By Jay Darcy
House of Suarez’ annual Manchester Vogue Ball is an event I will gladly visit year after year. It takes place at Manchester Academy and is presented as part of Queer Contact (Contact’s annual queer festival during LGBT+ History Month).
Each ball has a new theme. I first attended Vogue Ball, as a mere spectator, in 2018, back when the then-fringe ball was at the much smaller Manchester Academy 2. The theme was 7 Deadly Sins. I missed the event in 2019 before returning, as a reviewer, in 2020 for Vogue Ball of Atlantis. The pandemic meant that there was no ball in 2021; the event returned in 2022 for Night at the Poseum (a museum-themed ball).
This year, House of Suarez was a little more generic; the theme was disco (aren’t all balls disco?). But given the resurgence of disco in recent years, and Beyoncé’s groundbreaking Renaissance, a disco-themed ball is timely. (How fitting that the ball was the day after I got tickets for the Renaissance World Tour?)
Given the theme, the music was, of course, marvellous. After the hosting house performed a wonderful, welcoming opening number, host Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE came out to Diana Ross’ ‘I’m Coming Out’ – which Diana Ross does at all her concerts, including both times I saw her (AO Arena and Lytham Festival). Rikki was a dazzling diva from the very beginning. As always, he sought to remind the majority White audience that voguing is a Black art form, and he made sure to honour black divas throughout the show. He even did a lip sync to Gloria Gaynor’s disco cover of ‘I Am What I Am’ (from the musical La Cage aux Folles) and had the entire audience boogieing to Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ (which he seems to do every single year, and it never gets old).
For those of you who don’t know, a Ball, in this sense, is a competition between various “Houses” (dance groups).
The Ballroom scene began as an African-American and Latino underground LGBTQ+ subculture in 1970s New York City. Black and Latin drag queens began to organise their own pageants in opposition to racism experienced in established drag queen pageant circuits, and these pageants (or “balls”) welcomed other members of the queer community.
Vogue, or voguing, is a highly stylised, modern house dance which originated in the late 1980s and evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s. Inspired by the style of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the famous images of models in Vogue magazine, voguing is characterised by striking a series of poses as if one is modelling for a photo shoot.
Vogue presents gender as a performance. Drag queens pretend to apply makeup (“beat face”), style hair and don extravagant clothing through the dance moves. Depending on the competition category, participants may perform the traditional behaviours of their biological sex to demonstrate “realness,” or passing as straight. Like all real art, it is political.
Voguing, of course, gained mainstream exposure when it was featured in Madonna’s song and video ‘Vogue’ (1990) and the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival).
Balls, like mainstream pageants, feature various categories, and there’s also an award for “Best Overall” – each winner decided by a selection of fabulously dressed judges.
This first category, “Fantasy”, allows the Houses to introduce themselves; there’s always some wonderful costumes. It was followed by “Solo”, “Lip Sync”, “Sex Siren”, and “Choreography” (those are the ones I remember anyway).
Jaden Wilkinson from House of Suarez won Best Solo; his performance, which saw him groove to Lipps Inc.’s ‘Funky Town’, dressed only in sexy green gym wear, was my favourite solo of the night. Like last year, he reached the dance-off but this time he won!
Joy Mahoro (House of La Porta), who had beaten Jaden the year prior, looked very much like Grace Jones. Her facial expressions and self-loving, sensual movements were stunning, but this performance did not allow her to show off her incredible dancing – she might just be the best dancer I’ve seen at Vogue Ball.
Joss La Porta’s solo dance to Boney M.‘s ‘Daddy Cool’ (in which he wore a cowboy hat, mesh gloves, a “Daddy” crop top, denim chaps and a silver thong) had the entire audience yasss-ing. He was House Mother and Daddy Cool in one.
Every ball, I come across a new voguer who instantly becomes one of my favourites. This ball, it was Henry Chatt from House of LIPA. He did a lip sync to Cece Peniston’s ‘Finally’, wearing a pale yellow leotard with gold glitter and tassels and matching gloves. His impressive dancing even saw him do the splits. I shared a video of him on my Instagram story and tagged Cece Peniston who then shared it herself, much to Henry’s delight.
Luke Arrowsmith, Mother of House of Korrupt, gets better every year. His raunchy lip sync to Christina Aguilera’s cover of Rose Royce‘s ‘Car Wash’ was thrilling. His short tartan skirt allowed him to flash his enviable behind countless times (something he is very fond of doing).
Kolade Ladipo wore a gorgeous gold dress for his lip sync to disco queen Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’, whilst Paul Doyle had the whole audience singing along to The Village People’s ‘YMCA’ (dressed in cop uniform). Owen Gillot (House of La Porta) delivered the category’s most camp and comedic performance; he mimed along to Donna Summer’s ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ (I told you, she’s the Queen of Disco). He came onstage dressed as an old biddy, quickly stripteasing to reveal a skintight leotard, complete with disco ball-shaped breast cups (as Tove Lo would say, “disco tits”).
The girls killed the Sex Siren category. One performer wore beautiful tribal clothing; she embodied “glamazonian”. The girls of House of La Porta (led by the mesmerising Lucy McGrellis, as per) went fully homoerotic. Their performance turned me into a lesbian, and I’m not even a woman!
House of LIPA, dressed in corsets and open skirts (which they soon discarded), similarly embraced and celebrated lesbianism. But their best performance was seen in the choreography category, in which they danced to The Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’. The dance began with them discarding a “death to disco” sign (a reference to Disco Demolition Night, which they had first referenced in their opening number), revealing the entire troupe, who jumped up with fans in their hands.
Meanwhile, House of La Porta performed to a vibrant disco medley, bopping along to bop after bop. However, the prize was, unsurprisingly, won by House of Suarez – the crème de la crème of British voguing. Whilst their performance was not quite as exciting as the others, it was the best choreographed, and the dancers’ are supremely skilled.
The overall prize, however, went to House of La Porta, who similarly lost Best Choreography but won Best Overall at the last ball (the judges’ decision to award Best Choreography to House of Suarez, not House of La Porta, in 2022 was met with anger from the audience).
The Disco Ball was a fun, fabulous affair, though I’m not sure it was quite as good as House of Suarez’ last two balls at Contact. There seemed to be less Houses than normal. Where were the Black Houses, and where was Viva Brasil Samba Show? Black and brown representation at Vogue Balls is so important so it was disappointing not to see House of Ghetto, House of Noir, etc. Meanwhile, Viva Brasil’s outlandish festival costumes (and leading lady Simone’s ass-shaking skills) were sorely missed.
Let’s hope the next ball sees the return of the Black and Latin Houses, and I hope next year’s theme is more specific and intriguing. Take, for instance, House of Suarez’ upcoming Eurovision Ball, which is taking place the day before the Eurovision final in Liverpool (the home of House of Suarez and the hosting city for Eurovision 2023).
Queer Contact runs at Contact until February 18.
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