"You could tell I was not from Russia,"
Marquis Clanton says of his trip to St. Petersburg last year. "People would look at me, like, ‘He's not from here.'"
Yeah, an African-American probably sticks out a bit in a country whose population includes less than 1 percent people of African descent. But you imagine Clanton leaves an indelible impression wherever he is. He's a good few inches above six feet, with the lithe frame and long limbs of a shooting guard. He moves with the effortlessly taut grace of a dancer, those marvels of human willpower that are even more hyperattuned to their physicality than athletes. It's dance that took Clanton to Russia, where he taught classes in the form that's earned him a reputation over the past decade as "that boy from Baltimore" in cities around the country and, increasingly, the world: Voguing.
Since 1999 Clanton has walked in balls, the events where vogue contests are held, wowing judges, winning fans, and making a name for himself as Marquis Revlon. Clanton has performed up and down the East Coast and out in Los Angeles and Chicago, collaborated with French photographer
, whose recent series of portraits of Baltimore vogue performers went viral after gallery exhibitions in Paris and New York, and for the second year in a row he's helping put on the Baltimore Pride Free Ball Expo, a teen and young adult outreach endeavor sponsored by the University of Maryland's Star Track Youth Zone program. He teaches vogue workshops at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, he'll be teaching at a vogue workshop in Bulgaria next month, and it's what he was doing when he traveled to the former Soviet Union last summer.
Apparently, Russians take the dance very seriously. "They vogue down," Clanton says, sitting in a Mount Vernon coffee shop after work. "They're really, really, really, really good. It's like they computerize it. If you teach them something for a half hour, they got it down pat. They do it so much. It's like going to school over there."
He smiles and chuckles quickly, laughing both at the memory of how diligently his Russian vogue students practiced and at the fact that an underground dance form has taken a young guy from Baltimore to so many different places. Clanton was born and raised in East Baltimore and took to dance early, taking whatever classes he could at the Ralph J. Young recreation center in Butcher's Hill. African, modern, hip-hop, tap—he was into them all, an interest he sustained while attending Southern High School (today known as Digital Harbor) as a drum major with the New Edition Marching Band, one of Baltimore's many community bands.
He didn't start voguing until 1999, when he first saw it performed during a visit to the Paradox with some friends from the band. "I never knew what it was," he says of the dance. "Back then, on Thursday, [the club] had mini balls, and that's when I would see them. I just kept looking at it and looking at it. And then at home I practiced, learning the elements of it, and kept watching and watching."
He walked his first ball in New York in 1999, with the House of Revlon (vogue dance collectives are called houses, hence Clanton's performance name, Marquis Revlon). After studying the movements integral to vogue—hand performance, cat walks, duck walks, spins, dips—he added his own twists to the movements. "I brought hip-hop to [vogue], I brought step to it, because that's from the marching band," he says. "I put a little bit of mod into it—all the stuff that I had learned growing up. I try to incorporate all of that into my vogue but still keep it original."
Vogue has spent the past decade coming out of the underground more organically than it did the first time. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw vogue—anecdotally so named because the dance movements created in drag balls held in Harlem clubs by African-American and Latino performers in the 1960s and '70s were inspired by models' poses found in the fashion magazine
—flower into the mainstream. In 1989, New York promoter Susanne Bartsch organized the Love Ball in midtown Manhattan as a fundraiser for the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS, and soon vogue was infiltrating both fashion and pop music. Designer Thierry Mugler hired vogue dancers for his 1989 runway show in Paris.
wrote about the "campy dance craze" that year as well. Director Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary
Paris Is Burning
brought the underground uptown ballrooms into art-house theaters. And then in March 1990 a song by Madonna, given a classic Hollywood glamor black-and-white treatment in a video directed by David Fincher, catapulted the notion of vogue into pop culture.
Of course, the version of vogue exported into pop isn't an entirely accurate reflection of what goes on in clubs, where balls continue around the country on a weekly basis. And as Clanton explains, the styles of vogue dance have evolved. Old Way refers to its original incarnation. In the 1990s, New Way emerged, which brought some stretching and bending to the movements. Vogue Femme is the more recent development, and involves exaggerated femininity and flamboyance. One variety of vogue Femme is Soft and Cunt, which instead of going for the speed and intensity (called Dramatics) entails more ballet-like fluidity and elegance.
Clanton performs Soft and Cunt. "Voguing is a flamboyant dance," he says. "It's real theatrical, real sassy, real feline, real feminine. It's kind of addictive. It's like gay Hollywood. You have your fans, you have your haters, you have people who motivate you, you got your followings. And I've been walking consistently and winning for ten years."
That longevity has earned Clanton "legendary" status, and he's billed as the Legendary Marquis Revlon when he performs. It's a honorific he takes seriously, and he enjoys being a vogue ambassador, whether he's performing on New Year's Eve in Seoul, Korea, being invited to be a judge at a ball in St. Petersberg (on his first trip to Russia), or leading classes and workshops in Baltimore. He'd like to see vogue become another dance people seek out at studios, alongside ballet, tap, and jazz.
French photographer Nauczyciel writes in an email that Clanton was the first to respond to an open call he made seeking Baltimore voguers, and they struck up a collaboration. Nauczyciel invited Clanton to vogue to classical music at his gallery shows in Paris and New York earlier this year.
"He is absolutely open-minded and playful," Nauczyciel says. "We were later shooting outside in the streets of Baltimore, in some unauthorized area around Falls Road. I put some classical music in the car in order to surprise the police if they ever showed up. That is when I challenged Marquis to vogue on Baroque music. He took the challenge and opened up the whole House of Revlon to the experiment. That was a beautiful moment."
Nauczyciel adds that in the coming months he's inviting Clanton to collaborate on a few more projects, including one with the marching band to create a "baroque carnival" in the north of Paris, an area that reminds him of Baltimore.
In the meantime, Clanton stays busy. By day, he works as a home health-care worker for the Baltimore City Health Department and he still works with the New Edition Marching Band as a choreographer. He's been hired to dance in music videos (he recently performed in videos for local hip-hop artists DDm and TT the Artist). And on June 21, he hosts the Baltimore Free Ball Expo at Paradox. This ball is designed to let young people in the LGBT community know about the community resources—in housing, health care, medical assistance, etc.—that the Star Track Youth Zone offers, but Clanton is bringing as much genuine glamor to the event as he can. He's invited a number of his New York colleagues down to help him out, including MCs Jack Miza and Kevin JZ Prodigy and DJ Vjuann St. Laurent. And the ball is going to offer cash prizes in a variety of categories for voguers. For the $1,000 grand prize, Clanton says performers will "need to bring it like Cirque du Soleil."
It's all in the spirit of celebration, which Clanton has learned from his own experiences. "Sometimes when I'm at balls and there's so many people around the catwalk and then the judges panel on the other side, that can be intimidating," he says. "But when you enjoy what you're doing, you zone everybody out and none of that matters. You listen to the music, and it takes over—it's kind of like voodoo. When you listen to the beat, it takes you to a place where you forget all that you were stressed about. You forget who you didn't like. You just become so free and the music takes over it. You just become yourself." ?