October 13, 2016 at 9:00 am EDT | by Mariah Cooper
Strike a pose
ballroom, gay news, Washington Blade

A scene from the short film ‘Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball),’ an inspirational work for a voguing event Saturday at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. (Photo courtesy James Cohan Gallery)

For many, the ballroom conjures images of lavish rooms with intricate paintings, a chandelier cascading from the ceiling and a group of partygoers dressed to the nines and ready to dance cheek to cheek. For others like Keith “Ebony” Holt, ballroom is a completely different beast that transcends setting and becomes its own art form.

Holt first encountered voguing when his friend dragged him along to a ballroom event at 17.

“I was so intrigued by the excitement of the ballroom scene,” Holt says. “I got to see a completely different world that I had never seen before. Most of my life I was sheltered. So when I came into the ballroom scene it was like, ‘Wow.’”

Now Holt is no longer a ballroom newbie and is a member of the Baltimore-based House of Ebony. He will be passing along his knowledge of ballroom to visitors at the Voguing Masquerade Ball, hosted by the National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Ave., S.W.), on Saturday, Oct. 15. The voguing will be in correlation with the museum’s “Senses of Time: Video-and Film-based Works of Africa” exhibit.

In particular the voguing is inspired by Yinka Shonibare MBE’s featured work “Un Ballo in Maschera,” or “A Masked Ball,” a short film by the British-Nigerian artist that plays off of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera of the same name. The opera was inspired by Swedish King Gustav III’s assassination during a masked ball in 1792. The film creatively recreates a similar scene using elaborate masquerade costumes and non-vogue dancing.

The vogue portion of the evening begins at 4:30 p.m. and will include Holt and other ballroom icons to educate the audience on ballroom culture. Following will be a masquerade vogue ball from 7:30-10 p.m with vogue performers Mook Mizrahi and Jack Mizrahi, Ori body-painting artist Laolu and DJ Vjuan Allure.

Nicole Shivers, the museum’s education specialist, says the event was about six months in the making. She says she had an idea in her head for an event but after a colleague showed her a video of Holt and his work, she knew the two would be a match.

“This particular video Yinka plays on aristocracy and excess,” Shivers says. “In my education mind, what a perfect storm to have a voguing ballroom performance inspired by Yinka’s piece. It invites people into the world of voguing and how important ballroom is to the LGBT community.”

The importance of voguing crept into the mainstream with the documentary “Paris is Burning.” The documentary received critical acclaim and pushed New York City’s “pier” culture into modern gay life.

Holt says he tells people that “Paris is Burning” is a great resource to begin learning about ballroom culture, but the 1990 film is outdated when it comes to the state of voguing today. Ballroom categories have evolved and the culture has even branched out into other countries like France, Russia and Japan. He credits the spread of ballroom culture with ballroom performers expanding into other areas in the entertainment industry. They have begun to spread their knowledge as they have gone on to become choreographers and celebrity makeup artists.

Voguing is also no longer exclusively LGBT.

“It’s even branched into heterosexual women. It’s no longer underground. You even see like different superstars like Beyoncé, they do a vogue move in her videos,” Holt says.

Though for for LGBT people of color, ballroom has always been a historical staple.

“This is something that we made our own. I really think that this is LGBT history because this is something that we made out of the clubs and pier of New York City and now look at it. Now everybody kind of knows what voguing is. A person can see a dip on a music video and say, ‘Wow.’ We see that we can create something and watch it grow.”

Shivers hopes people attending the event can recognize how artistry can comment on social issues and begin community building.

Holt is also excited for the collaboration and the opportunity being featured at the museum will bring.

“It’s such an honor to be working with the Smithsonian because voguing is a form of art,” Holt says. “So for us to be featured in the Smithsonian, one of the biggest museums in the world, it’s like ballroom is finally taking its rightful place in mainstream art.”

However, Holt never wants to lose sight of where voguing came from and its original intention to battle with style.

“Voguing was created to throw shade on the dance floor,” Holt says. “It was created so that you can out-vogue a person and you don’t have to fight. You can just throw shade and you win.”

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