Ki and Tea With Jose Xtravaganza
Like many of y’all, when I was a young queer coming out and coming into my identity, I went in search of clues. Gay clues. How should I act? How should I dress? What will my new queer community look like? And where can I find it? I combed through the popular culture of the turn of the 21st century to find the representations that spoke to me: my gay idols, my role models.
One memorable figure that stood out in my research was Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza. Maybe you recognize him from the cult classic Paris Is Burning. More likely, you’ve seen him featured in a number of Madonna’s music videos, including “Vogue” and “Justify My Love,” or are familiar with his role in Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour and the tour’s resulting documentary film, Truth or Dare.
I had the honour of sitting down for a chat with the iconic (yet strikingly humble) Father Jose – brought to Toronto by the Mix Mix Dance Collective for a series of events and workshops – to ki, spill a bit of tea, get a history lesson, and speak about ball culture and his evolution as an artist. I was joined in the chat by Ashley Perez, dancer/choreographer and co-founder of Mix Mix Dance Collective, and Diego Armand, co-founder of Yohomo. Pull up a chair …
Tamika: First, I’d like to delve into your dance background a little. You’re from a Dominican family, from the Lower East Side.
Jose Extravaganza: Da hood.
T: Da hood! Exactly! And yet you have this ballet training. So I’m wondering what that process was like. How did dance become so central? What was your avenue?
JX: Being from where there were no “mes,” you know – I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Growing up of colour, gay, in New York City, at a time when we didn’t have no rights, the odds are against you, so to speak. So very early on, I knew I was different. I was in my own head a lot and didn’t like what other boys liked. I grew up on television – my mom would watch all these variety shows – and I always mimicked what I saw on TV. I would do these “shows” for my mom, while she was in the kitchen, thinking, “One day I’m gonna be up there [on that screen].” Coming from the hood, you have these dreams.
I was very fortunate to get an opportunity through school. One of my teachers, in the third grade, invited a program that auditioned inner city kids with the gift of art [and performance], and that program would train you for free, and pay for everything. I remember it was all girls – I was always with the girls – and sure enough, I was such a ham. They wanted to test your flexibility, asked you to touch your toes, and I’d go into splits. The rest was history. I trained with them forever, learning professional ballet. From there I went on to LaGuardia High School of the Arts. And then I headed to the clubs, where one night – boom – there was this woman, who, unbeknownst to me, was Madonna.
Armand Diego: How old were you?
JX: Seventeen, eighteen.
T: About when did you enter the ballroom scene?
JX: At fifteen or sixteen.
T: How long was it before the House of Xtravanganza noticed you?
JX: I remember I was a freshman at LaGuardia. I started hanging out with all these older guys, older gay men, who were so, like, wow. They were who I wanted to be like. They started taking me down to the Village, the West Side, and the piers. It was another world. They invited me to my first ball. I remember being so blown away at that ball, and so drawn in, that I walked. I competed.
T: You walked your very first ball?
JX: It was something I wanted to be a part of. I saw all this arrogance and flamboyance – the battle, the competition. I said, “I wanna do that.” I won that very first night. And at the end of that night Xtravaganza asked me to be a part of their house. I already knew of them of course. They were different from the rest. The ballroom scene, at that time, was predominantly African American. And also at that time there was a lot of prejudice amongst our own. You know: light skin versus dark skin, colourism and whatnot. This Hispanic house was not that accepted at first, even though they were just as fabulous. I had a lot of friends who belonged to the biggest African American house of that time, the House of LaBeija. They automatically thought I would join their house, because it was the house to be in. But I felt like I had to join the house that better represented me, my culture.
T: The ballroom scene is all ovahness, extraness – you have to bring it. How did you set yourself apart?
JX: I think that I took what I saw, like the creative in all of us, and made it into something they weren’t used to seeing. That was the fortunate thing about being a dancer – that I could take this movement I was seeing, which was kinda one-note back then, and change it into something more fluid, more artistic. I think that’s what set it apart enough to attract the attention of people like Madonna, who then gave me more of a platform to express it.
T: I know you’ve been asked about Madonna roughly ten million times in your career … I read another interview wherein you were asked your thoughts on Madonna’s appropriation of vogue. Your response was something along the lines of “ Vogue needed somebody like her to bring it to the world stage.” Does that still feel true?
JX: Absolutely. Sometimes people in the community will be like, “ Oh, she ripped us off. She took it and ran away with it.” But I don’t feel that’s the case. She came to the source of the culture and gave me this platform, free range to express it, to be myself, and show this art. I do think it took somebody like her to put it on the map, as they say. Where would it be today, I wonder, without her?
AD: And she was also a dancer, so she probably had her own relationship to it as an artform.
JX: Yeah! And she did it justice. It wasn’t like it was half-assed. To be honest, though, when we were doing it – all the costumes, the bras, the suits – I was like, “What is this?” I had no idea we were creating these pictures, these moments, this larger-than-life imagery that’s still relevant today. You look at it, the styling, and it could’ve been done yesterday. So now I’m like, “Oh, okay. I get it.” That’s why I think it would take somebody like her to give it that timeless feel.
T: Vogue’s being taught in Japan now …
JX: Russia, Cuba. It’s everywhere. Now it’s being taught as part of the curriculum in all of these prestigious dance schools. It’s amazing to be part of something that started from nothing and seeing what it means now.
T: Vogue took off after Blonde Ambition, with all of you being the face of that tour, but ballroom culture, in my opinion, stayed more underground. We’ve had Paris Is Burning and the Kiki documentary, but those have garnered largely cult followings. That’s changing now, with television shows like Pose, which you’re featured onE. What was that experience like?
JX: Yes, I was featured and I consulted as well. It was amazing. He [Ryan Murphy] is another example of a person who just came to the source, the community, and gave so many people jobs. Some of these people – it was their first time in front of a camera, and here now they have this opportunity to act. And not only that, but we also get to play ourselves, essentially. We get to tell our own stories and get paid for it. Take Indya Moore, one of the main characters on the show. She was a runaway living in a shelter. She’s a literal rags-to-riches story: from a shelter in Brooklyn to now having her own trailer on set.
T: That was definitely the first thing that struck me when I watched the show. I thought, “hOh, all the girls are getting their coins right now.” And people are part of the narrative they’re playing out. Gay folks are actually gay, and trans folks are actually trans.
JX: That’s it. Everyone’s getting their cheques. It’s beautiful to watch, because these people have so much creativity and so much talent. Plus, we’ve got a second season on the way…
JX: But that’s the cool part about Ryan Murphy. He’s just open to you telling your own stories.
T: That’s really good to know. Those are often the questions we have, especially with how the white gay lens is often the vehicle that carries, and oftentimes distorts, our narratives.
JX: Yes. I feel like we can be skeptical, for good reason. But he was just really attentive and respectful. He listened. And we were a lot. Can you imagine? All of us - such big personalities. He was a master of managing everyone’s opinions and needs. I think he was also just humbled to be let in on our experience.
AD: You can even feel the shift in the show as it develops from the pilot. We get deeper into these ideas of representation, and you can kinda tell that he’s turned the storytelling over to the people whose stories they were.
Ashley Perez: It’s a good exercise, to pass it off. That’s what we’re all learning about allyship. Doors open not just for yourself but for the others who need it too, or need it more. Come right in. Bring a friend.
X: He was very much “ You tell me.” Which was the best we could’ve hoped for, for that project.
T: That’s wassup… Since you’ve been a part of the ballroom scene from its infancy, you’ve seen all its iterations. What are some of the main differences, in your opinion, between how it’s structured today, and how the kids approach it, and when you were coming up?
JX: Oof, good question! Well I think there’s definitely been a drastic change. I think with anything, especially creativity, the new generations will always come in and try to take it to another level. Kinda like what I did with vogue: I saw it, I added something new to what I saw. But, in the process of that, some things are best left as they are. When this culture was invented, there was no rule book. Because there’s no rule book, and because the people that created this culture are no longer around, I think some of the generations that came after turned it into something more commercial. Now it’s looked at more as like a business for many. This thing was created as a safe space – for fun, for self-expression – for us. Now you’re getting paid to perform the culture. Which, as I said before, can be a great thing. But I feel afraid that we’re losing the history of it, the story of where it came from. It makes me feel like I have to take it upon myself to share that history. Like, remember Harlem, remember on 145th Street? That’s the beginning. Some of the kids today don’t know. They saw it on YouTube, or it was being taught at their school.
AP: I remember you saying that sometimes you go to these different countries and people will dispute the credit and the origins with you.
JX: Yeah! And I’m like, “Wait, you’re questioning what I brought to it? What all these others that came before you did?” Especially now with social media, everyone’s a “master” and an “expert.” Everyone wants the credit. But there’s levels to this. I always tell the classes that I teach, “Do your research, find out what you’re learning, find out who you’re learning from. Know your sources.” Because there’s really a lot of misinformation out there. To be a master you have to earn it. I can’t just label myself an icon or a legend and have that be true.
AD: I mean, out of anybody, you could…
JX: Nah, but seriously, I feel those are titles one has to be given. And now that I’m given them, I have to live up to them. But I also have to stay humble and remember what helped me become those things. Who taught me. Who gave me the floor.
T: Let’s talk about your time here in Toronto. You’ve been brought here by Mix Mix Dance Collective, you’ve been doing these workshops, these private sessions - what’s the feedback been like? How’s your experience been?
JX: It’s been so amazing, words almost can’t describe. As a teacher, as a dancer, just as a person, how I’ve been received is incredible. All these years, and I still feel so appreciated for what I’ve done. It’s been more than just teaching the steps or a technique. It was more just connecting on this whole vibe, this energy, this desire to learn.
AP: That’s the thing that stood out for me most: watching the dance community just being engaged and questioning. It was about stopping to have the exchange. Mostly it’s about wanting to get through the movements, get through the class. But Jose was really giving. People don’t get that time taken with them that often.
JX: It was very heartfelt. I just didn’t want anyone leaving class feeling defeated. The moves, the steps, you’ll get. But this thing, that feeling, it’s inside. There’s no technique to self-expression. Especially with this kind of dance – where it’s from, how competitively it’s performed – I could tell it was intimidating for people. But I wanted everyone to feel heard.
AP: It was really nice because when people think “dancer,” they think bravado. So to have these super-long classes where the instructor is this icon but also so accessible was really unusual for people. Even just being able to throw these underground dance events in such large spaces was unusual. Space is so limited and expensive here in Toronto, so having that all come together the way it did was awesome. You want to be open and inclusive to as many people as possible. Speaking to that, though, there were some questions that came out during the sessions around white people’s inclusion in the space.
T: Yeah, let’s talk about that.
AP: Well, there’s lots of white folks now doing vogue; white folks are part of a lot of the Toronto houses. And they’re doing the work, they want to do the work, but I think it goes back to that conversation about history. How do we not close the door but also make sure that that history is respected? How do we keep this underground, keep the culture and the language genuine, but also bring people in?
T: Right. The fear always is that once this artform, so rooted in its own culture, gets taken into other cultural contexts, things will be lost in translation. Or, at the very least, each new context will impose some influence. The Canadian ballroom scene has so many more white people than I’d ever seen growing up and going to the NYC balls. But the Canadian population demographic differs greatly from the States, so the reflection isn’t surprising in a way. What’re your thoughts, Jose?
JX: I think it’s about starting and continuing the discussions, like the one we’re having now. You don’t get all there is to know about ballroom and about vogue in one session, in one day, from one video, or whatever. No matter who you are, if you’re approaching this culture and this scene to be a part of it, you have to approach it with respect. I think it’s up to the individual to put in the work and dig deep and learn all the levels and the layers before anything. Because of course we’ll check you if you don’t.
T: Very true. So what’s next for you, Jose?
JX: Wow – in the next little while there’s lots of travelling for workshops and appearances. I’m back to New York for a bit, then off to Orlando for Pride, then off to Italy, and then off to Chile. Then towards the end of the year we’ll start shooting the second season of Pose.
T: Amazing. So finally: you’ve worked with so many legends throughout your career, as a dancer, as a choreographer, as a consultant. Do you have a few experiences that stand out in your mind as being pivotal, or have there been so many that the whole ride has been noteworthy?
JX: Oh man, there really have been so many. Every job, every opportunity has been so incredible. I will say, working with Naomi Campbell way back, witnessing her star rise and then being validated that she’d learned how to walk from me when she used to come to the clubs. That little strut was me.
T: Wow! That is the strut!
JX: Yeah! And of course, you know, Madonna. Her seeking me out all those years ago and saying she’d heard I was the best – that she was writing a song about this vogue thing and needed the best to be involved. That was wild. Other than that – getting complimented by Michael Jackson. Him saying he’d love to work with me one day …
JX: Yeah. He came by to a rehearsal. He and Madonna were possibly going to work together on something, so he was around a bit. He came up to me and said, “I would love to work with you.” That might’ve beat out everything.
T: How do you manage to stay as humble and accessible as you are, considering these kinds of experiences you’ve had?
JX: I don’t know – I’m just a person, you know. We’re all just people. I think it goes back to where I’m from. Our culture, it’s just low-key, even if you’re doing a lot. I go back home and I’m just regular. Just regular Jose.
Don’t miss two upcoming classes with Jose! Sat, Nov. 17 and Mon, Nov. 19! Get all the info on our events page.
Follow Mix Mix Dance Collective here https://mixmixdancecollective.weebly.com/ to keep an eye on other dope underground dance projects happening in the city.