NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole
NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

The Night NOLA Bounce & Vogue Danced Together [OKP TV + Feature]

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

Big Freedia & Katey Red, photographed by Mel D. Cole for Okayplayer

Friday, May 2nd, 2014 will be immortalized in certain circles as the night that NOLA Bounce and Vogue danced together, at a mad masquerade ball at New Orleans Wax Museum--and Okayplayer is proud we'll be able to tell our grandchildren we were there to witness it. We've already given the OKP reader some glimpses of what it felt like to be court-side at this momentous occasion--but mostly what it felt like was a historic event that demanded to be recorded in more novelistic, cinematic form. Accordingly we brought the journalistic dream team with us, comprising Vivien Goldman (she wrote the first book about Bob Marley and directed the video for Eric B. & Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke," among a few other things) photographer extraordinaire Mel D. Cole and our fearless video team, lead by Okayaplayer's own Allison Swank. What resulted is the following feature and mini-documentary putting the struggles and celebrations that lead to Bounce and Vogue's meeting at the proverbial crossroads. Watch, read and learn below. -ed.

“Keep your shine!” Katey Red, the reigning glamazon of New Orleans Bounce music, commands a passing admirer on the grounds of Tulane University. She power-scats, freestyle, as she walks. With long auburn tresses tumbling round the broad shoulders of her cropped camo blouson jacket, the lanky grande dame strides across the campus as if she was its primary benefactor. But higher education was not in Katey Red’s destiny; her higher ed. came in NOLA’s rough Melpomene Projects, the hard-knocks school of the NOLA Bounce. Along with fellow bounce artist, Big Freedia, (on whose Fuse TV reality show she appears) Red is a transgender titan of a sound that’s controversially known as “Sissy Bounce” —a moment in the music’s evolution which has changed the sexual politics of club music in New Orleans.

Red is heading to a somewhat landmark event for Bounce music; part dance class, part rehearsal, part creative exchange. It’s all part of the build-up to an imaginative cross-cultural clash curated by local arts collective New Orleans Airlift, who have assembled a group of local artists, tinkerers, dancers and DJs, for 1MSQFT--Microsoft’s One Million Square Feet of Culture initiative. Conscious of multinationals’ role as art patrons—playing Medici to modern Michelangelos-- Microsoft has been connecting with regional creative communities on the ground to support and promote local happenings in a vast survey of progressive culture that provides a platform for everything from film to food to visual art to dance.

The present beneficiary is NOLA’s fecund underground arts scene. Key organizer DJ Rusty Lazer, AKA Jay Pennington--along with Delaney Martin of New Orleans Airlift--corralled some of the community’s most stimulating visualizers, such as surreal installation artist, Ben Wolf and his collaborator Heidi Tullman; gold-sprayed performance artist Sohlid Gold, AKA Daniel Poole, who mimes before a wall of golden boomboxes; and Louisiana Whipz, who transform muscle cars into unexpected art.  The audio and dance element is all Bounce. In this concept Bounce’s primal pounding is plucked from its gritty playgrounds and projects in the primarily black Ninth Ward and pitted in a clash with New York’s more elegant, stylized and storytelling Vogue scene. The unusual pairing is being dropped into a fresh context for both styles - an avant-garde, interactive, mutant arts party at the somewhat scary Wax Museum, in the city’s storybook Creole French Quarter.

Voguing is the dramatic, highly stylized technique popularized by Madonna’s 1990 track, ‘Vogue,” and Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris Is Burning, released the same year. But Vogue has grown since then. “We’re not just a novelty and a passing fad. We’re a thriving community trying to keep out there,” explains House of Mizrahi’s Jack Mizrahi (AKA Jacques Ceran). Mizrahi is the clash’s empathetic Commentator, an on-stage booster whose role is, as he describes it, is: “Coming up with different chants, making the people Voguing move to a narrative.”

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

To further buff Vogue’s luster, Mizrahi is Commentating on “Ten,” a track he recorded with Jennifer Lopez, slated to be released on June 17. “It is her ode to Ballroom because she loves Ballroom culture. In the studio she was gracious and humble, able to both give and take direction,” he enthuses. Lopez’s thumbs-up is an indicator that, as Mizrahi affirms, “Voguing now does not have a class. It may have started in Harlem because of oppression and the search for identity, but it has surpassed that..."

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

"...Voguing doesn’t even have a color any more. It’s great to see races and cultures get together around Vogue, and for me to get to teach the science behind Vogue and tell kids things they are not going to get from YouTube [the popular medium for Voguers].”

Vogue’s growing constituency is building on the aspirational, magical realist thinking of pioneer Voguers like the late Willy Ninja. Explains producer and Vogue aficionado, Patrick Duffy, “The origins of Vogue lie among poor black young American males who dreamed of being real Vogue models and business executives..." hence they compete in categories like Executive Realness. "In society, they were downtrodden and pushed to the side. But in the Ballroom community, they could live out their fantasies by Voguing as closely to the real thing as possible.”

How much do Bounce and Vogue really have in common? For a start, the reigning queens of bounce, like Red and Freedia, glide like the haughty fashion mannequins that first inspired Vogue, consciously channeling the 1950s aristocratic froideur of Grace Kelly and models like Ines de Fressange with their every move. Red even shakes her booty with dignity. But Vogue’s classy, balletic moves may seem strange bedfellows to Bounce’s earthy thrusts. Says Mizrahi’s fellow Commentator, Kevin Jz Prodigy (of the House of Prodigy) AKA Kevin Marquis Bellmon, “Vogue and Bounce are two very, very different styles. In Vogue, you use the whole body. Bounce is all about controlling your waist, butt and legs.”

However, new Bounce fan and leading young Voguer, Kassandra Ebony, (of the House of Ebony) AKA Aubrey Crawford, sees potential in what can appear a one-dimensional dance. “Bounce is kinda repetitive but there are certain things you can do to make yourself stand out,” he explains. “You can stand on your head, get down on the floor, or climb up the wall -- as long as you’re bouncing, it’s O.K. Then you have to learn how to move your waist the right way, so it’s actually not easy… specially if you don’t have what it takes to bounce!” Mizrahi, too, found that Bounce can be a challenge. “There’s one move where their butt makes circular patterns that is just amazing,” he notes. “The day after class my butt felt muscles I never knew.”

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

Mizrahi is one of many whose life was transformed by Vogue soon after coming out as gay. In 1992, Mizrahi was roaming the States as a wrestling photographer, “a means to get away from people asking why I had no girlfriend,” he says wryly. Finding a flyer for a Vogue Ball introduced him to long nights of delight, and he found a surrogate family in the House of Mizrahi, (named after designer Isaac Mizrahi who was seen as “unique, different, fun.”)

Vogue is a world unto itself, with an organization of local Houses--many named after legendary fashion designers--who compete against one another, winners feeding into big national clashes. The style is expanding, says Kassandra Ebony, who received her nom de Vogue from Mizrahi, a whiz at such things.

“We used to have just five Elements: Hands; Catwalk; Duckwalk, a bouncing, kicking squat; Spin-Dip, which is like the punctuation at the end of a sentence and gets the crowd going, and Floor Performance…” says Ebony. The categories on which dancers are judged however, are infinite and ever-changing; some of the newest include the Female Figures and Hair Whip. The Categories are archetypes that inspire Voguers with their appearance and social distinction: Realness, Executive Realness, Femme and Beautiful Face. “You’re going to sell your face for the Beautiful category. That means flawless skin, immaculate teeth and a structure that makes you look like a model. For Executive Realness, you look like someone going to work every day in a suit for a company. Nobody can say you’re gay,” deadpans Ebony.

Back in Vogue class on the Tulane University campus, Mizrahi is an inspirational teacher. “No matter what you do with your hands,” he advises the students, “you’re creating power. You’re making a storm.” In character, the budding Voguers leap, strut, twirl and slide across the floor. As the Vogue class ends, the Bounce team enters. For all her haughty demeanor, Katey Red is an earthy den mother at heart, briskly corralling her dancers, Dem Ho’s (including a skinny young lady named Ashley Johnson, AKA Fat, who is a second generation Ho, following in her mother’s bootyshaking steps in the dynasty of Bounce).

As the Bounce session begins, people try to pull Katey onto the floor, to show ‘em how it’s done. But the diva demurs: “I ain’t getting paid for this!”

Yes, La Red knows her worth and like NOLA’s answer to Linda Evangelista, she doesn’t show face for a penny less. But that self-knowledge is hard won; she’s had to toughen up in the face of more than her share of trauma. Despite superficial differences, Sissy Bounce and Vogue share a deep connection: they both grew out of the persecuted but defiant world of underground gay culture.

Bounce itself also extends another radical legacy, as the latest link in the storied musical lineage of New Orleans. It belongs to a family line that includes The Wild Tchoupitoulas’ Mardi Gras Indian ceremony, the soulful Neville Brothers and the second line brass bands where Louis Armstrong first trumpeted. Nothing can take away New Orleans’ crown as the birthplace of black and creole American music, perhaps because only in New Orleans’ relatively libertine French colonial atmosphere were captive Africans stolen from various nations up and down the Gold Coast permitted to meet in a central location, the legendary Congo Square, to drum together. The unity of polyrhythm helped overcome their language barriers and thus coalesced a new community: arguably the first cohesive generation of African-Americans. While Bounce auteur Sissy Nobby prepared for the ballroom clash amidst derelict houses in the Ninth Ward, across town the dynamic horn sections and wittily strolling piano of more recognized New Orleans living legends like Allen Toussaint were playing in the Fairgrounds at the celebrated Jazz Festival. Bounce is just the baby in a long line of sensational New Orleans grooves.

To understand why both Vogue and Bounce, with their shared good-time image, really are cultures of resistance--using creativity to transform sometimes grim situations--think of how, where and when Sissy Bounce was first made in the 1990s.

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

“Despite all the new freedoms and the liberation of being gay, there’s still a lot of bias. Not everyone is as free as they want,” explains New Yorker, Mizrahi. “Here in New Orleans you look at these young gay boys, Katey Red and Big Freedia and you know Bounce came from oppression; these brave gays doing their own thing and not hiding, even though they’re down South. Those rednecks would be thinking: Here racism is not even out of the door, and now you expect us to deal with homosexuals, too? Sometimes you really have to hide when your sexuality is apparent. Young gays may not be shunned outwardly, but they hear whispers and have to be careful. So whether you’re a Commentator, a Runway Walker or an Observer, Vogue--like Bounce--is where you come to release.”

In the case of young Red, one of a large family being raised by a single mother in the Melpomene projects, her Mama wouldn’t let her be a Majorette (would, in fact, whup her ass if she practiced with the team). Hence the seriousness and commitment with which she now leads her own squad. Indeed, much of Red’s persona seems the triumphant vindication of a dream of how her life should be. She wisecracks that she knew her daddy – because he paid child support. Bullied at school as being a punk who took dick, Red warned her abusers, “’You push me and I’ll punch you ‘til you don’t hit me no more.’ You have to act heavily to prove your bravehood.”

An equally challenging childhood shaped Sissy Nobby, another of Bounce’s key chiefs. Rejected by his mother for being gay (though she was gay herself) Nobby bounced between relatives and was often homeless. “I went though a struggle. Sixteen to nineteen, I dreaded those days,” the stocky, energetic Nobby recalls somberly. But music was a solace, and Nobby’s prowess on the mic was recognized while still at Sarah T. Reed High School. Inspired by Katey Red’s success seducing the straights while dressed as a vamp onstage --“That took nerve!” -- Nobby deepened his artistic commitment. When his local success at parties became too distracting, he dropped out of his Administrative Technology college course after three months. A drunk with a boxcutter took out Nobby’s left eye when he defended a young punk at a party. With determination, Nobby recalls, “I sucked it up, cried, and came back with Bounce.”

Of his many hits, perhaps Nobby is best associated with the smoldering bounce of “Consequences”--built on a loop of “Tom’s Diner” by Susanne Vega. Her sly, gentle ditty is transformed into a scenario of jealousy and revenge. “I was messing with a younger guy and felt it on another level,” Nobby recalls – and the girls related too. As Bounce DJ Li’l Man, straight and a father, observes, “People sometimes look at Bounce music as if it was only about gender preferences, but it is really about a work ethic. In New Orleans you can express yourself as you want and no one is going to judge you.”

NOLA is torrid, tormented, hardcore hedonistic and famously glories in its own decadence. The hard-partying spirit of New Orleans is as gaudy as a string of shiny Carnival beads, and as indestructible, even by hurricanes. The city’s communities were scattered and its Mardi Gras culture battered, but not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The ritual and release of horn-blowing second line street parades and partying is just too entrenched. On legendary Bourbon Street, where brass horn sections and bare-breasted gold-painted mime babes perform for dollars, the air actually smells of whisky.


Only in NOLA do you see masqueraders in fanciful costumes lining up for a mid-morning latte in a chic coffeehouse; or ravers partying aboard yellow school buses in the afternoon, pumping old school disco as they cruise through some of America’s most dangerous projects, the warring garrisons of Bounce.

More than most, NOLA is a schizophrenic city. Picture perfect fretwork balconies overhang cobbled party streets, and millionaires’ hidden gardens conceal pools and fire pits. Then there’s the NOLA that tourists ignore, the streets where Bounce began. Here, houses lean drunkenly, ready to collapse on passers-by.

In the projects, one local emphasized, “They’ll hold people for ransom and kill you in a heartbeat.” No-go zones of dilapidated gingerbread architecture in the New Orleans style are eerily empty on a weekend afternoon. Around the corner the regular looking Jazz Daiquiri liquor store on S. Claiborne is infamous for gang hits in the car park.

Many Bounce heroes wave the flag for their projects – the murdered Bounce star, Magnolia Shorty, was named for her Magnolia projects, then the most deadly of them all. Bounce lyrics have a regional resonance. Katey Red’s “Where Da Melph At?” is a reference to her Melpomene projects that gets dancers throwing up gang signs. Said one observer, who did not want to be named, “They whip them into a frenzy at dances and then people lose their lives.”

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

When you live the trauma of trying to protect yourself as a vulnerable child in a hostile environment, spontaneous choices can easily turn fatal. Growing up gay in the New Orleans projects, especially pre-Sissy Bounce, meant inevitable conflict in an already explosive milieu. Because NOLA is America’s capital of many things, not just hedonism: a frequent murder capital and the capital of US incarceration--a position squared by America’s status as the incarceration capital of the world. The situation is aggravated by some Southern towns’ need to find bodies to fill the local privately-run jails, in order to meet their contractual quota. Half of New Orleans’ black males will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, a grim rite of passage commented on by Sissy Nobby in his track, “Beat It Out The Frame.” Such a corruption of both justice and capitalism defines what civil right lawyer/author Michelle Alexander callsThe New Jim Crow.” The police know they are so mistrusted that they are now publicizing officers’ use of bodycams, intended to record arrests and promote accountability. Add to the mix the teenage pregnancy of over one third of New Orleans young women, plus the sense of slavery days still lingering in neighborhoods both mean and magnificent, and clearly, this charming tourist city sits on a deep social fault line.

Yet progress has been made in "cleaning up" NOLA. Psychotic gang kingpins have been indicted. Many dreaded projects have been razed by the Housing Authority of New Orleans and replaced with what the Times-Picayune newspaper called “instant neighborhoods,” designed for mixed-income use. Project residents discover that they are in greater danger when re-located into enemy territory. But long-time beefs may prove harder to sustain in the new developments. Hopefully so, as bounce battles between tiny project territories, a territorialism that is depressing and baffling to outsiders but life or death to locals, plays right into the hands of Babylon, a system eager to exploit any perceived fault. Disunity is weakness, and a NOLA divided is way easier to incarcerate.

Right by the levee’s blank concrete flank, a largely deserted area near Brad Pitt’s modernist homes, Nobby and his manager Chris Young are startled to see something new: a lone white male wearing headphones and shorts, jogging down what was formerly known as “Dope Alley,” now a dirt path.

This sighting of a new species, a white jogger, seems the harbinger of a new order, and the fulfillment, in a sense, of locals’ most nagging fears. Given the recent neglect of the area and community safety, citizens feel that the authorities do not appear unhappy to disperse the city’s poorest and darkest, who constitute the lowest tax base, in a 21st century version of the old segregationist practice of ‘blockbusting’. Whether legitimate fear or paranoia, some version of this belief is repeatedly voiced by locals, though not for attribution; all were mistrustful of government reports that the Levee’s collapse and subsequent flood was largely bad luck. The mass perception alone suggests a community whose overall sense of disenfranchisement and alienation has fed the rip-roaring surge of Bounce music.

Against this daunting social backdrop, bounce’s ‘stacks-o-ass,’ a fertility dance for the future, make sense as sheer life-affirmation. Yes, we’re still here! We’re fitter than the downpressing system! Look at us, thrusting, pumping, styling and posing with more flourish, force and finesse than most mortals can muster!

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole

"That life force was on full display—rampant assertion colliding with stylish aspiration—as the Bounce vs. Vogue clash rocked the Wax Museum. It was a unique occasion. While it's said that everyone masquerades in New Orleans, the revelers behind the masks at this event ranged from those for whom New Orleans is an artist's playground to fellow citizens whose friends get killed over toys.  The range of artistry on display was as broad as the human experiences and stakes at play in this bacchanalia of creative practice. The interactive spinning chandelier loveseat fringed with human hair and the spotlight-stealing Voodoo Queen drinking blood from her rubber chicken set a suitably surreal tone, as DJ MikeQ (representing the NY Vogue delegation) owned the DJ set-up. It was Ball’s Gone Wild as dancers actually did bounce off walls and bounce while twirling from the ceiling. Speedy bodies pretzeled into impossible forms and their flexible precision was matched by personality. Feminists who dislike Bounce on grounds of punnany exploitation, will be reassured to know that in NOLA, boys were equal opportunity bouncers.

Jack Mizrahi chuckles as he recalls the night’s finale, when he jumped on the mic, adlibbing freestyle alongside Sissy Nobby and Kevin Jz Prodigy. “All three of us had a bird’s eye view and were transfixed by this one lady’s ass, just bouncing. At that moment, our voices blended and we created a new sound. On the mic, I called it “Vounce.”’

Call it Vounce or Bogue, on that one night, the two communities –or rather, three, with all the costumed scenesters and visual artists comprising a third overlapping set -- were grooving on common ground. The scenes of psycho-sexual savagery depicted in the chilling wax tableaux of the Museum, with their horrors of slavery and power gone mad, depict New Orleans past. Of course, today’s horrors could have wax tableaux of their own. But they would look very different, in part because of that night’s sort of innovative energy; a Vouncing, Boguing multicolored, class-free Qi that is released when art grabs different people and connects them and gets them to move and think and even act together.

NOLA Vogue: NOLA Bounce x Vogue Ballroom Clash At The New Orleans Wax Muesum, photographed by Mel D. Cole