WOMEN IN PRIVATE
A private conversation, shared with you.
Vogue Aerobics, All sweat, No shade...
S: Growing up I didn't know what vogue was. I was like everyone else that only knew about it from the Madonna song which now has become annoying. I grew up dancing hip-hop as my primary style but have always loved house music. It really wasn't until hip-hop became mainstream that I started venturing out.
I always tell this story to people…
When I was living in San Francisco I had taken a Haitian dance class and down the hall I'd overheard music with a heavy bass. I literally walked out, followed the sound until I found where the music was coming from. It was like a calling. I knew it was house music but didn't think of house dance or club dance as being a “thing,” I just knew I wanted to be in there. I ended up joining the last 30 minutes of the class and was so drawn to the movements. Later I found out the style the teacher was incorporating in his house choreography was vogue. Around that time a good friend of mine, Sir Joq, had been offered to teach a Vogue & Tone class in SF. It was that year (2009) that I started faithfully training in house and vogue. I approached it as a dancer learning steps - I'd record myself, go back and look at the video as a method of improving my technique. I wasn't giving it enough life..so I kept taking classes and going to clubs mainly in the Castro District.
One night I was driving and I saw a group of people voguing (whom later I found out were part of the Oakland ballroom scene) on the sidewalk so I turned my car around, thinking they were outside of a club. I got out and approached them like, "Hey guys! Whats up?! I vogue!"
They looked at me like, "who the fuck is this bitch and why is she talking to us?"
They started walking away so I literally jumped in front of them and started voguing and they gagged. It was because I’m a women and at that time there was little to no women in the scene. That experience ended up being one of the many important moments where I understood that this is more than just a dance style. This is sacred to this community.
Vogue Aerobics first came to mind when I started working in the Entertainment Industry. A lot of the friends I made, mainly women, would ask where they could learn how to vogue. Most vogue classes in New York aren’t for beginners even though this is the mecca of it all. Regular dance classes usually intimidate people, especially if you’ve never danced before. The responses I would get were usually all the same, “I’m not a dancer" or I’m scared to take a dance class" or "I don’t want to look stupid.”
The reality is no one actually looks stupid because everyone is there to learn. It isn’t even about being a beginner or being advanced, it’s about being in an environment where you’re comfortable enough to let loose and there's no place better than Vogue Knights. That’s where you learn how to vogue, at least I did. I tell my friends if they want to learn how to vogue they have to come to Vogue Knights. That’s where you’ll really learn.
Of course you can take a dance class but you’re only learning technique and vogue is a feeling. It’s a space of empowerment, confidence, being who you want to be and stepping into your persona. So when people didn’t show up to class or make it to Vogue Knights I had the idea that I wanted to create a space where people could come and learn about this style. I could share with them what vogue has taught me, a dance style but also a lifestyle.
K: People that have only been introduced to vogue on a commercial level or that aren’t familiar with the film ‘Paris Is Burning’ ...or don’t actually know any queer people of color in real life - Umm, what are your thoughts on those people using slang that comes from the culture and basically disregarding or not giving credit to the people who created it?
S: Most people don't know voguing started in the late 70’s early 80’s in the LGBTQ community. A community of black and brown queer men who created a world for themselves to be any and everything they ever dreamed of being. I see that for some this is a fad, to me, it’s something I adopted and came natural for me from being amongst the community and immersing myself. The slang itself is connected to the movement and what we are saying on the runway.
It's just like cultural appropriation, where people adopt a trend as it is convenient and cool but for us this is how we live. I think now people are aware that vogue came from the queer community but it developed into a dance style because it was adopted by the dance community. It’s a dance technique but at the heart it was a way for this particular group of people to have a space to be who they are.
The balls are like pageants, vogue is a category in the pageant. It’s throwing shade and being unbothered as I like to say. It’s shining in your confidence and not being afraid to be everything you already are and were ever afraid to be. I realize when I’m teaching, people begin to connect and understand why we do these movements. It’s not just a movie or a saying, it’s like,
“look at my breasts, look at my eyebrows, look at my face.” I have to explain that to people, you can make it a part of your day to day life.
K: I remember when I first moved to New York and I was living with you...that’s how I was introduced to Vogue Knights. What was your experience when you first went?
S: When I first moved to New York there wasn’t as many women in the scene and the space was way more intimate which is crazy to think because it’s hella mainstream now. People from all walks of life come watch the weekly get-down, you even see journalist there now. So you'll see new documentary or article coming out on vogue culture because people are intrigued and want to be apart of it. When I moved here there were about 5 women total and It was nerve wracking being it was a new environment I hadn't danced in yet. But that's what made it even more interesting. People of the ballroom community and my House members [House of Mizrahi] would push me to battle, they helped me embrace my femininity.
They would said,
“You’re a women! You’re already accepted in society so you really have no reason to hold back!”
I felt naked in those moments. Now it feels like a piece of home and I get to see people that I only see when I go to there. Coming into this I learned it at a studio as a dance style and growing up as a dancer that’s how I learned all my dance styles. But it was with Voguing I realized this is more than a dance style, it became my confidence and my way of life. Not being afraid of who I am and over exuding confidence at all times, especially during my lowest moments. Really putting myself out there. Being Perched and Unbothered.
K: A lot of women have an alter ego and I’ve met yours. Is Fuchsia Calabria still around and where did miss thang come from hahaha...
S: That conversation blossomed with you actually. We said our alter egos were, the first street we ever lived on and our first pet’s name. But I did my favorite color instead.
K: LOL of course you did!
S: Fuchsia is my favorite color because it’s not pink or purple, it is it’s own color. Fuchsia...hahahah that bitch is crazy! She’s the side of me that is very unfiltered.
K: Oh that side of you that’s unfiltered? Wasn't aware there was a side of you that was.
S: I still am blunt but... I can only get so ratchet in certain places. But Fuchsia is all out, all the way turnt up with her opinions. She’s a work in progress though. She blossomed out of the idea of being that overly confident person and being everything I wanted to be without being afraid of what other people have to say.
K: I vote for Fuchsia to bring her Twitter back in 2017.
S: If I can figure out that password…I would love that. There are still moments every day where I’m like, I would love to tweet that but I just know it’s not appropriate even though it’s the truth.
K: What holds you back from saying it?
S: It’s like, I smoke weed but my work with youth always made me cautious of saying that stuff publicly. I’m not necessarily trying to be someone's role model but I need to keep that in mind. Lately since I haven't been working in schools as much I have those moments. Like today I wanted to say “ Drinking tea smoking tree” but I didn’t....
K: Yeah, Twitter is weird...things can just be perceived completely different than what you intend them to be. BLAH! It's so meaningless... but we're all on it anyway. Twitter can kiss my ass.
S: Twitter’s strongest aspect is spreading news, that’s why I like it. But it’s also like having a conversation with yourself. Like you want someone to listen but there’s no one around, so you talk to yourself on Twitter… haha…. of course social media is making people less social. I would see people out that follow me but I don’t really know them or know them at all but they know you from social media and they remember something you did or said or where you were and will bring it up. And in those situations it’s awkward. People really do keep up with what you say. But won’t say anything to each other while their in the same room. But have this idea of what you said…. On Twitter ….
K: You reached out to people in Iran in the dance community, what happened?
S: Yeah I found dancers online and I talk to them on telegram which is like the whats app for the middle east. It’s incredible to see dancers in my country because I grew up thinking I was the only one. But to think of the community that inspires me actually exists in Iran just blew my mind. I’m not just a Vogue dancer, I represent the old school side of hip hop and house dance as well. Vogue is just one part of me. The dancers In Iran are mainly Hip-Hop heads and Breakers and some House. But Vogue, they didn’t really know much about. They compared it to Whacking which is a common misconception. But they are two different dance styles even though they are similar in that they were started by the LGBTQ community.
Only recently did I send them a video of me voguing as well as class footage from Vogueing with Omari Mizrahi. I made it obvious as to where it came from and thus far it’s been fully embraced.
K: That reminds me of the video of you at Vogue Knights that went viral (1:22 mark) where you wore a veil. What made you do that?
S: VK had a category in the summer called “Bring It In A Look Inspired By Your Country.” Mind you this is during a time when all the international girls come to town to compete... from Russia, Japan, Sweden, France, Italy, Brazil, you name it. Everyone is here during the summer. I had just heard about the category that day and in the moment I was thinking of the Qajar Era in the late 1800’s when it was more extreme and the government enforced dress code. Now a days, yes, they have to cover their heads/hair and wear a cardigan that goes to your knees but it’s not all black. That’s a common stereotype that Iranians face, is that we are a hardcore Islamic Country when if anything we are run by the Islamic Republic, the people are not. The Hijab is a sign of oppression for women in our country.
I decided that I was going to wear an all black burka and take it off toward the end of the performance to pretty much say: this is what people think of us but really who we are is what is underneath the surface. I support the freedom of religion and the choice to choose your religion but Iranians living in Iran still don’t have that. But let me just tell you that's not stopping them from doing what they love to do. I thought I was going to get death threats but I got great feedback. A queer man from Saudi Arabia contacted me through Facebook to tell me he loved the video clip of me dancing and ended up showing it to his friends who are dancers (including women) and they thought it was amazing.
K:Why did it go viral?
S: Because of the caption. The way this guy posted it. The caption was, “When you were sent to bomb Vogue Knights but you slay instead.”
I think that’s how it went viral. So I re-shared it on Facebook with the caption,“Thanks for sharing my clip. I’m flattered as much as I'm offended...” and added,
“I think what you meant is, when you THOUGHT I was coming to bomb Vogue Knights and I slayed instead.”
Which just goes along with the message of what you think isn’t the whole story. Which is relevant to what’s going on in the world today. Hate crimes and being stereotyped. A lot of the comments were like “ISIS came to vogue nights” or “ISIS got cunt” and I was like I’m glad that you guys are seeing this because you are gagging... you thought different.
K: Generally speaking there isn’t much representation of Iranians in media/entertainment. If people know about Persian culture they might only know according to the mainstream representation, like the show Shahs of Sunset which your cousin (Shervin) happens to be on. What do you think of this show being some people’s only exposure to Persians? ...People might think all Persians are rich and they live in L.A. Wait isn’t that’s kinda true though lol.
S: When the show came out I was on the side of most of the Iranian community. My thoughts were, so the only other thing that represents us in the mainstream other than the news is this? That’s bullshit, it’s just what reality TV is. I don’t watch the show, actually I’ve only watched it with you but I support my cousin and I can see that he’s being himself. Which I’m really glad because he’s being honest and that makes me feel good. I would say that is a very small step forward in getting people’s attention away from the news which can be damaging.
And yes a large majority of Iranians are wealthy but that’s not because they were born with it, it’s because they made a way for themselves. That comes with the fact that they came here after a revolution and started from the ground up. There are so many stories like, “my dad was a doctor back home and he came to the United States and was an Ice Cream Man.” But worked their way back up and made damn sure that they sent their kids to a good college. I take pride in that for my people being known for some of the most successful minorities in this country. But still when I look at media and entertainment I don’t feel represented. The show is entertaining and it serves it’s purpose, I just look forward to the day when other contemporary artists can make their way into the mainstream.
K: Switching gears here, this is women in private and I like to ask women this question. When do you feel the most beautiful and sexy?
[Shireen puts on her shades]
S: When I’m naked. Honestly, truly. We’ve been conditioned to view ourselves in clothing. How clothing should or shouldn't fit are often in the struggle of gaining weight and losing weight. But when I’m naked I feel very free. Or in a robe, yassss! I also feel free when I’m on stage dancing or performing, free-styling.
S: Fuck out my face …
Photography & Art Direction by Kylah Benes-Trapp
A special thanks to Loroto