It looks like a fight is about to break out. Or at least a rap battle.
Two competitors—one dressed in a denim vest and hot-pink tank, the other in a black skater shirt and baseball cap—stand facing each other, encircled by onlookers in what looks like a small dance studio. A beat begins to thump. The guy in the tank, his hair pulled into a tight bun, starts to twirl. He strips off his vest, tosses it to the ground, steps over it and shimmies down into it like a genie sinking into a bottle. His arms and legs lunge outward in unexpected directions. Before long, he's using his shirt to wipe the dance floor clean.
This is voguing, the proudly queer-made underground dance phenomenon. And that is Daniel Girón, Portland's only active vogue dance instructor.
The other dancer, named Grant, then jumps into the scene, flailing his arms like a swimmer lost against a current. Then he shifts gears: He seemingly grabs hold of the rhythms, pulling them toward him with vigor, as if competing in a one-man tug of war.
After Grant finishes his routine, Girón leaps into his arms in a warm embrace. The audience applauds wildly.
Named after the fashion magazine, vogue is a ballroom dance style that incorporates an array of fashion-inspired "poses," along with bits of martial arts, ballet, gymnastics and pantomime, among other disciplines. It first emerged in Harlem, New York, in the 1980s, as a reaction to Reagan-era homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, and went mainstream in the early '90s with the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and Madonna's "Vogue" video. For its forebears, vogue dancing was about reclaiming your body from a society that would discourage you from embracing who you are.
More than just a queer phenomenon, voguing was primarily an outlet for LGBTQ people of color—which makes its recent emergence in Portland all the more significant.
"There are not a lot of places that cater to black and Latinx people, especially queer black and Latinx people in Portland," says Girón, who is originally from Mexico. "Queer people, in general, have clubs where they can go and practice, but there's not a lot of daytime opportunities or facilities for us to train and practice the style and culture of vogue."'
Until a few years ago, there was no consistent outlet for vogue in Portland. That started to change, thanks to the efforts of a dancer and choreographer named Kumari Suraj.
A Portland native with deep ties to the voguing scene, Suraj launched Waackfest in Los Angeles in 2010, the only festival in the world devoted to the preservation of waacking, the style that preceded voguing and grew out of LA's queer disco scene in the 1970s. Her choreography has also been featured on So You Think You Can Dance.
In 2014, Suraj returned to Portland and launched a five-week intensive vogue workshop, which Girón attended. He was drawn in by more than just the movement—the workshop showcased a creative atmosphere focused on empathy and de-stressing.
"I remember there were times when I would be running late to rehearsal, and she would say, 'Just make sure you get here safe,'" Girón says. "Her coaching was truly based on nurturing us all as if we were her kids. It was my first time making a personal connection with a dance instructor."
Inspired, Girón attended his first vogue dance competition, known as a vogue ball, on Valentine's Day 2014 at the recently shuttered club Embers. That same night, Girón created the House of Ada, Portland's first "kiki house." Kiki houses are not physical spaces so much as community networks, designed to rally queer people and instill within them a sense of belonging. In each house, "mothers" and "fathers" look after young queer people who might lack family support systems, while also building the ballroom community.
In 2015, Girón started teaching vogue classes at Vitalidad Movement Arts Center in Southeast Portland, which he imbues with the empathetic spirit he learned from Suraj.
"What got me into voguing is seeing how expressive, freeing and liberating it is as a style of dance," says Sophorn Chim, one of Girón's students. "Unlike most dance classes I've taken, taking Daniel's vogue femme classes has taught me how to move with intention. It's not only about how I do it, but why I do it."
"Vogue femme" is one of three contemporary vogue styles Girón teaches, along with "old wave" and "new wave." Vogue femme tends to be the most extreme of dance styles. Dancers interpret ballet and jazz, mixing it with movements mocking typical fashion model poses, as well as "floor work" in which dancers shift onto their hands and knees. It was created by a Latinx trans woman and illustrates vogue's inherently non-binary nature.
"I felt like when it came to hip-hop classes, which was a lot of my training before vogue, there was a very clear difference between choreography that was meant to be 'feminine' and masculine, but there was not a lot of in-between," says Girón, who identifies as a cisgender gay male. "Although I can identify with both, it feels really good to have a style to identify with where it's both sides of my gender fluidity."
Now, Portland's vogue scene is gaining momentum. Last year saw the creation of Portland's first major voguing competition, the PDX Ball. Initially hosted at the relatively cramped Vitalidad space, it's already moving to bigger environs—the next one is being held July 20 at the Portland Art Museum.
The growing vogue explosion shows the need for a sense of queer community in Portland. Vogue's roots are unapologetically nonwhite, and that's why it's necessary in places where people of color are not only marginalized but presumed invisible.
But Girón wants to make it clear that voguing is welcome to all.
"It does cater to POC, but the way we're building the community is reliant on all the allies," Girón says. "Because Portland is one of the whitest places in the United States, it's important to try to be inclusive of everybody. We try to teach vogue's origins, but we also try not to push away those who want to take part in it in a respectful way."