Executive Realness: 3 ‘Pose’ Stars on Dancing and Being Seen

“How am I supposed to learn how to do all that?” asks Damon, an aspiring dancer played by Ryan Jamaal Swain, on the pilot of the FX series “Pose.”

Posted Updated

Siobhan Burke
, New York Times

“How am I supposed to learn how to do all that?” asks Damon, an aspiring dancer played by Ryan Jamaal Swain, on the pilot of the FX series “Pose.”

It’s nighttime on a Greenwich Village pier, and Damon is discovering what it means to vogue. To music blasting from a boombox, dancers face off with strutting, swiveling moves, their limbs snapping into bold, hieroglyphic shapes.

Recently kicked out of his childhood home for being gay, Damon has just moved to New York and found a new, more nurturing mother in Blanca (Mj Rodriguez). Vogueing, she explains, is a way of being seen and known: “It’s a statement: ‘I want a name in this world. I want to be on top.'”

The revelry at the pier is one of a few electric dance scenes that introduce us to the world of “Pose.” Taking cues from Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary, “Paris Is Burning,” the show, created by Ryan Murphy and wrapping up its first season Sunday (another is on the way), dives into the underground ballroom scene of late-1980s New York, in which gay and transgender, primarily black and Latino people carved out vital modes of self-expression.

The show’s most exuberant moments take place at balls, where members of houses, or chosen families, dress up and walk (compete) for trophies in categories like Royalty, Military and Executive Realness. To be real is to pass for a member of the wealthy, white, heterosexual society from which contestants are excluded — to look as if they could walk right in.

It’s this subculture that gave rise to vogueing, a now thoroughly popularized and globally practiced dance form. Drawing its early inspiration from fashion models — and its name from the magazine — the style emerged as a kind of pantomimic combat performed at balls. As the vogueing pioneer Willi Ninja, the founder of the House of Ninja, says in “Paris Is Burning,” “Vogueing is like a safe form of throwing shade.”

“Pose” has been heralded for its largely LGBT cast, crew and creative team, which includes five transgender actors in central roles. Also to be celebrated: the number of actors and dancers from the current ballroom scene. Danielle Polanco, who choreographed the ball and pier segments with Leiomy Maldonado (also known as the Wonder Woman of Vogue), said they made a point of hiring dancers acquainted with that world.

“All we need is real, authentic ballroom — generic doesn’t fit with this show,” said Polanco, formerly a mother of the House of Ninja. “We need people who really respect the culture, because if you don’t respect it, you can’t play it, you know?” To remain true to the period, she said, she turned to ballroom veterans like Hector Xtravaganza, Freddie Pendavis and Sol Williams, who were on set as consultants.

Behind the characters is a wealth of experience dancing — or refraining from dancing — that informed their roles on “Pose.” Swain, Dominique Jackson (Elektra Abundance) and Jason A. Rodriguez (Lemar Abundance) spoke in telephone interviews about dancing in life and on-screen.

Though new to vogueing, Swain was not a dance rookie when he arrived on the set of “Pose.” Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and attending Howard University, he studied tap, ballet, modern and Afro-Cuban dance. As a child, he said, he reluctantly devoted more time to sports than to dance class. “In the South, for African-American males, unfortunately the stereotype is that you play sports,” he said.

Upon moving to New York with a musical theater degree, Swain, 24, tried to focus on acting. “Dance is such a very vulnerable way of expressing myself,” he said. “I was trying to hide and run away from it.” But he wound up serving as the dance captain for his first off Broadway show. And then, to his surprise, he landed the role of Damon. “In some way, shape or form, dance always found me,” he said. In “Pose,” Damon finds himself pulled between two dance worlds. After joining the House of Evangelista, he successfully auditions — with a heart-on-sleeve routine to Whitney Houston — for the prestigious New School of Dance (a fictionalized Ailey School). At first his teacher praises him: “You weren’t rehearsing today. No — you were dancing,” she says, rewarding him with a ticket to the ballet. But when a ball rehearsal makes him late for class, she disapproves: Ballroom, she insinuates, is not for serious dancers.

Swain agreed that Damon’s evolution as a dancer paralleled his own, especially when it came to conquering insecurities. For Damon, a new chapter of self-assurance might be in store. “By the eighth episode,” Swain said, “you see him breaking out.”

The magisterial Elektra rarely vogues, excelling instead in fashion-focused categories like Dynasty and Femme Queen in Pumps. She achieves realness at any cost. In Episode 1, her house dazzles in the Royalty category, thanks to costumes purloined from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jackson, 43, knows this world intimately. Born in Tobago (she moved to Maryland as a teenager), she found her way to ballroom in the early ‘90s. For transgender women like her, she said, vogueing was less common than it is today because it built muscle — a mark of masculinity. Though she had taken dance classes in Tobago and performed with her high school dance squad, she tended not to vogue at balls, sticking to what are known as face and runway categories. “If you did anything that created muscles, then they didn’t consider you one of the elite women,” she said. “But times have changed.” (An embodiment of that change: Maldonado, whose dramatic, hair-whipping style has transformed the vogueing landscape.) Still, Jackson credits her early dance training with teaching her balance, poise and musicality. “It is dance that actually helped me master the runway,” she said. And she happily owns it as part of her identity. “I’m claiming it,” she said. “I am a dancer.” For Rodriguez, also known as Slim Ninja, dancing on “Pose” has meant slowing down. A member of the House of Ninja and a student of Benny Ninja, he has been vogueing since 2010, in addition to training in ballet and modern techniques. The style in which he specializes, New Way vogue, is fast and contortionist, while the style of the ‘80s, now called Old Way, is more toned down, if still acrobatic. (The most popular style today is Vogue Fem, defined by its hyper-femininity.)

Rodriguez, 28, said that while freestyling for the ball scenes in “Pose,” he tried to pay homage to his predecessors and peers. “I was just thinking, ‘What would Willi Ninja do?'” he said.

Born and raised in Washington Heights, Rodriguez encountered vogueing at clubs like Escuelita, but said he felt intimidated by it. It wasn’t until taking a workshop with Benny Ninja in college — at the dance conservatory of SUNY Purchase — that he connected more fully with the form and understood why he was drawn to it.

“Here’s this man in front of me that I can relate to,” he said. “He’s a Hispanic gay man, and he is absolutely confident in everything he’s doing. That’s what attracted me to want to learn how to vogue.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.