NEW YORK — The FX series “Pose’s” first season, inspired by the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” was set in the late 1980s as the characters forged their chosen families — “houses” — and tried to put the hardships of nonconforming life behind them by competing in voguing and runway contests under a glittering disco ball. Its second season, which began June 11, jumps to the early ’90s, as the HIV/AIDS crisis builds and Madonna’s “Vogue” video brings the trans-ball culture and voguing into the mainstream.
But what Madonna couldn’t possibly convey was why the proud bearing and grand movements of vogue mattered to the women and men who invented ball culture. The ballroom scene arose from emptiness, dreamed into existence by young people, mostly black and Latino, who had been shunned by their biological families and faced homelessness, violence, sex work and disease. They filled the void with fantasies of wealth and magazine-cover beauty and strolling Fifth Avenue like they owned it. Their aspirations took shape at the balls.
The show is part family drama, part musical extravaganza, as you’d expect from creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, of “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” (Writer Steven Canals joins them as a co-creator.) Premiering during Pride Month, as it did last year, the series centers on the trans women and gay men of color in New York’s underground ballroom culture.
On a recent afternoon, a few floors above the ballroom set where “Pose” is filming, a rehearsal studio pounds with the 1990 dance-club hit “Strike It Up.” Leiomy Maldonado, a ballroom icon known as the Wonder Woman of Vogue, is trying to get her dancers to feel the beat with their hips.
“Pump, pump, girl,” Maldonado commands one young woman in blue stiletto booties and a sheer top dripping in fringe. “You’re doing it without even caring!”
Snapping her haunches side to side and crisscrossing her thighs with every step, Maldonado demonstrates a full-out, queen-of-the-catwalk strut, Naomi Campbell style. She drops her voice and purrs, with a note of reverence:
In the ’90s, indulging in the exaggerated femininity of the spins, dips and floor poses of voguing, and practicing a killer runway walk in six-inch heels, were keys to survival. As the crowd jeers and cheers, competitors vie for trophies in different categories, each one with specific requirements in costuming and mannerisms, such as “executive,” “town and country” and “royalty.” Confidence and stately self-presentation might bring a trans woman or gay man closer to the golden ideal of fitting into cisgendered society.
“That’s why we have categories like ‘realness,’” says Dominique Jackson, a model and ballroom champion from Trinidad and Tobago who plays “Pose’s” haughty quasi-villain Elektra Abundance. Jackson is eating a salad in her dressing room, carefully, still in heavy ’90s makeup and costume: a purple sequined skirt suit and a black-and-gold fascinator with dangling beads pinned to the side of her updo. Her posture is so elegantly upright that the beads barely jiggle as she speaks. Her one concession to downtime: Uggs boots. (All the cast members received them, a relief from hours spent shooting in sky-high pumps.)
“In the realness categories, what happens is you walk and your peers judge you, because if you’re not able to walk amongst your peers and pass as being cis male or cis female, then it’s obvious that you haven’t done enough work,” Jackson says. “They wanted you to be able to go outside and come back home safely.”
How ‘Pose’ is different
“Pose” made TV history with its cast of trans actors in recurring roles, including Jackson, MJ Rodriguez as nurturing house mother Blanca, and Indya Moore as Angel, a sensitive hooker who’s one of Blanca's adopted daughters. Trans artists collaborate behind the scenes, including choreographer Maldonado and writer-director and activist Janet Mock, who’s also a producer.
Even as LGBT themes have come to the fore in TV (in such shows as “Orange Is the New Black,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Transparent”), this team is different. The cast also includes gay actors of color, such as Tony winner and activist Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”) as ballroom emcee Pray Tell, who’s prone to ditching his script and ad-libbing quips to make a stripper blush.
“Everyone in the cast feels the freedom of this show,” Porter says, referring to the layered, complex representation of a community that’s largely unknown in pop culture, and that now has the chance to tell its own story.
“Ballroom saved my life,” says Twiggy Pucci Garcon, one of the choreographers. “I’d been asked to leave my church, I wasn’t getting along with my family. It was a rough time, and at the same time I discovered ballroom, and it was just what I needed. ... When you step onto the ballroom floor, you’re saying, ‘I matter.’”
Making the stars shine bright
Even before you enter the studio complex where “Pose” is shooting, it feels like a Technicolor dreamworld. Under the midday sun, tall, gorgeous women, poured into sparkly nightclub dresses with frosted lips and eye shadow to match, chat on the sidewalk. The elevator is packed with more women in bright, skintight finery. You imagine the vintage shops in Manhattan with empty hangers where the ’90s evening wear used to be.
A lot of it is now in the hands of costume designer Analucia McGorty. Her workshop explodes with twinkly color. Two shelving units display Elektra’s hats. “The bigger the better,” McGorty says, picking up a cream wool Dior-inspired topper with huge feathers. Bigger and better could be the Season Two mantra: McGorty recently built Elektra a dress for a French Revolution ballroom category equipped with a functioning merry-go-round in the skirt and a guillotine effect (it needs to be seen to be believed) pulled off with old curtain hardware.
There’s separate acreage devoted to dressing Porter’s Pray Tell. “I cannot get enough sequins on this man, enough shine,” McGorty gushes.
Downstairs, Porter wears a saffron pantsuit as shooting begins for an episode focusing on the two young men Blanca adopted last season: aspiring dancer Damon (played by Ryan Jamaal Swain) and his reckless boyfriend, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside). Under the spinning disco ball, Maldonado gives Swain last-minute pointers on how he needs to swivel his arms around his head while his hips are banging like a clapper in a bell. The dance category is butch queen vogue femme — a style performed by men, but with feminine flair. “I want to see soft and dainty, and dramatic and severe,” Pray Tell bellows.
Swain’s Damon rolls on the floor and preens like a cat. Burnside’s Ricky, who viewers know as a hypermasculine tough, swishes his backside and shimmies his shoulders; he draws his hands in suggestive circles around his chest, like a burlesque star flaunting her pasties.
This scene was transformative on a personal level, Burnside says afterward. “As the camera started rolling, all I could think about is my uncle and the other men in my life who policed my behavior and the way I moved and way I spoke and expressed myself, citing it as not being for boys, or ‘that’s too feminine’ or ‘that’s gay.’”
Over the years, that message sunk in, he says, and shooting the vogue dancing made him realize “that I don’t have liberation in my own body. In a way I’m trapped in my body, I’m imprisoned by these ideas about masculinity. ... It was through the dancing that I was able to access part of myself, and in front of other people.”
It’s in the self-expression of the movement, and in putting trans people on-screen as heroes and villains, muddling through in the human quest for appreciation. He points out that as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots arrives June 28 — marking six days of arrests and uprising in Greenwich Village that intensified the gay rights movement — it’s fitting to remember that two trans women of color were among the first to resist the police: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. They’ve been largely forgotten in portrayals of the movement as primarily white and male.
“What ‘Pose’ is doing is rectifying that, and calling it out,” Swain says.
Considering the body of work
It all comes back to the body. At the end of the day, Tracy Inman, co-director of the training arm of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, arrives to choreograph a dance for Swain and others for a scene at Damon’s dance school, modeled on the Ailey school. The constant through-line of dance and self-presentation on “Pose” makes one think about other aspects of the body that this series explores, what the body reveals, the stories it tells.
These are interesting bodies, and the camera uncovers their beauty and their secrets. In the first season, viewers saw women undergo silicone shots to enhance their curves. They watched Elektra tearfully tuck her genitals out of sight with tape. Angel disrobed for a john (Evan Peters), and instead of recoiling from her male anatomy, he was intrigued. He ended up falling in love with her.
“That’s part of the lived reality that we have never seen on TV before,” says Mock, who is also a writer and director on the show.
But their bodies are also heavily policed, often discarded, statistically more likely to succumb to violence and suicide. “They’re not given many resources, not much nurturing and care,” Mock says.
On the dance floor, they can be whatever they want to be.
“Take your time, mami,” Maldonado tells one of the dancers in the rehearsal studio. “Go up on your tippy toes.”
She demonstrates a runway spin, crossing one leg over the other and sweeping her arm out as if she’s showing off the lining of a Chanel coat. Her younger charge has the steps, but not the fierce, majestic feeling.
“Look,” urges the vogue queen. “Just open up to it.”