Cover Mother of the House of Ninja Taiwan chapter, Sharron Ninja

Asia’s youth takes to the dance floor, where a booming ballroom culture welcomes all those ready to express themselves

In December, photos of Chinese millennial voguers began to flood the internet. Over-the-top outfits, extravagant runway walks and fabulous balls were taking place in Shanghai and Beijing, something difficult to imagine just two decades before, when the country officially took homosexuality off its list of psychiatric disorders in 2001, or even last year, as the world became ensnared in the grip of a pandemic.

Irina Bashuk, a Ukrainian dancer whose voguing name is Irina Milan, was among the first to import the rich culture of the ballroom scene that was founded in the 1980s by Black and Latino gay men and transgender men and women in New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood all the way to China. As part of the Legendary House of Milan, she began teaching voguing workshops in Shanghai in 2016. But it wasn’t until late 2018 that she established the first house to be originated in mainland China. The Kiki House of Kawakubo is made up of Irina and her students, and consists of a blend of young LGBTQ members and cis women.

For Bashuk, what started as a class for seven eager students has now grown into a blossoming youth sub-culture, with balls in China hosting up to 600 guests at a time. Irina describes voguing as a language. Being a cis woman, she had a hard time finding a genre of dance that allowed her to express both her femininity and sexuality.

“I think the same happened with many Chinese women,” she says. “They want to express themselves, in a sexual way and in an elegant way.”

Irina and her students attended the first ball in the region, the De Flower Ball, held in Hong Kong in 2017 and hosted by KenKen Milan, a back-up dancer for acclaimed singer Coco Lee who is also the father of the Kiki House of Marciano Hong Kong chapter. First experiencing the scene during his university days in Taiwan, KenKen fell in love with the culture and travelled to New York to learn more from the source, before returning to his native city to teach and share the art form.

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“Voguing taught me a lot about myself,” says KenKen, whose real name is Cheuk Hei Liu. “I found myself. Before, I was very introverted, I had experienced discrimination going to school because I was gay, but because of voguing, my thought process and direction changed. I became stronger. I think in Hong Kong, we’re more conservative; people who are gay don’t want to tell their families. Voguing is really an expression from the inner self.”

In Asia, dancers are able to connect with one another even if they do not speak the same language. “When I went to Korea and Japan, places where I don’t know the language, when we vogued, we could communicate. We use our bodies to communicate,” he says. The desire for self-expression is palpable across the region, with many in the industry crediting their new-found confidence and sense of self-worth to the discovery of the subculture.

Ballroom culture and voguing in Asia trace back to the Nineties. When Madonna released her ground-breaking and iconic music video Vogue in 1990, its real-life vogue dancers resonated with Japanese audiences in particular. Koppi Mizrahi, the Legendary House Mother of Mizrahi Japan chapter, has been recognised in the scene for over a decade.

But unlike its origins, for “the voguing scene in Japan, most of the people are straight. We don’t have many LGBTQ members. Me, a heterosexual cis gender woman, started ballroom here,” says Koppi (real name Konomi Shishido). “LGBTQ individuals hesitate to go into the new culture: they are quite shy.” Despite the lack of diversity, the legendary mother is still hopeful the scene will grow, determined to educate others on the importance of its roots, and encourages more LGBTQ members to join.

With video clips of balls and dance routines now being shared through social media, and television shows like Netflix’s Pose (2018) and HBO’s Legendary (2020), more young people are eager to participate. Koppi Mizrahi, Irina Milan and KenKen Milan have all been able to attend, host and judge balls in different countries and cities.

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Taiwan is home to one of the biggest ballroom scenes in Asia. Taiwanese popstar Jolin Tsai popularised the dance genre back in 2010 with her song Honey Trap, for which she invited father of the Iconic House of Ninja, Benny Ninja, to choreograph the music video. “At that time, it was very edgy. Super ahead. I would say Jolin was like Asia’s Madonna,” says Sharron Ninja (real name Chieng-yi Chan). “I think a lot of people know voguing because of Jolin Tsai.”

Representing the Ninja name, Sharron appeared in the first season of Legendary, a ballroom reality show that featured iconic houses competing against each other to be crowned the ultimate legendary house. Working previously as a back-up dancer for Tsai, Sharron is also Mother of the House of Ninja Taiwan chapter. She walked her first ball, Vogue Nights in New York, in 2013, winning the grand prize for the OTA Vogue category. Later that year, she organised the first ball in Taiwan, the Kick Ass Ball, which in its most recent editions saw nearly 700 people in attendance and more than 60 people taking the stage. 

The island has fully embraced the culture, with balls regularly taking place in Taipei, Tainan and Kaoshiung. Both cis women and men, as well as a diverse spectrum of the LGBTQ community, take part. “Taiwan is special in Asia. We are the first place to legalise gay marriage,” says Yi Cheng Yang, aka Sally Mizrahi, Mother of the House of Mizrahi Taiwan chapter. “The LGBTQ community has worked hard for this, and they are still fighting. At least in Taiwan they are more active.” 

It’s not uncommon for the mainstream Taiwanese media to engage with ballroom culture. But there is a concern from the community that the culture has been portrayed inaccurately and there is a lack of understanding by the public of the history of ballroom and the social issues attached to the scene. Vogue dancers around Asia are more than willing to set the record straight.

In March 2020, dancers from Voguing Shanghai dance studio and the Kiki House of Kawakubo collaborated on a commercial campaign with Converse. Later in the same year, they worked with Calvin Klein for its CK Performance line, and even the Millennium Storm Ball in December was sponsored by Beats by Dr Dre.

“We see commercials from Europe and America that are non-binary and non-gendered. They include people who are not traditionally beautiful. I think the same thing is happening in China now,” says Irina Milan. “Our bodies are just our bodies, and this happened for Voguing Shanghai. It’s a big step forward.”

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