January 2014

Every self-respecting culture magazine has its own Berlin Voguing Correspondent, but in ours, Simo Vassinen, we have one in a million. An honest, hilarious and personal story of how a white boy from Helsinki found voguing and the Harlem Ballroom scene - and a fraction of himself along the way, too.

Let me start by recalling a particularly embarrassing moment in dance, circa 1996: The only street dance classes I could find at 13 years of age in suburban Stockholm took place on Wednesdays at a nearby youth centre. The teacher was an elderly lady (well, maybe 27) with frizzy blond hair. I was the only boy in the group after the other one skipped out on me after the first class. Our teacher wanted us to perform her interpretation of Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream in the spring showcase. A cool track, but unfortunately the choreography resembled a jazzy musical number featuring temple princesses with roses in hand. I had signed up for MTV Grind, not this. I wanted to sink through the stage and never went back to class.

That story happened at a time when my goal in life was to be a dancer in R&B music videos. I saw myself as R. Kelly with white D&G boxer shorts pushing out of baggy jeans, or in Janet’s military style Rhythm Nation formations.

The Scream incident seemed miles away from my NYC and LA daydreams, but luckily I had a great group of R&B fanatic friends to dance with, at innocent house parties with a midnight curfew.

After school we would hang out at the Mega Record Store by Stockholm’s main square, Hötorget. I made a special habit to pay tribute to a Lil’ Kim poster hanging on the wall of the R&B room. I was too much of a sissy to pocket the poster, so I would just stand in front of the picture. She was rocking a scandalous bikini and fur combination, squatting with legs wide open, with the word Hardcore written on top. Perfect.

It took a long time for me to realise that my obsession with R&B and hip hop, and especially with the tough, black female, was quite a logical one. In retrospect, I think my mind needed to wonder to the opposites of my own demographics: white male from a happy, ‘white picket fence’ family. While I can also still recite lyrics from Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Cypress Hill from the day, they never had quite the same ring in my ears as Salt-N-Pepa, Da Brat and TLC.

When our dad’s job took us to London and Stockholm from the whiter-than-white 90′s Helsinki, I was happy to make friends from Botswana, Japan and Namibia. Urban sounds made a suitable soundtrack to my own pre-adolescent Benetton campaign, and the bitches ruled the game for me.

I guess everyone tries to connect with themselves by pinpointing what makes us different from others. It’s a process that starts off as painful and exciting, and ends as relieving and unexciting.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was not the last to notice our natural interest in the exotic, and our disappointment when we realise that nothing is as exotic as it first seems.

I recognised dance as a form of self-expression very early, but it took years to piece it together and to make use of it. I knew there was more to me. Unluckily, I started to bury my R&B dreams as puberty started to take off. And when we moved back to Finland I was quickly oppressed by my surroundings to listen to Smashing Pumpkins; a phase that felt wrong, so very wrong.

Entering high school made things a little bit easier. At 15 I started to sneak into Helsinki’s clubs like the 70′s disco joint Josafat and the trendiest of them all, Kerma Club, where I first heard house music.

To get in I had to switch to English at the door, show an American student ID forged by my brother on our home computer, and wear glasses with no prescription to look older.

Those nights were the only moments when I moved with my body, spending my hard-earned busboy’s salary. At school I always had shitty grades in gym class because I hated ice-hockey, basketball and soccer – the only allowed styles of movement for the Finnish man. Dancing felt liberating, but it always required manly amounts of beer, apple cider, Bailey’s and Hot Shots. Dancing sober was for temple princesses.

For years to come, I would focus on studying, partying and fine-tuning my decade-long performance of acting straight. For years, I had told myself I want to wear R. Kelly’s D&G’s, not to take them off. I only went back to dancing around the same time as I came to terms with my sexuality. I then started hearing music differently, started noticing my body, and turned back to Lil’ Kim and friends.

Nearing my mid-twenties, I signed up for house and hip hop classes and realised that it had been there, waiting for me, all along. I tried out all kinds of urban dance styles, but it was really voguing that brought it all together.

In short, voguing is a dance style relating to the ballroom culture of New York. It goes way back but found its peak forms in the era of the supermodel in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Mainly black and latino LGBT kids would compete in nightly gatherings of posing like the models they admired but could never be; impersonating characters like white businessmen or posh country folk, strutting down imaginary runways, and twisting their bodies as if a paparazzo would shoot a frame on every beat. Society wouldn’t have them, but they had each other.

The elaborate ballroom scene is still there, even more so with the revival seen in recent years. When I moved to New York for a year in 2009, voguing represented the world to me. It had it all: music, race, gender, sexuality, my teenage dreams.

I dug into the scene, and through voguing educated myself – in being myself.

Ballroom legend Benny Ninja once told me that voguing is not about being gay. I nodded, yet disagreed in my head. Now, a few years later, I see the point: voguing is not about being gay, black and socially marginalized. That just happens to be how it started. Voguing can be about becoming a plant, a painting, R. Kelly, a robot, or your own grandmother.

That’s why it would be great to go to voguing events and see international ballroom enthusiasts try out other roles than that of the standard Harlem drag queen (a role worth pursuing, nonetheless). Instead of packing Tumblr accounts with Ru Paul’s Drag Race GIFss and advising others to “werk it, bitch” with a thick Helsinki or Düsseldorf accent, why don’t we also dig into our own culture and see what we can find to turn into voguing, or other dance.

Because that’s what voguing – and dancing – is; using your body to discover and show different sides of yourself. Voguing was the final realisation for me that I don’t have to listen to Smashing Pumpkins. I very much appreciate diversity around me, but it now comes in more personal forms of self-expression than race or sexuality.

So, “werk” whatever you’ve got, bitch.