverty… so many of the issues that that community was dealing with in the early “80′s in NYC.  They created voguing to express themselves and to celebrate fabulousness, creativity, and survival.

Michelle:  The latter part of the quote references Paris is Burning and the sadness that is felt throughout the film.  A big criticism of Paris is Burning has been that it was sensationalized by a white director who did little to financially reimburse the people interviewed.

Thea: ugh

Michelle:  They all stayed poor while the director got the accolades.

Thea: ugh ugh

Michelle: Many of the Mothers in the film have since died of AIDS.

Alaska: Nevermind a transwoman being murdered during shooting with no analysis.

Michelle: Most definitely.

Elisha: That’s true.

Alaska: A central character at that.

Robin: Really really really really really sad.

It’s depressing how much cultural appropriation – from queer culture, from cultures of colour… – is a part of dance. How does America’s Best Dance Crew fare on the cultural appropriation scale?

Michelle: Well I have to say that I really disliked this season’s focus on learning cultural dance forms and incorporating hip hop dance. It felt cheap.

Alaska: Agreed. Martial arts challenge? Bollywood challenge?

Elisha:  Ouch!  So painful!

Michelle: With one of the crews dancing to Busta Rhymes’ incredibly racist song “Arab Money.”

Alaska: I think the martial arts challenge was the MOTORAZR commercial, and the bollywood challenge was Slumdog Miserable.

Michelle: Hahah!

Robin: Inevitably when someone’s culture becomes style, there are problems with the whole thing.

Thea: ABDC basically boil down whole complex cultural histories to a bunch of wrist flicks.

Elisha: The Bollywood was all extremely tokenistic. The expert dancers were all shadowed and anonymous, none of the music was original score.

Alaska:  I think that sums it up.

Elisha: I realize that part of the ABDC motivation is to promote specific commercial music artists.  But using MIA as a Bollywood track is so degrading.

Thea: In what way?

Robin:  They were pop songs with “ethnic” fusion.

Elisha: It’s just so reductive and tokenizing.

Michelle: And why do references to Asian cultures always have to refer to martial arts?

Alaska:  Albeit, I’d rather see a martial arts challenge than a Confucian temple ritual challenge.

Michelle: Fair enough.

Alaska: How about a dim sum cart challenge?

Elisha:  Hahaha!  I want to see that!

Michelle: At least there wasn’t a geisha challenge.

Thea: How do you think a dance show like ABDC can use non-Western dance styles in a respectful way? Is it even possible?

Michelle: I don’t know…as much as I sound like a hater though, I can’t stop watching ABDC!

Robin: They were trying to cover dance styles, fine.  But martial art is not dance.  Why do something on a dance show that’s not dance?

Michelle: But to be fair there’s been a long relationship between hip hop and kung fu.  Or even funk and kung fu.

Alaska: Yeah, especially in Asian breakdance communities

Thea: When funk or hiphop take up martial arts, is it in a respectful way? I’ve been trying to figure this out with ref to Wu Tang for a long time…

Robin: [The relationship between funk and kung fu] is more about Bruce Lee being an icon for Black Panthers fighting the White Man in the ’70′s.  It was a phenomenon.

Alaska: Disagreed.  There is truth in that, but breakdancing is insanely popular in Asian American communities. The Bruce Lee thing goes back as far as Maoist influence in the 1960s.  And Asian martial arts films were popular with the Black community.  Because until the mid 1970s, white people didn’t go to movies since the 50s.  Black communities disproportionately made up a massive audience.

Michelle:  But I still think that hip hop has exoticized Asian cultures.

Alaska: For sure, but we (Asian people) are often implicit in it.

Robin: Americans deal with the boiling pot by appropriating each other.  The idea that to be American is to be anything you want to be is very delusional.

Michelle: Isn’t the whole show about reinforcing The American Dream?

Alaska: I agree with that.

Michelle: Everything’s all about overcoming your hardship and using your skill to be the best dancer you can be FOR AMERICA.

Thea: So ABDC is drawing from a long history of hip hop taking from East Asian culture in a way that is not always right.  But I agree  that East Asian cultures are complicit, because they want to get to be cultural makers too.  It seems like it’s the only chance we’ve got on the stage.  Maybe it’s via someone else’s interpretation, but we’re still on stage.  We allow our stuff to be taken up in ways we can’t control, just to have the chance to rep ourselves for one second.

Alaska: I think that’s all you can do.

Thea:  Really?? So sad.

Alaska:  You don’t have a right to ownership of your culture, and if you did, you couldn’t enforce it.

But queer folks, poor folks, folks of colour keep putting themselves on the line, demanding recognition, attempting to reclaim their cultures.  Was Vogue Evolution successful in their reclamation bid?

Robin: I just wish the credit was there from the start. Queers of colour own urban dance. The end. (lol) It’s been 30 years coming.

Thea:  Do you think the exposure for trans and queer culture outweighed the homophobia and transphobia?

Michelle: I don’t know.

Alaska: Wait, exposure is often negative in itself, even though it appears positive.

Thea:  Well, do you think the value of getting to rep queer culture to a mainstream audience was worth – or even neutralised – the nasty treatment ABDC gave VE in the end?

Robin:  [Getting the credit you deserve] always comes at a cost before it swings back to the middle. Leiomy took one for the team in a massive way.

Michelle: Well that was actually Lil Mama’s suggestion: act like a lady and take one for the team.

Thea: eep

Robin: Eff her.

Thea: cosign

Robin: (sarcasm) lol.

Thea: Would it have been better if VE had never been on ABDC?

Robin: No way. It was their choice to be on the show, and VE is representin fierce.

Elisha: For me, it was my first chance to even learn about Leiomy – Shane Sparks said that in NYC she’s “a God.” I’m glad I learned about her – that’s the kind of tv I want!

Alaska: No. I think we gotta get our asses kicked a bunch in public to get places, unfortunately. Cuz otherwise we’re just getting our asses kicked in alleys and motel rooms.

Thea: In the end perhaps VE was playing to a particular audience: people who appreciate what they do; and who are thrilled to see themselves represented on TV, finally getting some credit. The rest of the haters, can well, you know.

Michelle: For sure.  For me to see [VE representing queer and trans culture] on mainstream television seemed unreal!

Robin: I think it’s less a cost to the movement, but a great cost to VE personally. I hope Leiomy has a lot of support when this is all through.

Thea:  When you think about it, it’s a real sacrifice that VE made for the whole queer community. Sniff. VE forever!

So what’s our final verdict on America’s Best Dance Crew? Are y’all going to keep on watching, or are we organising a boycott?

Elisha: Tell me if I’m being naive: I still have this inclination to love ABDC all the same.  I think I love it because it still gives people a chance to present their own art their own way, no matter how much MTV profits from it. VE did such flamboyant unapologetic Vogueing. And the other crews also brought some genuine local codes to the stage. Do you agree?

Thea: What other crews are you thinking of?

Elisha: Like Southern Movement, who invented “Hick Hop”.

Thea: I thought that was really interesting, the way they totally appropriated a culture we associate with whiteness.

Elisha: Or Beat Ya Feet Kings, who invented “beat ya feet” as they say, in gogo parties in southeast DC.

Alaska: I really feel that most other crews are mostly Latino, Black or Asian – that race isn’t much of a barrier in this competition, though mostly white crews of women went way further than they should have in earlier seasons.

Thea: That’s one thing I love about ABDC.  It’s a POC-centric show,  and very unself-consciously so.  Like it’s not trying to market to POCs.  It just happens to, because hip hop dance crews are often POC.

Robin: Yes, I agree. I feel like giving up art entirely sometimes because it depresses the hell out of me as a black person, that other black folks historically don’t get anywhere without the help of white producers.  Or if they are black producers they exploit [other black folks] with the Master’s Tools. It makes me nuts.  So I guess ABDC is the less of two evils.

Thea:  I think we can say that ABDC does give people a platform to bring their marginalised dancing culture to a mainstream space, and really own it…at least for a few minutes. I think crews have to go into it knowing that they’re gonna get exposure, but at some cost, like we’ve said.

Elisha: I think that ABDC generally plays for a POC audience.

Michelle: Really.

Alaska: Disagree.

Michelle: I think MTV caters to a huge cross section of folks.

Alaska: I think that corporate media plays it to look like it’s for POCs, because white people love thinking they’re POCs. Cough gangsta rap cough, cough ringtone rap cough…Unless every black person in the USA buys 3 cds of every big rap album, then white people are still most of the market.

Elisha: Yeah, but how do you explain the fact that white crews don’t make it far on ABDC? Where are the Eminems? Where are the Beastie Boys?

Thea: I think because it is hip hop, people are more comfy letting POCs win at a dance battle. It might be about racial taxonomy.

Michelle: I’m sorry but a rollerskate dance crew isn’t that interesting to me.  And maybe the Tennessee tap dancers are cute, but at the end of the day, not that interesting.

Alaska: Because we’re better Elisha.

Thea:  Right. Definitely.

Elisha:  But there are plenty of successful white artists ripping off hip hop style.

Thea: Yeah, but for the moment it is a scene dominated by POCs…until Obama and postraciality change that for all the Asher Roths out there.  (SARCASM)

Elisha: I still like ABDC. Anyone with me?

Michelle: At the end of the day, I really enjoy the show, but understand that it’s being controlled for the purposes of furthering a corporate agenda.

Thea: Why doesn’t the corporate agenda dilute your enjoyment of the show?

Alaska: Honestly, after a transphobic incident like that I don’t feel like watching anymore. But at the same time transphobia is so pervasive, if I want to watch anything I have to just get over it.

Robin: It dilutes my enjoyment.

Thea: Mine too.

Robin: Totally.

Thea: I don’t feel like watching the rest of this season.

Alaska: I agree Robin.

Thea: Maybe I’ll come back later.

Robin: Can’t deal.

Michelle: But what are we expecting? Is it realistic to expect that MTV or these judges are going to have the kind of analysis that we desire?

Alaska: Nope.

Thea: I guess this is the nature of watching TV while being QPOC.

Robin: It is exactly what you would expect, and it’s still hurtful and inappropriate.

Michelle: I think that regardless of whether or not you’re a QPOC, [witnessing that kind of racism, homophobia, transphobia...] should be hurtful for anyone watching it.

Thea: That’s a good point.

Thea: But Elisha and Michelle are still on board with ABDC.

Elisha: I like those fifteen minutes of fame that everyone gets, I like that they get a bit of credit. I agree that the transphobia was unforgivable and heart-stopping. But I guess I’m so taken aback to see a show dominated by POCs delivering their own product.

Thea: Yeah, damn MTV! They’re offering something we can’t get anywhere else!

Robin: But I think the bar [for POCs delivering their own product] could be higher, it’s definitely for the lowest common denominator. I mean Mario Lopez is the host for crying out loud.

Thea: Aw. Mario.

Alaska: Nobody hates on my AC Slater.

Robin: Hahahaha

Alaska:  At least it wasn’t hosted by Screech.

Michelle: Hahahaha

Last thoughts?

Alaska: I think Leiomy should replace Lil Mama as judge next season.

Michelle: Hells yes.

Elisha: Agreed. Leave Leiomy behind the judges’ table!

Elisha: Hmm. I think I’ll use ABDC as some kind of launchpad. Now I’m going to do research now. On gogos, Beatyafeet, Leiomy and other stuff that I just learned in the last month.

Thea:  It would be good if we could just take what’s good about ABDC and trash the rest.

Michelle: We wanna bring Vogue Evolution to Canada! (Note: there was a disporportionate representation of Canadians on this roundtable.)

Elisha: Where do we petition?

Thea: Let’s not provoke that “we should all move to Canada” myth…

Michelle:  Ahhah. I meant bring VE to Canada as guest performers.  Yes, transphobia is alive [in Canada], very much so…but there’s still a community that appreciates voguers and balling that would love to see them.

Elisha: Guest performers at our queer people of colour danceparties!

Alaska: Shoulda booked them before they got real expensive.

Elisha: Right.

Thea: Damn.

Alaska:  Sissy Nobby is still cheap I hear, ha.

Thea:  Anything else that we’re dying to say about Vogue Evolution and America’s Best Dance Crew?

Alaska: Yeah. To Lil Mama:  “Lip Gloss” wasn’t that good.

Elisha: I liked “Lip Gloss”!

Thea: Traitor!!!

Michelle: I guess I wanted to say that MTV still benefits at the end of the day, they profit off of other people’s dance forms which have art as resistance…but that resistance gets depoliticized on stage.  When [artists for resistance] push the boundaries, they get policed.

Robin: Agreed.

Elisha: Not to mention that MTV/corporate media gets to glorify coming from “the street” without any accountability for having created a segregated culture in the first place.

Thea:  It’s a double-edged sword, but some folks are willing to bite that bullet. (Sorry, mixing metaphors.)

Thea:  It sorta makes me feel all weepy, when I think about that kind of sacrifice.

Alaska:  It’s like that everytime I perform. You learn to deal with it or pervert it or give up and go home.

Robin: But then art is work, important time and effort and should get rewarded financially. I think this is always a challenge for those doing political art, trying to survive.

Alaska: I agree with Elisha and Robin both.

Michelle Cho: Me too! Me too!

Thea:  Ok, so to conclude, this is our party line: ABDC provides a platform for POCs to bring their art to the world. We keep coming back because we can’t see that anywhere else, but lawd, it hurts.  But at least it’s not hosted by Screech.

Thea: I like to go back to Leiomy’s last words.  She said something about how, for all the people who are going through changes, just be who you are.  I thought that was really lovely, and that was a big part of their message.

Michelle: Thanks for having us!

Alaska: Thanks for the invite.

Elisha: This was an honour!

Robin: Yeah, thankyou Thea.  And thanks to my sisters VE.

Elisha: VE Day forever!

Michelle: Vogue Evolution always and forever!

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The Roundtable also shared with me that Vogue Evolution cover nights are popping up everywhere.  If you are in Toronto, check out amazing POC dance crew Ill Nana when they give VE some love Sept 30th at the Gladstone.  And while you’re in Toronto, be sure to also check out Les Blues. Les Blues is a performance project run by queer women of colour, and similar to Vogue Evolution, they are all about reclaiming the queer roots of the blues.

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Robin Akimbo is a multi-disciplinary artist currently residing in Toronto.  She has written and produced
original work for performance in Montreal, Toronto, New York and San Francisco.  In 2007 she toured the United States extensively on the Sister Spit: Next Generation Tour, in promotion of the anthology Baby Remember My Name edited by Michelle Tea, pub. Carroll & Graf.

Alaska B is an artist, dj and musician based between Montreal & Toronto. She is one of the founding members of YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a multidisciplinary diasporic/indigenous experimental arts & opera collective.

Michelle Cho is a Toronto-based community organizer but would rather be reading, YA novels, singing Dolly Parton songs at karaoke and eating Melona bars.

Elisha Lim co-hosts Fresh To Def, Toronto’s queer people of colour weekly danceparty with Royal Newbold and Kalmplex Seen. Her graphic novel 100 Butches documents queerness, race and gender and will be published by Alyson Books in 2010.

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Vogue Evolution portrait courtesy of Elisha Lim.