Voguing as an Arts-Based Intervention in Social Work

Ricardo Martinez-Rodriguez


Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth serving programs provide spaces for youth to engage in a dance called voguing, a performance based element of a subculture of the LGBT community known as the ballroom scene. Since many of these programs employ social workers, social workers have a responsibility to understand this culture, how it presents in youth programs, and the potential of voguing as an arts-based intervention. This paper provides an overview of Ballroom culture and examines how group work theory may inform the development of a voguing-based social work group. This paper is informed by the writer¡¯s experience working in an LGBT youth program and the work of a former colleague, a youth worker who leads voguing and dance based groups in a youth program and who is highly recognized within the ballroom scene.


While working in the Youth Enrichment Services (YES) Program of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center in New York City, I was exposed to voguing, a dance that took place at mini-balls, performance-based competitions that the program held for participants. I experienced the mini-ball events as celebratory sites of non-heteronormative gender expressions and saw in the movements of those voguing a breaking of the rules governing permissible movement for male assigned children. The energy and excitement of the mini-balls captivated me and furthered my reflection on the impact of the policing of my gender that I had experienced as a child and internalized through adolescence. Reflecting on the feelings I experienced while witnessing mini-ball events led me to wonder what this form of artistic expression may bring up for youth participants. Through an interview with a former colleague and reflections on past work experience, this paper will explore the use of voguing as an arts-based intervention in social work.

Voguing is a dance developed in the ballroom community through performance competitions at ball events. It is increasingly taking place in LGBT service agencies in New York City. Raul Rivera works as the Arts and Media Specialist at the YES Program; he is recognized as a ¡°Legend¡± by his peers in the ballroom community. Rivera describes voguing as a dance of poses based on model poses in magazines (personal communication, October 14, 2011). The name vogue is taken from the magazine with the same name. In order for social work to consider voguing as an arts-based intervention, it must first seek to understand the community and culture where voguing originates. This is necessary in order to locate potential participants¡¯ relation to voguing and to examine the opportunities and limitations of using voguing as an arts-based intervention.

There is limited scholarly research on the ballroom community, despite the fact that balls have taken place for over fifty years (Bailey, 2009). The majority of members are African American, with Latinos participating in cities with larger Latino populations such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles (Bailey, 2009). Arnold and Bailey¡¯s (2009) article focusing on the construction of home and family in the ballroom community describe two main elements of this community. The first element is the house, around which participants form kinship, family-like relationships, and the second is the ball, an event produced by a house, where members of different houses compete through performances, including voguing, for cash prizes and recognition (p. 174). Generally, each element of the ballroom community does not exist without the other (Aronold & Bailey, 2009).

Existing scholarly research on this community focuses on the impact of HIV/AIDS on its members. In light of this focus, the question of how this community is defined is examined by Marlon Bailey (2009) in an essay based on performance ethnographic research. Bailey (2009) critiques the public health discourse of ballroom members forming a risk community and calls for a shift from ¡°intervention to intravention in HIV/AIDS prevention studies¡± to understand how communities use their own knowledge and ingenuity to mitigate and counter HIV from within (p. 259). Rather than a community of risk, Bailey (2009) describes the members of the ballroom community as creating a community of support. This is reflected in ball houses that Arnold and Bailey (2009) consider a resource that youth utilize as they navigate their performances at balls and move through adolescence and into adulthood.

LGBT and questioning youth experience heterosexism, practices and beliefs promoted by society and in institutions, such as the family, that both demand and favor heterosexuality (DiAngelo, 1997). The social networks that youth develop through the ballroom community may help mitigate the consequences of the heterosexism that many youth face within their families. Homelessness is one of these consequences. LGBT youth are disproportionally represented in the homeless youth population (Quintana, Rosenthal, & Krehely, 2010). Substance abuse and unsafe sex are some of the risks associated with homelessness. Compared to youth with social networks, youth without networks report that they are more likely to engage in illegal drug use, sex work, and have multiple sex partners (Ennett, S.T., Bailey S., Federman, E. B., 1999). Houses may provide a social network that may help mitigate the potential negative outcomes associated with heterosexism and the homelessness it causes.

Another source of support that LGBT youth may rely on is LGBT affirming youth programs. LGBT affirmative youth programs emerged to begin to meet the needs of LGBT youth. The first such program, The Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), opened its doors in 1979 as the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth in response to the assault and physical removal of a 15 year old gay youth from a homeless shelter (Hetrick-Martin Institute). Youth programs attracted youth who also connected with ballroom culture. Youth began developing their own communities centered on voguing and other elements of the ballroom community in the youth-only spaces that these organizations provided. According to Raul Rivera, beginning in 2002 while working at HMI, he witnessed the emergence of the kiki scene as a new expression of the ballroom community (R. Rivera, personal communication, October 14, 2011). Kiki is a ballroom term meaning something to be taken lightly, done for fun, or as a joke. Rivera and others use the terms ¡°kiki¡± and ¡°real¡± to distinguish between the kiki scene and the ballroom scene (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Kiki houses and kiki balls began as lighter and less competitive versions of the scene surrounding the ballroom community.

Rivera considers the kiki scene to be more economically accessible and safer for youth than the real scene (personal communication, October 14, 2011). He asserts that while the ballroom scene has many great components, some aspects are less safe for youth (personal communication, October 14, 2011). For example, he notes that real balls take place at night, form part of New York City nightlife, and may expose youth to illegal drugs and underage drinking (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Also, given the competitiveness of real balls, Rivera says that some youth steal in order to have clothes to walk (perform in) a ball (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Rivera connects the push to steal with the rewards that walking a ball may bring to a participant: ¡°When you do not have a lot, when you walk, it becomes important for you to win. There are people behind you and that adds to it¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Winning or even participating in a ball ¡°quenches youth¡¯s thirst for connection,¡± and Rivera says that youth ¡°get their life [affirmation] by going to balls¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). He recognizes the ¡°thirst¡± youth have to be a ¡°feeling of wanting acceptance, acknowledgement from peers, receiving praise, feeling valued by community, and being celebrated as opposed to shamed¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Rivera describes the balls to be healing community events:

Being in a big room with a lot of people, the participant may not even be aware of how it is making them feel: normal, connected, like there are others like them. And for those not performing, seeing the performance may give them permission and freedom to express themselves. There is freedom to possibly feel pride. (personal communication, October 14, 2011)

The tension between the drive for recognition and the healing potential of balls is played out in youth programs that hold kiki events.

As youth programs hold kiki balls for their participants, they have an opportunity to support the aspects of the kiki scene that are affirming and create community. This may help to counter some aspects of the kiki scene that have become more competitive, mimicking the real ballroom scene. Youth programing structure may help facilitate this goal. The YES Program is guided by a vision that is captured in its Community of Inclusion mission statement. Community of Inclusion guides the construction of relationships based on mutual expectations of respect among all of the participants involved, including staff. An underlying goal in this vision is creating safe space and community. The following description of my experience staffing a kiki ball while working at YES highlights how YES¡¯s structure laid a supportive foundation to lessen competitiveness and demonstrated youth ownership of the program and event.

YES kiki balls are open to all youth between ages 13 to 21. Although a large proportion of participants are long-term YES members, there are also many youth participants that are new to YES but are long term participants in the kiki scene. During a kiki-ball, I checked in with a youth who was new to YES and who expressed anger because he felt cheated when a member of his kiki house did not win a performance category. The youth directed his anger toward me. Another youth, a long-time participant who was with him said, ¡°Chill, dude, that¡¯s staff.¡± I recognized my presence as unhelpful for the youth for whom I expressed concern and stepped back. The long-time participant¡¯s words to his friend communicated a relationship of respect to the safe space the program attempts to build. Throughout the evening, the staff and youth member emcees spoke about the value of everyone in attendance and the importance of creating a safe space together while having fun.

In addition to kiki ball events that replicate the structures of real balls, the YES Program also holds an open group called SNAP where youth can vogue, dance, and express themselves through movement. This group begins with a short discussion; however, the main draw, reflected in high numbers of participants, is the expressive movement component. The following describes Rivera¡¯s work with a youth in the group that reflects Piele¡¯s (1998) recognition of the body and emotions as modes of knowing and communication that should be acknowledged and valued in social work practice (as cited in Kemp and Tagenberg, 2002 p. 11):

As a youth worker, I create a space for [youth] to express themselves. I ask them, ‘what are you saying and expressing?’ and I tap into something else. I speak to them, ‘How did you feel when you were voguing like that?’ This leads into conversations about parents or something else that they are going through.¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011)

The dance group provides a space where youth can communicate through their body. Rivera asks participants, ¡°Tell me a story with your hands¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). When participants vogue, Rivera says he is able to ¡°see their feelings coming out, their anger, their sadness (personal communication, October 14, 2011). One of the youth told Rivera that he vogued for hours in his room in order to let out his feelings.¡±

Social work¡¯s discourse with the body is that of the mind and reason controlling the body and emotions, which reflects the mind and body split in Western thought (Kemp & Tagenberg, 2002 ). The mind is given primacy in social work as an avenue for change. However, change may also be experienced through the body and voguing provides a way for youth to experience catharsis. During SNAP, Rivera tells youth who are voguing on the dance floor to ¡°let it out; whatever you are feeling, let it out¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Grosz (1994) conceptualized the body as both physical and sociocultural, as a site of not only physical and subjective experiences, but also inscribed with the experiences reflecting the dominant social order, and as a result, the experiences of marginality and privilege (as cited in as cited in Kemp and Tagenberg, 2002, p. 12). Through voguing, youth may break the heteronormative societal rules dictating that their gender expression should conform to assigned gender roles. Gard (2008) considers dance as creating a space to challenge and break rules that dictate how bodies should move. Rivera considers voguing to be ¡°a freeing of the self¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). He referred to it as ¡°a leap, like bungee jumping and you can¡¯t worry about how you look; you just have to let go¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011).

The metaphor of voguing as bungee jumping also appropriately describes the potential apprehension that youth may experience when witnessing voguing. According to Rivera, the most popular category of performance at a ball is ¡°intense femme expression¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Through voguing, male assigned youth move their bodies in ways in which society prohibits male assigned people to move. From before birth, adults begin to assign gender identities to unborn children based on societal definitions of gender (Dragowski, Scharron-del Rio, & Sandigorsky, 2011). Adherence to gender roles and gender expression associated with a particular gender identity brings forth acceptance while non-compliance brings forth stigma and often violence (Dragowski et al, 201l). In light of their own histories with having their gender policed, youth who enter an affirmative LGBT youth space and witness voguing, with its breaking of societal rules related to gender, may experience many emotions, including fear. This suggests that what may be ¡°freed¡± through voguing includes the rules governing how bodies should move; this allows the expression of prohibited movement or gender expression.

Fear of violence associated with gender expression was a popular topic in the young men¡¯s group discussions that I facilitated weekly at YES for almost two years. The following recollection of a story one youth shared during the young men¡¯s group I facilitated demonstrates this theme, one which is frequently brought up by many cisgender male identified youth in the group. Cisgender refers to individuals who identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth (Walls & Costello, 2010). The participant shared a story of feeling afraid for his and his friend¡¯s safety during a subway ride. He said he decided to leave his friend on the train because the friend was acting ¡°too feminine.¡± When asked to further explore the reasons for his leaving, the participant said he was afraid of what others might think and of potential violent reactions from others. In other words, he left because he recognized that the people around him might decide to uphold, with the use of force, social norms governing how male assigned people should move their bodies. He reacted to societal messages dictating adherence to gender norms and expression. This example shows one youth¡¯s reaction to heterosexism as he negotiated his identity.

The diversity of LGBT and questioning youths¡¯ lived experiences may elicit different levels of engagement with voguing at an agency. My experience staffing kiki ball events and seeing which youth attended SNAP shows that some youth engage with voguing and ballroom culture more than others. At YES, mostly young men and young transgender women participated in the performance aspects of kiki-balls and SNAP. All youth who experienced abuse related to gender identity and expression have also experienced a threat to their core sense of self in relation to other people; this represents a form of interpersonal trauma (Becker et al., 2010, p. 13). However, the experiences of cisgender youth are different from those of gender-nonconforming youth and transgender youth. For example, a life course study on the physical and psychological abuse suffered by transgender women found that such abuse plays a strong impact on major depression during adolescence (Becker et al., 2010, p. 12). Becker et al. (2010) note the dearth of research on the effects of interpersonal abuse on psychiatric functioning across the life course of this population. As LGBT youth programs seek to counter abuse and help youth build supportive communities, youth programs should seek to understand the effectiveness of voguing as an arts-based intervention across different populations of LGBT and questioning youth. Additionally, such an exploration should seek to understand meanings that youth assign to ballroom culture and voguing.

Regardless of proximity or distance from ballroom culture, issues of race and class may come up in a group that uses voguing as an arts-based social work intervention. Such issues should be addressed within the group. Livingston¡¯s (1991) documentary, Paris is Burning, presents potential opportunities to discuss race and class as it relates to the lives of ballroom participants. Paris is Burning is one of the first attempts to introduce ballroom culture to a wide audience (Bailey, 2009). The documentary portrays its subjects as expressing a desire for power tied to wealth and recognized through whiteness. One person, interviewed at the Christopher Street Piers with a group of friends in the film, described ball events to be ¡°as close to reality as they¡¯re going to get to all that fame, and fortune, and stardom and spotlights¡± (Livingston, 1991). A ball participant narrator continues in the next scene saying, ¡°I always saw the way that rich people lived and I¡¯d feel it more you know? It would slap me in the face. I¡¯d say, ¡®I¡¯d have to have that¡¯¡± (Livingston, 1991). He goes on to note differences in material possessions between the rich and the poor, and raises the question, ¡°So why is it that they have it and I didn¡¯t? I always felt cheated¡± (Livingston, 1991). Another scene features Venus Xtravaganza describing how she wishes to be a ¡°spoiled rich white girl¡± (Livingston, 1991). Although applying the concept of ¡°colonial desire¡± to melodrama, and its subversive possibilities, Benavides¡¯ (2003) use of ¡°colonial desire¡± informs an understanding of the desire for wealth and power expressed by the members of the ballroom community whom Livingston (1991) documents in Paris is Burning:

the corrosive power of envy that locks both the colonizer (secretly wanting what is projected onto the darker enslaved bodies: lust, emotional freedom, less ¡°civilizing¡± constraints, etc.) and the colonized (striving for political and economic freedom while being injected with markers of cultural inferiority) into a bitter struggle that, although initiated five centuries ago, continues to fuel the interaction of people both locally and globally.¡± (p. 112)

Rivera notes that the youth he encounters express a thirst for recognition and acknowledgement (personal communication, October 14, 2011). The intersecting oppressions of racism, classism, and heterosexism impact youth¡¯s sense of power. This may become envy, as Benavides suggests, or it can be internalized and manifested in internalized oppression (Smith, Chambers, & Bratini, 2009).

Hopps and Pinderhughes (1999) discuss the use of empowerment to help social work group participants overcome their sense of powerlessness. They recognize that it is not enough for groups to help spur insight and knowledge in members; groups must also lead members to hold each other accountable and push comfort zones (Hopps and Pinderhughes, 1999). Groups should be action-oriented, which means that participants are pushed to identify ¡°reactive behaviors, distorted thinking, misunderstanding, and confusion¡± as well as to better manage their anger (Hopps and Pinderhughes, 1999, p. 16). Although understood as normal reactions to surviving life under systems of oppression, such defense mechanisms may impede life-affirming possibilities for group members outside of the group sessions as well. In discussing the client/practitioner relationship, Hopps and Pinderhughes (1999) discuss power sharing as a desired outcome when practitioners examine their own needs for power and reactions to difference. By using their ¡°power with¡± rather than their ¡°power over,¡± group practitioners can reinforce the idea that each group member is valuable and is a contributor to the group (Hopps and Pinderhughes, 1999, p. 26). This also communicates to the group that it has value as a whole and that group members are able to act as agents of change.

Rivera shares how ¡°voguing provides youth with ownership of something that they can do, something for which they can say ¡®this belongs to us,¡¯¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Rivera says he often tells youth, ¡°If you can walk a ball you can get through anything¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Many youth who practice voguing in SNAP go on to successfully compete in kiki-ball events. Rivera¡¯s powerful encouragement recognizes that ability and efficacy in one aspect of life can translate to success in other areas.

Previous examples highlight how LGBT youth serving agencies currently engage with voguing and ballroom culture. Kaplan¡¯s (2001) article on performing-arts-based social work groups provides foundational knowledge for creating a closed voguing group as a social work intervention. Kaplan (2001) identifies a three-fold purpose in performing-arts-based activity groups that are grounded in social group work: skills acquisition, performance, and socioemotional development. Social work with groups requires recognition of different group stages as well as recognizing the challenges and opportunities each stage brings. The social worker¡¯s task is to balance the three inter-related purposes through the beginning, middle, and ending stages of the group. Of the three purposes, particular attention to the socioemotional purpose of the group is what sets apart an arts-based social work group from a performing arts class (Kaplan, 2001). While the group Kaplan (2001) discusses in her article ends in a performance, she considers group success to be centered on the relationships that participants build with each other during the process rather than positive audience feedback. She highlights the compassion and acceptance that youth are able to express for each other as markers of success. This compassion and acceptance may transfer to other relationships that youth build. For LGBT youth, building supportive relationships with peers may increase social networks and counter the impact of oppression in their lives.

The voguing group facilitator may also have an impact on group participants. Rivera describes the unique impact he has on youth working at YES. He finds youth drawn to him because of his participation in the ballroom community and because of his status as a ¡°Legend¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). He says that youth familiar with ballroom culture ¡°experience an instant connection with those who have made an impact in the ballroom community” (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Rivera sees the connection that youth form with adult staff from the ballroom community as positive because youth are ¡°idolizing others who look like them¡± and these ¡°idols are adults in the same community¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). Another aspect of the ballroom community that is significant for Rivera is the oral history shared among participants; he says that ¡°we know all the people who vogued¡± (personal communication, October 14, 2011). This provides a sense of history and lineage to youth who are interested or involved in the kiki scene or real ballroom scene. It provides a counter-narrative to the general invisibility of diverse LGBT representation in the mainstream media and in the history learned in schools.

Voguing is already taking place at LGBT youth servicing agencies through kiki-balls and open dance groups such as SNAP. Many of these agencies are staffed and run by social workers. This paper explored voguing as an arts-based intervention in social work with groups. Social work¡¯s engagement with voguing and ballroom culture may serve as an additional intervention alongside current practices utilized by LGBT affirming youth programs. Voguing as an arts-based intervention in social group work combines verbal communication with the transgressive power of movement, acknowledging the body as an avenue of change. This mending of the mind and body split has the potential to provide space for participants to reflect on their experiences with gender in society, and the motivation for youth to take action in their communities (Freire, 1993).


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About the Author

Ricardo Martinez-Rodriguez was born in Michoacan, Mexico and was raised in Mt. Vernon, NY. He holds a BA in International Political Economy, a minor in Latin American Latino Studies, and a certificate in Peace and Justice Studies from Fordham University. As an undergraduate student, Ricardo participated in a National Science Foundation research experience in Morelia, Mexico and was a Vaid Fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Ricardo¡¯s work with LGBT youth at the LGBT Center¡¯s YES Program and at the Ali Forney Center inspired him to apply to social work school in order to increase his capacity to serve his communities. Ricardo is graduating in 2013 with an MSW from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in Group Work with a Global Social Work and Practice with Immigrants and Refugees practice specialization. Ricardo may be reached at rmartinez.work@gmail.com.

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1 Comment

  1. NICE WORK…I thoroughly enjoyed reading your work…


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