On the evening of Friday, April 19th, 2019, at the invitation of ArtsEverywhere, Pony Zion (De’von Webster) and Benji Hart (Benji Ninja) gathered in a conference room at The New School on 5th Avenue in New York City to discuss social justice and the contemporary Ballroom Scene. This two-hour conversation was guided by propositions from Benji Hart’s 2015 essay, “Vogue is Not for You,” and questions posed by Pato Hebert, an artist and teacher at New York University, Ricky Tucker, a writer at The New School, and Robert Sember, an artist and teacher at The New School. Robert Sember transcribed and edited the following extracts from this conversation.
ArtsEverywhere (Robert): Could you introduce yourselves?
Pony: I am Pony Zion or Devon. I started the house of Zion, which recently expanded to São Paulo in Brazil. I have a relationship with everybody at this table through the Ballroom community. I have been teaching Vogue for many years in many different places and to very different people.
Benji: I taught Vogue for several years in Chicago, first and foremost at the Broadway Youth Center, which is a drop in program for Queer and Trans young people experiencing homelessness in Chicago. I am currently on a break from my teaching. When I was teaching, it was with Nic Kay, another adjacent member of the Ballroom scene. We taught a series of workshops called “Vogue to Get Free,” which situated Vogue as a liberatory praxis. Our aim was to present Vogue as a dance and community practice and as a political practice to young, Queer, and Trans folks experiencing homelessness. I also wrote an essay in 2015 called “Vogue is Not for You,” about my teaching philosophy. I look forward to sharing how some of my thinking and political commitments have shifted since then.
AE (Robert): How did you each come to your political awareness? When did you begin to realize that you and the world were not “right” with each other?
Pony: Before I can remember. I mean, I don’t remember a moment where there wasn’t friction. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t live with resistance, whether it was being raised by a family member who was unknowingly homophobic and abusive or not knowing how to read or write until I was nine years old. For me the question was, “So, what am I going to do with this friction?” It became an element of my reality more so than something I came into or came across or something that shifted me. This awareness of a world is an ingredient of something I have always been.
Benji: My upbringing and road to Vogue was very different. I grew up middle class and lived in the suburbs. I was lucky to receive a lot of support and affirmation and had access to teachers and social programs that carved and channeled my political analysis. But, at the same time, as a Black person, as a Queer person, as a Gender Non-conforming person, femmeness was the first thing that taught me I was in friction with the world. The first thing I was told that I needed to correct about myself was that I moved and talked “like a girl.” I still struggle to understand why something that is part of me and that I love, something that feels core and valid and an “ingredient” of who I am put me in friction with so many other people around me.
Police and prison abolition is the next thing that taught me about the world. The first time I was arrested was in the Bronx when I was 18 years old. I was visiting from Massachusetts, where I grew up. Four police officers just attacked me because they thought I looked suspicious. As a middle class person who grew up outside the hood, that was a huge eye-opening moment for me. It brought to light that as a young Black person I am in friction with systems that I can’t even see or that I’m not even connected to. I have to confront what that means for my safety and for my resistance.
Pony: To see that larger tension, we need to look back. During those kinds of events I would just focus on myself as a soul that is doing his best. It is as if the present moment was like an act of God or simply the reality. The analysis comes from looking back and then seeing the larger context.
AE (Pato): With that awareness in place, how do Vogue and Ballroom help you imagine and shape justice and freedom?
Benji: Jonovia Chase, who I look up to so much, says, “Ballroom is not fantasy. It’s the real world reimagined.” Just by being who we are as young Black, Brown, Trans, and Queer people we already exist outside the expectations of identity and movement. This is true for how we live, support ourselves, survive, and create family, things members of the Ballroom Scene are actively doing out of necessity. Because they aren’t fighting for survival in the same way, outsiders seldom appreciate that these are radical actions. To them, Balls are a fantasy world where one can be whoever one wants to be. While that is not entirely inaccurate, it’s the vision of people who do not see us asserting ourselves both on and off the Ballroom runway.
When we Vogue and when we simply ride the train, we are fighting to justify our right to live and breathe. That’s what Voguing was for me as a 16 year old when I was ashamed of my femininity. For me, Vogue was a form of emancipation because femininity is what you are trying to achieve. Rather than learning something new, it felt like a homecoming; I returned to the way my body already knew how to move. And, what starts as something small—the way our bodies move—grows into something as big as realizing that what we’re told being Trans means in this moment is not what it has meant to be trans—or Black—in the thousands of years our ancestors have existed. Now we know we can reclaim the world we want because it already exists. I can be liberated in this moment even as I fight for a much broader, a much larger liberated world.
AE (Ricky): How do you teach that personal liberation through movement is connected to systemic and historical trends and can, therefore, be a tool for liberation?
Benji: I try really hard to impart certain things and sometimes a group totally vibes and gets where you’re coming from. At other times, it’s really a struggle to infuse your perspective and your values into what you’re teaching. One of the exercises I do regularly when I’m teaching Vogue is to have folks perform a daily motion, like brushing their teeth or tying their shoes. We then go through a process that transforms that movement into a Vogue phrase. I do that to show that folks already have their own vocabulary and own way of moving through the world. So, instead of learning things you’ve never learned before, you realize what you already know and do that with power and purpose. My message is: “Be present in your own body and know it as something beautiful and powerful.” This is not me teaching someone how to be liberated. We achieve that as a community because folks come with their own knowledge, history, and practice. We can imagine together.
Pony: For me, that is what Ballroom is, it’s the space that freedom occupies. So Voguing for me is no longer something that’s just for me. When I teach, I like to strip away people’s ideas of what Vogue is and start from the very center, before it was a category of dance and was a performance. To perform, you don’t need to know how to dance. Performance comes from you. Each of us figures out what to create with our masculine and feminine energies. I believe that every soul has its performance and Vogue is when I give it a name. Like Benji, I don’t think that I’m teaching — I am sharing, passing on. I tell people that I can teach them the categories, Vogue Fem, or Vogue this or Vogue that, but it is not in the category where you learn Vogue. Your performance simply takes place in a category.
I write a column for my brother’s magazine, DBQ, called “Vogue-cabulary.” What I mean by this is that dance is a vocabulary whereas Vogue is the story you tell with that vocabulary. I knew how to dance. I learned the techniques. But that ain’t what knowledge is. Vogue is my penmanship, my script, my story. You do not need to win or lose to Vogue. It is something in itself.
I am reorganizing the conversation about Vogue so people can utilize it in their own lives without going somewhere to be judged. For over 10 years, I have been working on “Vogue Theory,” a health intervention program. Now we have “Vogueaerobics,” an approach to fitness. This has nothing to do with Ballroom in the present moment or where it comes from, but it has everything to do with Vogue. Also, there is “Vogua,” a yoga that balances masculine and feminine energies, which is what Femme Queen performance did for me. It took me so long to go to a place of my feminine vibration energy. Now I want to do something called “Vogue Therapy,” where we are Voguing in our spirits, upgrading our beliefs and systems, and using Vogue as a vehicle toward freedom.
AE (Robert and Pato): In their essay, Benji observes that finding and telling our story is only possible because we exist within history and community. So, to care for oneself or others also means caring for that history and community. Is it possible for the caring power of Vogue to exist outside of that context?
Pony: As long as I can remember, there was something inside of me that said, “In order to do this, it has to do something for people.” My actions need an intention, a natural integrity. As soon as I started out in the Ballroom scene, I was a Latex [the house established specifically to address HIV/AIDS-related concerns in the Ballroom Scene]. I didn’t leave the House of Latex to Vogue. I went right to P.O.C.C. [People of Color in Crisis, an NGO founded by and for LGBTQ people of color] where I was a peer educator. Doing community health has been hand-in-hand for me with my Vogue practice. Maybe that’s why I sometimes feel like my caring is also a search for someone to care for me. Caring through Vogue germinates community.
Benji: I’m thinking about all the ways that we love what Black people, and in this case specifically what Queer and Trans Black people create, but that doesn’t translate into actually caring about the creators. A huge part of my practice as a Vogue instructor is setting the expectation that by coming into this tradition you actually make a commitment to a community and specifically make a commitment to the people that are passing this tradition on to you. This is more than learning the steps or being able to recall dates or people’s names. An important value for me is that you can’t, you literally can’t Vogue properly if you don’t hold Black people in regard. And you cannot Vogue properly if you don’t hold poor folks in regard, and Trans Folks and Queer folks. Actually caring for the creators means doing so much more than just Voguing. I teach folks that through our oral traditions we trace the origins of Pop, Dip, and Spin [elements of Vogue performance] back to Rikers Island [a New York City jail and prison] and incarcerated Queer and Trans people. Therefore, if we’re going to honor Black, Queer and Trans people, not just historically but also currently, what is our commitment to prison abolition? What is our commitment to police abolition?
Everybody loves Black folks and Queer folks when we’re creating these beautiful, powerful, real pieces of art. But what about when we’re being harassed on the street? What about when we’re homeless? What about when we’re locked up and you can’t see us Voguing but we’re still Voguing? Care is our commitment to the creators of this form and our commitment to the community that we’re a part of by being a part of this form. It has to extend beyond ourselves. It has to extend beyond a Ball because our lives exist outside of the Ball. We’re fighting for our freedom all the time, not just when we’re Voguing.
I love what you, Pony, said about freedom. You can create moments of emancipation when you’re Voguing but that’s actually not enough …
Pony: … It’s just an idea …
Benji: … It’s just an idea. Yes, I experience freedom in this moment, but that’s teaching me what freedom feels like so I can fight for a world where I feel that way all the time.
Pony: It’s what we deserve. Freedom in itself is a deserving. Everybody deserves it, right, at the end of the day.
AE (Pato): I wonder, Pony, as your prominence and people’s love and respect for you grow, how you navigate what you’ve already told us about caring for others? How does being celebrated as a legend and as an icon impact your sense of connection and accountability?
Pony: It has made me crazy. I feel like I have lost my mind make-believing and making people believe that this idea of “Pony Zion” is there. I’m in confusion because of that idea. Even now I’m asking: “What am I? Who am I?” It feels like a blessing to step into that idea of “amazing Pony” everyday but nothing about it is what I believe is actually me at this point. I’m being put together as it goes. Literally when I look around me, I can hear and see what I am to people. In my shoes, Voguing has been a mix of suffering and celebration.
AE (Robert): For some, liberation means an end to suffering and feelings of incompleteness. Wealth and fame promise that relief. I hear in what you’re saying, Pony, a desire to have the truth of your life whereas the spectacle and the admiration can prevent that. This goes back to the point Benji made when they quoted Jonovia Chase’s observation that Ballroom is reality. What is the relationship in Ballroom between fantasy and reality, between admiration and love?
Pony: It’s a paradox. Is suffering something that has to happen for celebration, for freedom? How can I be what I feel I am and also what I am seen to be? If it must be both, I can never move forward because if I change one thing, I change everything. Yoga is poses and motion. Vogue is poses and motion. They are different forms of the same thing. Yet, if I did not have what I am calling the suffering of my life, would I still know how to Vogue? I will never know.
Benji: Folks read things onto the Ballroom without necessarily sitting with its actual nuances and complexities. This can be reading freedom onto the Ballroom scene, or reading suffering, oppression, sadness, and desolation when that isn’t the story folks are actually trying to tell. For me, the hardest thing about the Ballroom scene is how complicated and often contradictory it is. Some of the moments of greatest love in my life have been in the Ballroom scene. Also some of my moments of greatest uncertainty have been in the Ballroom scene.
We could talk about the contradictions of the Ballroom Scene all day long. Talking about what we read onto it is also important because we actually each read different things. For example, someone might be coming down the runway in Chanel from head to toe. One person thinks it’s so sad that Capitalism has infiltrated the Ballroom scene and now this person feels that they need to wear Chanel from head to toe to matter. For someone else it’s a gag that she stole all of that shit and is proving that you don’t have to have money or wealth to look sickening, to be worthy. In this case, coming down the runway in Chanel from head to toe is actually anti-Capitalist. I think, a lot of times it’s both. In some ways we are absolutely subscribing to Capitalism and asking whether we are acceptable to “the system.” Yet, in other ways we completely reject what anyone has to say about us and prove our own power.
Pony: We have to see it from every point of view to see the whole picture and that means naming the contradictions and living and working within those contradictions. That is why we sometimes say that Ballroom invites the problematic.
AE (Robert): Ballroom does indeed offer a consciousness that can hold that kind of complexity. Pedagogy aims to build greater awareness of complexity and fosters our capacity to make decisions at crucial, difficult moments, such as when someone from outside the Ballroom scene offers something in exchange for our power.
Pony: What’s the performance without the applause?! It moves from, “I want to,” to “I have to,” to “I need to!” I need to experience performance as the applause. I wanted to Vogue. And then I felt like I had to Vogue. Now, I need to Vogue. It’s like I am an instrument. So, yes, absolutely, I need conversations that focus on what I am and what I am not.
AE (Pato): To that point, in your essay, Benji, you outline key tenants regarding your pedagogy. You write: “We have knowledge. We have the right to share our knowledge with each other. Our needs change. We are experts. Our history is now.” How do you hear those tenants now as we talk about teaching, caring, and Voguing inside and outside of the Ballroom community?
Benji: As you were talking about living for the applause, Pony, I was thinking, “Who’s applauding”? Being seen is important and when we are Voguing we can be celebrated as being so very beautiful. But being celebrated at an art museum is different from being celebrated at a Ball or while kiki-ing with your sisters or in a more fleeting setting, like when someone says, “We want you to be in the video,” and then don’t want to hear from you anymore.
That we have knowledge and the right to share knowledge with each other is an important part of my pedagogy, not just as a Voguing teacher, but as a teacher in general. We all bring knowledge into learning spaces. As the facilitator, I too have things to learn. We begin by knowing that each person has things to learn and teach. Of course, saying that means something very different to a room of people who have been told that all their lives versus saying that to a room of young people experiencing homelessness who have often been told the opposite over and over and over and over and over again. Let’s begin from that place of shared learning and teaching instead of bringing it into the conversation later on.
That we have the right to share with each other became a really important tenant of mind when I observed that often Vogue isn’t seen as valuable until it’s taken outside of Ballroom, which really means until it’s taken away from poor, homeless, Queer, Trans, Black and Brown people. We Voguers reinforce this when we say, “Wait until you see me in a video. You gonna see me on TV. I’m going places. I’m doing big things.” It’s not that I am shading anybody’s dreams, but why don’t we see ourselves as doing big things right where we’re at? Why don’t we see the folks who are applauding for us right here as meaning just as much and being just as affirming as applause coming from rich White folks or applause coming from the fashion industry or from pop artists? How come this is seen as a valuable opportunity? How come it’s an honor to share my knowledge and my expertise with this person and not with this person?
Pony: For me it’s not an either or. It a both/and. I’m the kind of person who will teach Vogue at PS190 for free one day and be on television the next. I balance those things and don’t think one takes away from the other. One’s a blunt, the other’s a vape. They do the same motherfucking thing; you’re simply choosing which way you want to get high. And stages. I don’t pick my stage. But it is my platform. If Hitler bought a ticket, that’s my girlfriend. Like you said, it is not to say, “Mmm, I want you in my audience,” or, “This is the moment.” I didn’t pick my audience, my audience picked me. It’s not like it’s a choice—“I’m going to go there and Vogue”—I ended up here. It wasn’t like I said, “Oh, I want Voguing to be here.” I didn’t see that it could be there. I am not sitting here talking about the end-all-and-be-all of Ballroom or, “I am further into my journey than I was 10 years ago.” I’m actually now more aware of how I’ve expanded and the different stages to which I have access rather than picking which side I’m going to be on. For me, Voguing has never been a part of the plan. It’s just been my elements. It’s never been a plan. It always just been my intentions and goals mixed with passion.
AE (Robert): This might be a good time to go back to the beginning of this conversation, where Benji, talked about the moment they realized that we live in a world of structures, historical structures, like anti-Blackness, around which so much of modern history is organized. This seems to call us to show up and step into complexity with a specific intentionality.
Benji: I think as Voguers, as artists, as Black, Queer people, we are consumed all the time without actually being seen. This is a form of anti-Blackness; you want all these things from Black folks without wanting Black people. Whether it’s manual labor or whether it’s Vogue or whether it’s language or whether it’s style or whether it’s physical location, literally your neighborhood, your lexicon, your artistry, we want it. That’s not love. It can feel like love but really it isn’t because love doesn’t displace, it doesn’t scrape someone dry and then toss them out. Love is actually about seeing someone in their complexity, in their nuance, in their imperfectness. We fundamentally do not know how to do this for Black people. We need to show up when folks are struggling and suffering and not just when folks are resilient and beautiful and powerful. If you love, you have to be there for all of that.
I think that’s really profound and true, Pony, that I do not choose who is in my audience. That’s something I’ve been coming to terms with in my teaching and performing. I actually don’t choose. But I know when I’m being seen. I am learning the difference. I’m going to be me whatever I’m sharing and with whomever, and people are going to take what they take from it. I don’t always have control over that. But I know what it feels like when I’m making a real connection.
Pony: Yes, paying attention to what paying attention is. When I am being seen, I am paying attention to what paying attention is. This let’s me know where I am at in my progress.
AE (Robert): Benji, you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation that you’ve been learning and shifting since you first wrote the essay “Vogue is Not for You.” Can you speak about those shifts?
Benji: I went back and read it a couple of weeks ago cause I haven’t read it in a long time. There is a lot there that I still stand behind but there are other things I now challenge.
Mariame Kaba is a prison abolitionist from New York and a mentor and inspiration of mine. I was able to work with her when she was doing work in Chicago a few years ago. She constantly pushes my thinking. At the time I wrote the essay, she tried to get me to think differently about appropriation versus commodification. She would sit me down and say:
“You’re always concerned about appropriation. By doing that you’re reinforcing Capitalism. Appropriation is all about ownership—who has the right to own what and who has the right to claim what—and then determining who can and who can’t have access. That’s literally everything you say you’re fighting against. Your whole vision for the world is anti-Capitalist, a world where no one claims ownership. What you really are talking about is commodification. Commodification is how an oppressive system takes something that was meant to disrupt or destroy it and absorbs it to reinforce its own power. That’s not about who has the rights, who can and can’t have access, who can be in the room, who can be in the audience, and who can be at the table. It’s about recognizing what our work is purposed with doing.”
That was a huge shift for me and I made it a part of my pedagogy to ask what our commitment is to disrupting and destroying the systems that are harming us and the people who gave us this beautiful art. I think less about who can and can’t and more about what the demand or expectation is. However, you can’t come into this tradition if you’re not respecting the tradition. Respecting the tradition entails fighting for the liberation of the people who gave it to you. But who is willing to do that and who is ready to do that might surprise you.
AE (Pato): Yet you say beautifully in the essay, which is what I feel Mariame Kaba was reflecting back to you, that “the end point is the depoliticizing of our most sacred sources of resistance, which only benefits those who seek to quell our demands for change.” You were already in that analysis even if appropriation was the language you used.
Pony: I don’t control who comes in and out the Ballroom Scene. I’m not at the door of the Ballroom Scene. Although, because I am connected with the history, there’s a part of my ego that sometimes makes it feel like I am a warlord of it. Now that I’m opening Vogue up in the various ways I described earlier, I’m realizing that it’s not true. That would be me trying to control something that is natural for me. I am trying to take Vogue outside the Ballroom Scene and it’s more, like Benji said, connecting with everyone versus controlling access. The focus is on being of service.
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