I was first introduced to Leiomy Maldonado from her stint on America's Best Dance Crew. Back in 2009, long before Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner graced the small screen, Maldonado was one of the only positive representations of transgender women on mainstream television, and her empowered gang of openly gay, fiercely proud friends were so far from anything else seen on TV, ever. Leiomy would go on to appear in and choreograph the Willow Smith video for "Whip My Hair," and her signature hair flip move "The Leiomy Lolly" would be adopted by Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears. She is slated to work on projects with FKA Twigs, Icona Pop, and Cocorosie, making Leiomy a voguing go-to for a wide range of pop artists.
Even to this day, many people believe that vogue was just a short-lived dance phenomenon invented by Madonna in the 80s, similar in simplicity and fadishness to the Macarena. While mainstream culture has often looked sideways at the real history of vogue, others continue to inhabit this world -- which is, in reality a vibrant underground culture.
Explored in detail in the early 90s by Jennie Livingston in the documentary Paris Is Burning, vogue is part of a complex subculture founded by gay and trans men and women of color, an escapist fantasy created by people facing the very harsh realities of marginalization. Inspired by this, Madonna certainly brought vogue -- which was at the time an almost exclusively gay artform -- to the mainstream. After that, the ballroom scene (where dancers battle for glory) understandably had to protect itself from overexposure and infiltration from outsiders and culture vultures.
Decades later, vogue still exists on the perimeters of pop culture -- popping up in often unexpected places like the "Whip My Hair" video or viral videos like the EMT dancer. But vogue maintains a unique, lively, and often fiercely competitive society of its own to this day.
"Voguing is a freestyle type of dance unlike other styles where you learn a lot of choreography. With voguing, it’s all about your own emotions," explained Leiomy, 28. "I found out about voguing through a Boys and Girls Club called Kid’s Bay in the Bronx. It was in late 2002 when I was introduced to it by a friend who was kind of like a mentor to me. I used to look at her like a mother figure. She was the first transgender woman that I ran across in my life. I was around 15 and I just loved the energy of it ... I looked at it as a stress-reliever. I was dealing with being transgender at a young age and I didn’t know how to cope with it and I found out how to cope with it through voguing."
"Being transgender at a young age...I found out how to cope with it through voguing."
Leiomy's rise to fame alongside her crew Vogue Evolution certainly marked an important moment in trans visibility, and it was critical for her to take back vogue for the queers who invented it, all the while gaining respect and acclaim for her talent. "Being on that stage and showing the world what voguing was and seeing how accepting we were, it was relieving for us. That was the main thing for us, coming from the LGBT community ... It wasn’t about winning, it was just about showing people that this is where it came from, [that vogue] belongs to us." That being said, the cultural moment wasn't created without controversy, with judge Lil Mama making comments that many considered to be transphobic. "[Even] the first time they showed our audition, they were like 'Oh of course, we’re here in New York and there are all types of weirdos.' That was stupid."
It should be patently obvious by now that recognizing Leiomy only for her outsider status as a trans woman is simply reductive. She doesn't want to be famous only for her status as a transgender woman, nor should she. "I don’t want it to be like a handicap ... I feel like now, people love me for what I do and not just because of who I am or the gender I was born in." Like so many trans women, Leiomy resists the common narratives about transitioning, commenting passionately about the invasive questions trans women often face from interviewers: "Once people hear that you're transitioning they automatically think of gender reassignment surgery ... Why is it okay for an interviewer to ask me first thing: 'Did you get your surgery?' Like, I didn't know this interview is about what's between my legs."
"Why is it okay for an interviewer to ask me first thing: 'Did you get your surgery?"
As far as the movement for transgender rights goes, plenty of work is left to be done: "The main thing we should be focusing on is respecting trans people. That's not happening. Even from [within] the LGBT community: we get misgendered, treated differently. They look down on us. They take us as a joke within themselves. And if the public sees the LGBT community disrespecting us they feel like it's OK for them to do it too ... At the end of the day trans people are getting killed left and right. And it's not because of what they do with their lives, it's because they're living their truth."
Here's Leiomy in red in the video for "Whip My Hair."
Leiomy has since become a legend in the scene. Her signature moves, including her hair tosses (as seen in the aforementioned Willow Smith video) and the Leiomy Lolly, appeared in Lady Gaga/Beyonce's video for "Telephone" video and Britney Spears' video for "If U See Amy." "The Lolly for me came from actually voguing ... I would throw a little hair whip, like try to be sassy with it, but I started noticing that whenever I would do that specific move people would like it."
Watch Leiomy doing "The Leiomy Lolly."
With the world finally paying more attention to vogue, the future of the culture is hard to predict. Many stars of the ballroom are understandably resistant to accept mainstream success, something which Lei finds baffling and frustrating: "I get so much negativity because of where I have taken my vogue. I really really want the ball scene to take off, to go mainstream. The talent and the creativity is there, but the negativity and the politics -- there's always fights. There’s always arguments."
Meanwhile, indie stars like FKA Twigs, Icona Pop, and Cocorosie have openly embraced the world of the ballroom, even conscripting Leiomy and other prominent dancers to perform alongside them. "I love FKA Twigs for that because not only does she respect the culture, she respects the passion and the hard work that comes with being a part of the underground," gushed Maldonado.
Given her demanding performance schedule and the contentiousness of the genre, Leiomy isn't competing anymore. Instead, she's devoting her time to teaching classes around the world, even in places with overtly anti-LGBT sentiments like Russia and Jamaica. "They didn't understand or have the knowledge that vogue is just a dance overall. It came from the LGBT [community] but it's not only for gay guys or transgender women. It has grown to the point where I go overseas and I go to these events where they have hip hop stuff. There's a lot of straight guys. There's hip-hop dancers, breakdancers, and they just go for it! They don't discriminate or judge."
Learn the basics of Vogue, if you dare.
Despite being such an icon in the gay world, Leiomy's life is rather tame outside of her dancing. "I’m a big homebody. I really don’t have a social life here in New York ...
I have a boyfriend. He's a trans man. I met him through the ballroom scene ... I barely even listen to vogue music honestly. The only time I listen to vogue music is when I do my classes. I can't hear it all the time; I can't listen to it in the street. I'd be voguing everywhere! For real!"
Nonetheless, Leiomy presses onwards, even going as far as to create her own "house," which is sort of like an adopted family in the ballroom scene. "You basically have a mother and a father figure and they have kids that they help, give them advice, help them with outfits ... My house will be called the House of Amazon. I have a few daughters. I speak to them on an every day basis, I know things about their personal lives. They're really my kids. Most houses you change your last name but I'm putting the 'Amazon' before. It'll be Amazon Leiomy, not Leiomy Amazon."
With all the terminology and complicated politics around vogue, it may be hard for outsiders to grasp the beauty of the form. But the answer is simple as far as Leiomy is concerned: "Dance is addicting! It is! Even if someone doesn't understand your struggle in life or where you came from, if you dance for them they might understand it."
Photos: Kellyn Simpkins