Walking up Bethnal Green Road on a sodden Tuesday evening, you see what you always do; Turkish cafes, fruit and veg shops, the stuttering route of the 388. Off Bethnal Green Road is Pollard Row and a short walk down that Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, a detached sandstone building with a Banksy in one outer corner. Stepping into the hall, there are neat rows of tear-off raffle tickets taped to the inner glass door, mismatched post-war furniture arranged in clutters, and a steady stream of bodies flowing into the basement for a Women's Institute meeting. Some women are wearing 'Stop Page Three!' t-shirts, all are peeling back sticker name badges. I frown slightly. This doesn't strike me as where I'm supposed to be: the metropolitan hub of a new exercise craze called Voga
After spending a couple of hours experiencing all things Voga, I can safely say that I worry for the future. Voga is the conceptual brainchild of Juliet Murrell, a lean, platinum blonde woman who decided, after training as a yoga teacher and re-watching seminal ballroom culture documentary Paris Is Burning - “which is just the best film I've ever seen; I loved the music and the feeling of empowerment, just these awesome guys strutting the runway doing these poses and living the moment” - that “the more flexible I became, the more I'd be able to do those moves. A lot of the moves are like yogic moves, but with just some embellishment with the arms and more powerful alignment. I started thinking 'I'm going to work on something that combines yoga and vogueing.”
So, what is Voga? “I think its just this perfect way of getting everyone together. I might mess up sometimes, but people just go with it. I think it's just a really expressive form of exercise.” Duly, everyone got together in the upstairs hall. Although one of my more pedantic pet peeves is when anything a bit aesthetically left-of-centre is called “Lynchian”, there was an underhand sense of the nightmarish not about the club, but about having a Voga class here. A huge red love heart with tired glitter was propped against the stage wall, and the main unmanned bar sat opposite another, relic bar: complete with a birthday party string of letters, and a cut-out clown. And they say that the only differences between antique and kitsch are memory and taste. It didn't exactly scream ballroom.
Mats were being laid out by the assistant, Emily, who was as enthusiastic about the evening's session as Murrell. In a way, they're right to be. Murrell only came up with Voga in October last year, and it's already been picked up on social media as a pop culture oddity as much as a exercise craze. The swell in interest hasn't exactly passed her by, either. The twelve or so attendees pay £10 a head for a forty-five minute session and with three sessions per week, it seems like a part time job with a full time return. She beams as she recounts enthusiastic responses from attendees, and how she wants to take the Voga brand further.
“I have been approaching gyms, but I want to do it in my own way. I want this to be a brand. I want it to be known around the world, and for people to invest in it. I'm getting hundreds of emails from people in the US and Canada who want to teach Voga, so I'm going to be doing training sessions and taking it over there too.” So Bethnal Green Working Mens Club is just the starting point? “Well, I want it to be in places like this too; referencing the whole community feeling of ballroom back in Harlem.”
This is where Murrell's brand-in-waiting falls face first into a cultural appropriation cesspit. For anyone with even a passing interest in house music and/or gay culture, Paris Is Burning
is a necessary watch. A beautiful, controversial documentary film, it exposed the world to the fiercely protected New York City ballroom scene of the mid to late 1980s. Though the music, fashions and choreography have necessarily grown in the years since the film's release, Paris Is Burning
sees the core of the culture on vivid show. Balls are not only performances where the imagination runs wild - and the ego inflamed and burned in equal, dramatic measure - but safe meeting places for young, gay, trans, black and Hispanic men to identify with one another.
What began partly as an escapist mechanism in a community troubled by H.I.V. and A.I.D.S., homelessness, sex work, drug addiction and pretty crime, has grown to become a well-documented element of gay culture (albeit largely in North America), and routinely mined by onlookers for its attitude, choreography, fashions, colloquialisms and music. Recent years have seen key figures such as Terre Thaemlitz
and Pony Zion Garcon
discussed such appropriation in far greater detail, but if the sight of the Glee cast “having a kiki” with Sarah Jessica Parker
doesn't make you want to commit harakiri with a rusty teaspoon, I despair.
So far, so typical the fate of your average subculture. Voga, though? Voga manages to feel particularly contentious. How does a white British woman come to make a steady, above-average income from a "brand" not just derived from, but explicitly implying a relationship with a culture so overtly removed from her own life experience; a culture whose imperative is community, not financial gain?
“I know that people in that community are going to have an issue with it”, admits Murrell. “I've already had letters from some people in the US ballroom scene questioning my intentions, but I've also had some really strong support from people in the Vogueing scene in Philadelphia, who want to get involved. I think the whole thing about Vogueing is that, yes, it is marginalised, black, gay men who have started it up on their own, but the whole concept that goes into that its so great; that whole thing of gay shade, all that attitude-y stuff. Anyone can do that.”
Really? “Yeah. Just because I'm not from that scene doesn't mean that I shouldn't be allowed to experience it, and get something from it. Lots of people have taken things from the grassroots of these cultural things, where it's at its most raw and edgy. I think everyone should be allowed to do that.”
doesn't think so. Mike Q is a DJ and producer from New York, and works closely with the experimental sister labels Night Slugs and Fade To Mind. He regularly DJs at balls, and is passionate in conversation about the culture's past and present. Having posted about Voga with a fair degree of vitriol in recent weeks, I wondered what he made of Voga when he first heard of it? “I thought it was a spoof actually, I thought it was a joke. I know she as a person is probably harmless, but I have a problem with people trying to dip into something they completely know nothing about.”
What is it about ballroom culture being appropriated through concepts like Voga that's so antagonistic? “Ballroom is one of the last of these legendary, living subcultures. You can't just pick up some basic choreography from a movie that came out twenty years ago, and make it Your Thing, you know? If she was at a real ball, she would be getting chopped up and down the runway every time she walked.” As forthright as he is, Mike Q is pretty calm. He's not so much angry as he is bemused, as to why ballroom and Vogueing are so often misrepresented.
“It is just another instance of watering down. When people find out about Voga it will only lead them to Madonna's 'Vogue' or Paris Is Burning, and the scene has evolved so much since then. Even when Madonna did it, it wasn’t necessarily right. If ballroom is going to move into the mainstream, the people that come from the culture should be looked at first; when it comes to the dance, the music the fashion. They should be the people who get something from it, before anybody else does.”
And what does he make of Murrell wanting to take Voga to balls in the US? “I would definitely say that would 100% not be welcome. It has nothing to do with who she is, it’s just ballroom has these set of rules that we go by. That would never fly.”
As the group pulled off their coats and readied themselves on the mats, a DJ tucked away in the far right of the stage blasted out Diana Ross – 'I'm Coming Out', and Murrell begins. Preconceived attitudes put to one side, I was curious as to how this would play out.
It was a strange display; not so much energetic as frantic, as Murrell shouted out the sequence over the music at young women being put through a series of jilted movements that were somewhere between aerobics, yoga and a smattering of half-hearted classic Vogue arm poses. One of the girls turns to me and mouths “What the fuck?” in my direction, as the class lie down on bended knee, resting their upper body weight on their elbows and chins on their hands. It's more Babysitters Club Aerobics than Vogue-infused yoga. As Murrell shouts “Find that inner pose!”, I get the distinct sense that some are at best bemused, and at worst uncomfortable. The sexuality, power and fantasy of the balls is pointedly absent throughout.
The class finishes to the strains of Bill Withers - 'Lovely Day' and the group huddle onstage for a photo, striking twee power poses and grinning. The camaraderie feels forced, and I ask the girl who mouthed at me earlier what she made of the session: “Being clumsy and with the arse of an ironing board, I probably wasn’t the best contender to convincingly Voga. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less poised or attractive. I would have been chased out of Harlem with a shoe. Vogueing is all about the kind of classy restraint that’s difficult to pull off if you’re worrying about farting on the girl behind you.”
Mike Q is right. Murrell is a harmless human being. She seems a perfectly pleasant and sociable woman, who likes and wants to teach yoga. Voga is a stupid idea poorly executed, and accusations of cultural appropriation on her part are as likely to be shot down as sanctimonious posturing by cynics. Who cares, right? It's yoga.
But Mike Q is also right in that ballroom culture has been so routinely, and crassly mined by lazy pop culture references for over twenty years, that even something this frivolous hits a nerve. In all honesty I'd be shocked if Voga became an international brand sensation, but the ambition on display here is enough to induce a disapproving side-eye in Voga's direction. Everyone filters out onto Pollard Row and then Bethnal Green Road, and it's still raining. Nothing much has changed, and I doubt it will.