The Sport of Walking
Shortly after I installed the YouTube channel, I found my official “sport.” I went for weeks not knowing what this wonderful thing that I was watching was called. Even though I had seen Paris is Burning and watched a season of Pose, I didn’t immediately make the connection. Was this some new gymnastic event? It had the feel of floor routines, only some of the participants wore stilettos. The hand gestures had the look of “camping it up” but there were cis-women cheerleader types competing too (often with their heterosexual boyfriends). The audience was arranged like fashionistas watching runway models. The acoustics of the venues where these were happening has the same echoes as a pro basketball court.
The algorithms eventually turned up a tutorial, which explained that I had been watching the newest form of Voguing. It has evolved into something fairly mainstream. For every video I watched, it recommended three more. Certain moves looked mandatory, and other moves had a more unique and improvised look. Some of the best improvisations involved people in stilettos, who could make a tumble look like “I meant to do that.” The moves I came to regard as mandatory included “the duck walk,” which involves flapping your hands as if your wrists are made of rubber while you perform a version of Russian folk dancing, where you kick from a squatting position. An audience favorite is the “death drop,” where the dancer appears to have slipped on a banana peel, and lands on their back, with one foot tucked under themselves, and one foot straight out. (I learned the names of these moves from the tutorial.) Other regular routine features include lying on the floor while propellering your legs, fast hand movements that evoke fending off blows, and body language that suggests disdain. Improv work includes break dancing, cartwheels, and leaping into a standing position after lying flat on the floor. The people who excel at this are among the best modern dancers working today.
After a qualifying round of solo performances that combined the mandatory moves, the participants are paired off in competition. When one of these is really working, it is like watching a cartoon Kung Fu whirlwind, where the narrow misses can be breathtaking, and no contact is ever made.
A YouTube channel called Paris Ballroom is a good place to watch these. Its formats is all the same. A stationary camera is set up over the judges table, so you get a clear view of the competitors and the audience. It is important to see the audience—they are best part of these performances. Over a rhythm of techno buzzing, and under the MC’s auction-paced patter, they moan a Yeoman’s chant of Oh-e-o. I’ve watched some of these videos more than once to study them. In them, audience members clap and snap their fingers and wave their fans. Then in unison, they point a finger skyward, and arc it toward the floor to approve of a well-executed move. It is one of the best symbiotic moments between participants and audience of any sport.