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Mena vogue scene has emerged as a source of inclusivity and safety, yet progress remains slow due to prevailing laws and stigmas.
Huda al-Fahd, a Saudi Arabian pop artist, debuted the video clip for her song Ella Galby (except my heart), featuring dancers performing the iconic vogue a few months ago. This highly stylized dance form, which has roots in the 1960s to 1980s black and Latino LGBTQ+ communities in the United States, is currently expanding in the MENA region, where members of the community are embracing it with open, waving arms.
A decade back, Hoedy Saad, a Lebanese performer and choreographer better known by his stage name “Hoedy,” developed an interest in voguing and began teaching himself the dance after watching the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning.” The drag ball scene in 1980s New York City serves as the movie’s main subject.
Hoedy, who is a seasoned vogue performer and instructor at the SOL dance academy in Beirut, did not appreciate al-Fahd’s depiction.
“I’m delighted to see voguing becoming more popular in today’s society, but I worry that some of the new dancers are not part of the recognized ballroom scene. As a result, voguing may be reduced to a simple choreographed dance that is just in fashion right now,” Hoedy told Fanack, pointing out that voguing comes from a history of minority struggles and requires extensive training to be well executed.
Despite the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region’s harsh stance toward the LGBTQ+ community, people are continuously developing new forms of expression, even in minute details. The ballroom scene, with its focus on voguing, has been a boon for those seeking inclusivity and safety. Due to the laws and stigmas that still oppose LGBTQ+ people, its development, however, remains slow.
The origins of the vogue
Voguing has roots in the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities of Harlem, particularly during the 1980s. From the 1960s up until the 1990s, drag competitions underwent major changes, eventually evolving into distinctive voguing competitions. Participants from the transgender, gay, lesbian, and queer community competed in a variety of categories, such as Executive Realness or Town & Country, in an effort to win medals and recognition for their “house family.”
People who were racially, sexually, or gender-marginalized in 1980s New York found community in what was known as the ballroom scene. For individuals who were otherwise excluded, the matriarchs and patriarchs of what was referred to as ‘homes’ provided safety and inclusion. They banded together to create an atmosphere that was welcoming and offered refuge.
Events in the ballroom scene still incorporate performance, dance, lip-syncing, and modeling as a nod to its counterculture roots. These events, which feature a variety of categories and offer trophies and prizes to be won, are still a vital component of LGBTQ+ life. Drag (masquerade) balls were originally created to break rules that prohibited wearing particular clothing associated with a particular gender.
Voguing would integrate into the larger ballroom scene that would dominate the LGBTQ+ scene throughout the course of the following century.
In the 1980’s, vogue experienced a transition from the “Old Way” (which relied on hard angles and straight lines) to the more varied and dynamic “New Way.” This new style involved catwalks, duck walks, spinning, and complex hand performances. Nowadays, New Way continues to be popular but has become sharper in its movements and “clicks” or joint contortions. Vogue Fem takes this same approach by emphasizing speed, flow and executing stunts.
Throughout the world, the dance style has grown in popularity thanks to pop singer Madonna’s “Vogue” video from 2010 and TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Voguing is not like taking an aerobics class; it comes from a subculture where gay people could openly express themselves,” Arab-American multidisciplinary artist and vogue performer Samer, who goes by Ridikkuluz, told Fanack.
“Yet, it’s crucial to keep in mind that it originates from a community of people of color who have faced hardships, like being kicked out of their homes, placed in foster care, and occasionally even left homeless, and for whom voguing was their only means of escape.”
The ballroom scene in MENA
Out of all MENA countries, Lebanon remains the most socially tolerant towards LGBTQ+ individuals. While there is no legal protection provided for non-heteronormative individuals in Lebanon, a variety of queer-friendly areas have been established throughout Beirut, providing members of the LGBTQ+ community some sense of refuge and acceptance.
Particularly amid the country’s lively nightlife, residents have found a safe haven away from the constraints of society.
Nightclubs, bars and artistic venues have become some of the safest spaces for the ballroom scene to flourish. Performances that challenge gender stereotypes take center stage in a welcoming environment that encourages non-conventional LGBTQ+ artistic expression.
The first “Mini-Ball” took place in November 2017 at Bardo, one of Beirut’s most well-known LGBTQ+-friendly bars. Bardo closed in 2021 owing to the country’s prolonged financial crisis, which led to increased inflation and a persistent devaluation of the local currency.
The ball featured the same elements as its American counterpart, including runway shows, freestyle dance, and voguing.
A full-fledged “Grand Ball” would be created from the mini-event a year later, and it would be held in the “Ego” nightclub. However, COVID lockdowns forced a halt in 2019.
The Beirut Grand Ball then returned in 2020 and continues to be held annually, with national and international judges in attendance.
While Hoedy acknowledges the contextual and historical difference in the development of the ballroom scene between New York and Beirut, it still plays a crucial role in allowing marginalized people to find a welcoming environment.
“In particular, voguing allows performers to express their feminine side without judgment,” the performer said. “It is a fierce and dramatic art form that allows them to express a part of themselves that they feel must remain hidden.”
Similarly, Hoedy feels that these events are of great value to people on all sides of the gender spectrum, including people who identify as women.
“What makes me happy is seeing women feel empowered and not judged when they take the stage and perform a dance routine that they would otherwise be shamed for in a society that puts them up against patriarchal and puritanical standards,” the performer said.
A rare sight in MENA
In general, LGBTQ+ individuals living in MENA countries face some of the most oppressive laws. Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have even implemented the death penalty as punishment for same-sex relations.
Hoedy contends, however, that people who were compelled to stay at home and spend their leisure time on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, learned about drag shows and the ballroom scene. Important conversations took place online, bolstering acceptance to some degree, the performer said.
“Social media has and continues to play an essential role in advancing the narrative around matters related to the LGBTQ+ community. Fem men are currently more accepted than in previous years, and drag shows are attended by a larger audience,” Hoedy told Fanack. His voguing classes have also grown in attendance following the pandemic, he notes.
Voguing, however, remains a rare sight in other MENA countries, he says.
“I’ve seen some amazing voguing on TikTok from a Gulf resident, but he keeps his name hidden. I also once organized a workshop in Syria that had to be done in secret,” he said.
A long road ahead
While it is true that social media continues to be a source of comfort for many LGBTQ+ individuals in the MENA seeking acceptance and support, the online sphere has also made LGBTQ+ individuals an easy target for digital predators and government crackdowns, according to Human Rights Watch.
Offline spaces, too, are limited.
“We still sometimes feel like guests in our own countries because there are very few of us in these spaces and there is limited media coverage of queer Arabs,” Ridikkuluz said, adding that social movements are vital to the cause.
“People in the MENA may not feel comfortable using voguing as a means of expression because it is one of the quickest indicators of one’s sexuality and would out the person if they aren’t ready to do so,” Ridikkuluz added.
Additionally, Middle Eastern voguers are still uncommon in the West. One video highlighting Arab activists, however, was posted on social media after the explosion on August 4, 2020, which claimed more than 200 lives. In the video, a range of Arab performers—most of whom reside in the West—can be seen voguing to a catchy Middle Eastern tune. The objective was to raise money for anyone harmed by the explosion, especially LGBTQ+ individuals.
A few prominent voguers that Ridikkuluz noted were Iranian-American Shireen, based in San Francisco, Lebanese Xander Khoury, presently residing in Australia, and Algerian Habibitch, based in Paris, who is presently on tour with British pop star Sam Smith.
“Arguably, LGBTQ+ acceptance is improving in the MENA regions, but there is still a long way to go, which is understandable since people in many of these countries are more concerned with survival,” Ridikkuluz said.