Over the years a few Madonna CDs have found their way to my shelves, and memorable among the two or three is the 1990 release, I’m Breathless. It sticks in mind because of one particular song on the album, “Vogue,” which is a standout on the CD, but comes blazing to life in the video made by director David Fincher, in which he (and Madonna) pays homage to several golden era Hollywood actresses. Shot in black and white the style is all 1920s and 30s. It has been ranked as one of the greatest music videos of all time in different critics’ lists and polls, and won three awards at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards out of a total nine nominations.
The song and video release became hugely popular and people in dance clubs everywhere were doing what they called ‘vogueing,’ a graceful style of dance using the hands and arms, struts and model-like poses of angular, linear movements. True enough to say that super pop star Madonna gave a boost to this type of dancing, but it did not originate with her or her concert choreographers. Vogueing is a dance that began with the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s.
Originally called “presentation” it later became “performance” and grew out of the dance of Black and Latino Americans in Harlem. The original vogue dancers were flamboyant drag queens in elaborately sequined gowns, strutting and posing like models out of Vogue magazine. Madonna was inspired by vogue dancers and choreographers Jose and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem “House Ball.” They introduced “Vogueing” to her at the New York club, Sound Factory. Use of the word ‘house’ to designate the different cliques of vogue dancers grew out of their attraction to the big couture houses like Dior and Saint Laurent. In essence, the dance was a way of imitating the jet set’s beautiful people and front page fashion models.
Jennie Livingston’s award winning 1991 documentary film Paris is Burning documents the origins of this dance movement and Livingston described the dancers as “…people excluded from the mainstream in every way, yet their whole subculture was based on imitating the very people who were excluding them.” It was a gay subculture of grand balls, flashy gowns and couture houses.