Stateside: At-risk, LGBTQ kids find safety through vogue dance

Jan 3, 2013

Matthew Dawson is the kid wearing sunglasses inside, in the middle of the day. He’s in a room full of about twenty kids who flip, dip, and cat-walk in a dance style known as “vogue.” (For a quick reference, think Madonna’s “Vogue” video from 1990.)

He says this style of dancing is a powerful way for him to express himself. “One of the emotions I say I put into my vogue is anger. I feel like I put it into vogue so I won’t have to put it into other things that are not very constructive.”

Matthew Dawson says as an LGBTQ young person, if he danced like this in the outside world—or on the street—he would not be safe.  And these vogue dancers find safety in their dance community.

To view the dancers in action, visit this link:

These young people are dancing at The Ruth Ellis Center during the middle of the afternoon. The Highland Park center is for at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth. (It’s one of a handful of places nationally that specifically caters to gay homeless youth.) Almost 40% of the kids who come here are HIV positive, and a little more than half have engaged in sex work (that’s the exchange of sex for money, food, drugs, etc.)

Providing a safe space for young people to vogue dance is a win-win for everyone: the youth get to express themselves in an art form they love (vogue is often acrobatic, sexual, and feminine in its movements.) While the staff say the dancing is a gateway that attracts the youth into the building, where they can eventually take advantage of counseling, health services, a warm meal, and the center’s most popular feature: a washer and dryer.  

A Little History

Vogue was created by poor and working class blacks and Latinos in the gay community in the sixties and seventies in New York City. Dancers would compete in the ballroom scene for money and respect in events called balls.  

Within the scene people form houses, or teams. A house has an entire roster that includes a mother and a father, and children, etc. Keep in mind that many young people who come to The Ruth Ellis Center have been kicked out or disowned by their birth families. So the houses they create in the dance world become a kind of family, and a form of protection.

My Mistakes Are The Rulebook

Donnie Dawson and his gay mom, Lakyra Dawson.
Donnie Dawson and his gay mom, Lakyra Dawson.
Credit Kyle Norris

21 year-old dancer Donnie Dawson is part of a house that’s become a family. He says when members of a house become especially close they turn into a family. “It will extend far beyond the ballroom scene, so that if I’m stranded somewhere and I need some help, I can call you and I know you’ll be there.”

His gay mother is Lakyra Dawson, a transgender woman who’s just three years his senior. Since her last name is Dawson, her gay family members have taken that last name as their own.  Lakyra has pushed Donnie and his siblings to pursue their educations. In part because she dropped out of high school, ran-away from home at age thirteen, and spent ten years on the streets.

She says, “That’s a lot to know and see and do and experience. But I just take from that and use my mistakes as the rulebook.”

Lakyra says she wants to steer her kids in the right direction and help them avoid things like prostitution, drug use, or contracting HIV.    

Donnie Dawson says Lakyra has given him so much guidance and support about all kinds of things. “I call her mama,” he says, “because the knowledge that I get from her is far beyond gay life.”

Donnie Dawson says in the world of vogue dancing he’s found the closest, most dependable people he knows. But he’s also found something that helps him deal with stress. As a gay man, he feels like he’s a target for getting harassed on the street or in his life. But when he’s dancing, he can un-wind.  And as he says, “let the creativity flow out of his veins.”

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