Do you vogue? You'll want to at Pillow's 'Mini Ball'
Jason A. Rodriguez, of hit show 'Pose,' explains rules of ballroom culture, what to expect at Pillow's party
BECKET — Growing up in New York City, Jason A. Rodriguez watched in awe as voguers performed on the dance floors of Escuelita, the legendary Latin LGBTQ club in Harlem, and at El Morocco in Washington Heights.
"I would watch these people and think they were super beings. I was never able to step into it. I was an introverted teen who was nowhere near that level." said Rodriguez, who plays Lemar Wintour on FX's hit show, "Pose," during a recent phone interview. Rodriguez will host "Pillow Party: Mini Ball," at Jacob's Pillow on Saturday, Oct. 26.
It was in college, in 2010, at the State University of New York-Purchase, that Rodriguez, met Benny Ninja, the acclaimed runway-walk trainer and voguer, after a screening of "Paris is Burning," a documentary on the underground ballroom scene in 1980s New York. (Ballroom is an LGBTQ subculture, mostly comprised of African American and Latino members, in which participants dance, vogue, walk and pose to win trophies and prizes in drag and performance competitions.)
"Benny Ninja spoke afterwards. It was my first time being in front of a Hispanic person of color, who was like me. I was really drawn to his energy," Rodriguez said. "I asked him a question — I can't remember what it was — and he turned to me and asked, 'Do you vogue?' Of course I was, just in my room in front of a mirror."
Rodriguez began training with Ninja and eventually joined the House of Ninja. (Houses are an alternative family for members — many who do not have the support of their families or communities — providing safety, housing and training. The houses are typically run by "mothers" and "fathers" — drag queens, gay men and transgender women, and the members compete together. During competitions, members adopt the name of their house as their last name.) Rodriguez began competing in ballroom competitions under the name "Slim Ninja" and soon after had roles on the Netflix series "The Get Down" and in the film, "Saturday Church." He also began teaching classes in New Way Vogue (pioneered by Jose Xtravaganza, Luis Xtravaganza and Willie Ninja and most commonly associated with Madonna's "Vogue") and performing professionally.
In 2018, Rodriguez was cast as Lemar, a member of the House of Abundance (a House of Wintour member in the second season), on FX's "Pose," which follows several fictional houses in the Harlem ballroom scene. The show garnered accolades not only for its subject matter, but also for its casting. The Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated series, which just wrapped up its second season, has the largest cast of LGBTQ actors for a scripted television show. Producer Ryan Murphy also has committed the show to casting only queer, gay and trans actors in those roles, saying, "Straight [cis] men playing these roles, I think that it's time to move beyond that," in a 2018 interview with Vox.com.
"It feels incredible to be part of this," he said. "'Pose' is at the forefront ... When we started filming it, we didn't know what that first episode was going to look like. When you see the stories come together, it's really rewarding; especially the messages it sends out."
For Rodriguez, now a member of the House of Xtravaganza (he now competes as Slim Xtravaganza), the show also presents an opportunity to provide young members of the LGBTQ community, especially, he said, queer people of color, who now have a show with not only characters, but also a cast, who they can identify with.
"I have four of my own 'kids' — a daughter and three sons. They all vogue," he said. "Not only am I their teacher, but I'm here to give guidance. They know they can call me, and I'll be there to support them. I can talk to them about my life, because I've been through what's happening to them or is going to happen to them."
Educating the general public about the ballroom scene also is important to the dancer, who performs with the professional House of Eon.
"In the ballroom scene, there are three types of houses: main, Kiki and professional," Rodriguez said. "The main houses are ones such as House of LeBeja, House of Ninja and House of Xtravaganza. They compete in the major ballrooms. Kiki Houses are made up of LGBTQ youth, who are not ready to compete in the main ballrooms. They have their own format."
Professional houses are a blend of dancers from the main and Kiki houses, who bring Mini Balls to universities and events and perform at events and runway shows.
"We hold 'mock balls' that give people from the outside a feel of what it is like to step into a ball," he said. "If Chanel wants us to perform at a runway show, I put together a group of professional voguers for it."
Rodriguez will be bringing a troupe of voguers/performers — Hisham Qumhiyeh, Luz, Myles Mugler, Maleek Joseph and Alvarez Delgado Pierre — with him to Jacob's Pillow for Pillow Party: Mini Ball. Rodriguez, who will host the Mini Ball, will be joined by DJ #BelindZz, commentator EiAGO. Alice Sheppard, co-artistic director of Kinetic Light and a Pillow Lab Artist, will judge the Mini Ball, along with local drag queens Boxxa Vine and Miranda Moirai, Miss Berkshire 2019.
Ariana Massery, associate producer at Jacob's Pillow, said the Mini Ball is a natural fit for the Pillow Party series, which kicked off in 2017 in an effort to reach different social dance communities in the Berkshires.
"We've featured everything from contra dancing to swing to Latin dancing," she said. "When we were thinking about this October, we wanted to do something for Halloween. We began looking at what was not happening in the Berkshires and at communities that were not necessarily being represented."
Rodriguez, who performed for the first time at the Pillow in August as part of a special Pillow Pride Inside/Out performance by Ebony Williams Choreography and Dancers, was recommended by Pillow board member Kyle Abraham as the person to partner with for a Mini Ball.
"Jason has been extremely generous, and he is bringing so much with him. He is very interested in being intersected with the Berkshires and Jacob's Pillow in such a meaningful way," Massery said.
The party, she said, will start off with the structured Mini Ball, which will flow into a dance party. Boxxa Vine and Miranda Moirai will perform during the dance party, in addition to judging. And, those attending, are encouraged to come in something that exemplifies the real them, as there will be a best-dressed contest.
"Those who attend can literally come as anything they want to be," Massery said. "The sky is the limit. It's the most open-ended ticket to celebrate who you are and what you want to exude."
What should those attending the Pillow Party expect?
"Exactly what you would see at a ball — walking, battles. And a whole lot of explanation of what is going on," Rodriguez said. "A lot of people will ask, 'Can I attend a ball? Will I be welcome even if I'm not a queer person of color?' The answer is yes, you are invited. We're going to let you know how to interact in that space — especially the regard and etiquette for those who are battling, no matter who you are."
The Mini Ball will start with the traditional arrival of "LSL" or legends, statements and stars (individuals who have a title in the ballroom scene), who hype the crowd. They are followed by the evenings competitors, who are either given 10s or chopped, by the judges.
"After the 10s, the battles (a faceoff between two competitors) begin. We're going to have battles in the categories of vogue, runway and realness. One key thing is that most people think a ball is just about vogue. Vogue is just one category of a ball," Rodriguez said. "There will be a lot of education happening."
He said partygoers will be able to go into the city, go to an actual ball and know what to expect.
"With the Mini Ball, you won't need to take a disco nap," Rodriguez said with a laugh. "In the city, balls never start on time and never before midnight or 1 a.m. Don't try to go to a ball if you have an early shift the next day."
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