“We Can’t Go on Like Madonna”: A Conversation with Ricky Tucker

May 14, 2022   •   By Zach Shultz

I’VE LONG HELD a sneaking suspicion that my favorite writers are all great dancers. While this belief is entirely unprovable, I’m not the only, nor the most eloquent, critic to note a connection between writing and dancing. In Remembered Rapture, bell hooks describes being “compelled by a constant longing to choreograph” language: “As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the Divine, I move toward the infinite.”

Ricky Tucker’s glittering debut, And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community (out now from Beacon Press), is a master class in how to dance with words. From the jump, Tucker — a 2017 Lambda Literary fellow and storyteller, essayist, interviewer, teacher, and art critic based in New York City — lets readers know this is not a typical work of nonfiction, narrated from the “objective” distance of a journalist or ethnographer. Rather, like a gracious party host, he invites us into a “cobbled-together pastiche of prose” in order to “paint an impressionistic view of Ballroom in its current incarnation, which is always in flux.” The book is a “love letter to the legendary Black and Latinx LGBTQ underground subculture, uncovering its abundant legacy and influence in popular culture.”

The narrative often drifts — taking an ekphrastic detour through Madonna’s “Vogue” music video, before veering into chapter-length interviews — but never turns dull. Perhaps because Tucker expertly synthesizes memoir with razor-sharp critique. Tucker’s isn’t the first to tackle the subject: both Gerard Gaskin’s Legendary (Duke University Press, 2013) and Stuart Baker’s Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989–92 (Soul Jazz Books, 2011) are mainly photography collections interspersed with text, while scholar Marlon Bailey’s Butch Queen Up in Pumps (University of Michigan Press, 2013) focuses on the Detroit scene. What distinguishes Tucker’s book, however, is the combination of lyrical prose with an art critic’s eye for aesthetics. Tucker follows two simple mandates: to be unapologetically Black and to indict capitalism. While he accomplishes both, the book is also, importantly, a delight to read.

Although she passed before its publication, bell hooks finds an echo in Ricky’s voice. I imagine she would luxuriate in the writing, while also reminding us that Black joy can be wielded as a tool to dismantle the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. And the Category Is… reads like an invitation — a provocation, even — to dance. It strikes a pose that is equal parts pleasure and politics. At its most rapturous, the book also reads like bell hooks when she writes: “That moment when I whirl with words, when I dance in that ecstatic circle of love surrounded by ideas, is a space of transgression.”

¤


ZACH SHULTZ: I’ll start by asking the same question you pose to everyone you interviewed for this book, which is: How did you find Ballroom?

RICKY TUCKER: [Jennie Livingston’s documentary film] Paris Is Burning. Also, generally, Madonna’s “Vogue,” but I was too young to delve more into that. But mostly through Paris Is Burning when I was in my early 20s, and then about eight years later in a [dance instruction/theology course at The New School] called Vogue’ology, where I made touch points with people from the community across generations, and that changed everything.

What was it like to first encounter Paris Is Burning? And has your relationship to that documentary changed over time?

My dynamic with the documentary has both stayed the same and changed. I still feel the same fascination and pure joy. It’s like candy that somehow has nutritional value. But I know a little bit more every time I see it.

The last time that I saw it, I was on my way to North Carolina for my nephew’s birthday. It was available on this flight, so I decided to watch it. I thought I’d just watch the parts where Dorian Corey speaks because I’m most interested in her narration. It’s very literary, the way that she speaks. She speaks in poetry, and it feels effortless. I was going to just watch that part and then ended up watching the whole thing. The delight of the film has not changed for me. The sociopolitical context through which I view it has evolved.

In what ways has your sociopolitical context changed?

I can’t pinpoint when I found this out, but the fact that Dorian Corey, for example, murdered and mummified a man in her apartment. And that man was probably in her trunk while she was being interviewed for the documentary. That always makes the film more charged when I watch it.

But maybe the aesthetic value of Ballroom has changed over time, too. You can compare that to today. Now more than ever, the houses are named after fashion houses. Where you had the House of Dupree, LaBeija, and Xtravaganza before, now you’ve got Miyake-Mugler and Garçon. That shifting dynamic with capitalism and the complications of partnering with corporations have changed over time, and so I’m more aware of that gap now when I watch it.

In an article published here in LARB, media studies scholar Alfred L. Martin Jr. argues that Pose is a form of “plastic representation” where the show emphasizes visibility at the expense of political critique. What’s your take on Pose?

I think it’s important for someone like that to say something like that about Pose because it’s not incorrect. But I would argue, also, that any sort of representation on television is plastic.

It’s a telenovela. It’s Ryan Murphy does Ballroom, so it should be plastic to a certain degree. It’s campy; it has to be. But also, when the acting isn’t phenomenal, it’s fucking horrible. I can only put it into the space of a melodrama.

The show has made me cry. That doesn’t mean it’s deep. The show has made me laugh out loud, so many times, and I’ve rewatched so many scenes and thought: This is everything. But that doesn’t mean it has to be everything to me. So, I see what he’s talking about and agree to a certain extent, but I love that show. We can demand expectations of being represented, and I think that’s how it should go. But we can’t undervalue the importance of just sheer representation.

One thing I think Pose gets right, and I saw in your book, is the idea of chosen family. What is family to you? And what is family to the people you write about?

Family is everything. I talked to Lee Soulja about family. Lee’s first brother, or at least first mentor in Ballroom, was Willi Ninja. Lee was in the House of Ninja at first, and he talks about going to one of his first balls, and Willi sits him down and introduces him to folks. People were saying, “Oh, Willi’s your uncle, or your brother.” You know, working out an impromptu lineage. And there’s generally free food at balls, because you have a lot of young folks there who need it.

Lee talks about going through certain trials and tribulations, being abused as a child, and everybody he met at that table that day understood immediately. You can hit the ground running in terms of understanding and values and life content, but then also, you’re healing together. That’s part of the reason vogue comes in because everyone who has been excommunicated from their families, they have the chance to rewrite everything. But first, it matters a ton to be in a room full of people who have been through the same thing. All of that is invaluable. Your family’s rooted around an art form, and your family is also an art collective, and your family also works together.

We all have our chosen families. Ballroom isn’t different in that context, but I think it’s way better organized. It meets the need way better than a lot of chosen families.

Yet, you also show that Ballroom is still not a perfect family. In some ways, it recreates the same family traumas people came to the community to escape.

It’s a microcosm. It’s just a smaller unit of what’s going on in the greater world, and that includes racism, colorism, transphobia, misogyny — all those things are still in Ballroom. It’s the lens, the understanding, and the solutions that are different. That baseline of having your family be people who’ve gone through the same thing, and who maybe haven’t caused it, per se. But also organizing around building you up. Walking a ball is a build-up, even if it’s fleeting. It’s still a moment that your family helps bolster you up to achieve. So, it’s just more organized and maybe more aware. And also, some folks have amazing families and find Ballroom, too. It’s not all stemming out of tragedy, but it does fill a dire need for young queer folks of color particularly.

I love that you brought up tragedy because one of the lenses through which mainstream culture has viewed Ballroom — and really any queer and queer person of color story — is through tragedy and trauma. But in this book, you try to recover joy. Can you talk about some of those moments of joy?

Joy is so personal, right? When I interviewed Gia Love, she was talking specifically about forming her own nonprofit around trans artists who experience joy. She grew up in New York City, a trans woman, trans girl at one point, with all of these nonprofit organizations like Hetrick-Martin, and Harvey Milk High School, and GMHC. New York City kids are very privy to a lot of public services that kids in other cities aren’t. But her criticism of these nonprofits is that a lot of them just focus on handing out PrEP and preventing HIV, as if that’s the tragedy of living in certain sociopolitical spaces. And it can be tragic, but that’s not where we should be centering our focus. Our focus should be on developmental resources: education, career advancement, giving back, but also your own personal joy.

Gia was debater in high school, and is a wonderful public speaker, not to mention a thriving fashion model. That’s where she’s finding her joy and also mothering kids in her house. She’s about six feet tall, a curvy, buxom, Black trans woman who will not apologize about taking up space. One of the things that brings her joy is playing tennis. People don’t know that about her, and I was able to put that in the book. So, joy is really about the emphasis. Yes, folks in Ballroom have been marginalized, but they also find joy in being in Ballroom. It’s not one or the other.

Your book challenges the idea that Ballroom culture either stays underground and subversive, or gets co-opted by the mainstream. Can you talk about how And the Category Is… resists binary ways of thinking?

At the very beginning, I told myself I’m not going to be able to answer many questions, that all I can do is further complicate the issues. But, to me, that’s not a problem. If you delve enough into Ballroom, you understand that binaries aren’t real, but paradoxes are abundant.

When I interviewed Luna Ortiz, for instance, who works for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and has been a pioneer in HIV advocacy since he was 14 years old — when I talked to him about Madonna, he said, “That’s my girl. That video did everything. She made Ballroom visible.” Then, if you look at videos of folks who are in Paris Is Burning, when they’re on Phil Donahue or Sally Jessy Raphael, you see that they felt very much exploited. They felt their stories were used, and they weren’t bolstered.

The fact is both of those feelings and reactions can exist in the same place at once. I would be wasting my time if were looking for evidence as to whether or not Madonna’s “Vogue” was good or bad. It’s more complicated than that. Even the folks who were in her music videos at the time, and traveled on her Blond Ambition tour, some of them sued her. And now, in retrospect, a lot of them wish that they could just talk to her. She’s probably gone on that roller coaster of emotions, too. I think they’re all just nostalgic for that life they led.

Capitalism is going to keep intervening in subcultures that appear less than desirable, so we need to look for more complicated ways to view that process and be conscious of all the ways it could go. I mean, bell hooks died today, and I reference her a lot in the book. Particularly when it comes to being an “enlightened witness” to these transactions. It’s about understanding the repercussions of someone else telling your story. How much agency do you have in that? And what are you going to do different next time to gain more agency?

Can you talk about your goals in writing this book, theoretical and otherwise?

When the book presented itself as a viable option, I asked myself: What do I know and love about Ballroom? What do I know that other people don’t know about this subculture? What have they gotten twisted that I can untwist? I also felt a high level of responsibility to folks to tell the story properly, and to not paint it as all freedom from oppression, all glitter and fluff. Again, it’s a paradox; it’s both of those things.

There’s a beautiful moment where you rent out a dance studio and confront your own internalized homophobia and fear of being femme. What was it like toggling between personal narrative and communal voices?

It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, everyone I talked to, I’ve basically met or known over the course of 10 years for reasons that had nothing to do with the book. That gave me some leverage because they’ve seen me, and I was reconnected to them through common mentors. That alleviated some questions like: Who is this dude? Why does he get to write this book? But I still felt the need to self-sacrifice. I have personal stories from like 20 people in here, and what am I sacrificing other than my time and my craft?

First-person narrative is so important when it comes to art criticism and cultural analysis, because it puts a face on it. If I just say to you, “Black and Latinx queer kids are exiled from their homes because they’re gay,” that’s nothing but a dry and sterile sound bite. But if I tell you my dad said to me, “Ricky, if I ever found out that you’re gay, I’m going to kill you,” that’s personal. You can attach a face to it, and it matters more. In terms of function and form, that was important, but then also, that’s just how I write. Every essay I’ve ever written has “I” in it, because that’s the way of the future and that’s how I break through.

You have a whole chapter focusing on bodies and embodiment. Vogue is a bodily practice, but also, as you point out, a pedagogical practice. What is the connection between vogue and liberatory pedagogies?

In the community, there are hierarchies between mothers, fathers, and children, but everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher. The folks I’ve encountered in Ballroom have no qualms about learning from me and me from them, especially my mentors. We read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Vogue’ology, and Ballroom is specifically positioned for that type of teaching. Voguing is a classroom where everyone starts out the same. People have different levels of skill set, but everybody needs to let go when they enter that space.

You’re talking about pedagogical equanimity, but I’m also thinking in terms of theological equanimity. It reminds me of Buddhism. You come in with all this stuff, and this is a space where you let it go. And letting go can mean so many things: how you were harassed on your way into class; it can also be the last thing on your mind before you entered; it can be concerns with being too femme or counteracting your butch-ness.

I interviewed Benji Hart in the book, a vogue scholar who both vogues and writes critically about voguing as a practice of freedom and answer to oppression. In the interview, they talk about a trans man that came into class. Benji was trying to help everybody find their own “vogue-cabulary,” and that day, their job was helping this butch trans man find his femininity again, because we all have it. Gender is fluid and nonbinary. We all have the same tools, so what does your femme look like? We often need permission to even open that door. A lot of nuanced, critical things happen just by showing up to a class and moving in a way that someone tells you to move. Doing it as a group.

I highlighted a passage where Benji says, “You can create these moments of emancipation when you’re voguing, but that’s actually not enough.” Do you think of vogue as an emancipatory practice? And what are its limits in the world beyond the ball?

It starts internally. That’s the first, most crucial kind of emancipation. When I talked Jonovia Chase, she says in between meetings when she needs a little pep talk, she’ll just go in the mirror and vogue. It starts inside and it starts with you, and often it’s in the mirror. It’s so validating when you get to see what everyone else might already see.

Out in the streets it’s a little bit different. In the book, Robert Sember said something like: What is happening when you want me to come to your event and vogue? And what is my understanding of the transaction when I cosign that? When I’m helping sponsor your event through my emancipation, in my emancipatory act? It gets really complicated. And then Benji comes in and says: If you can’t respect us on the streets, then I don’t need you to hire me or even come to my ball.

I’m not sure how to answer that, but I think it goes back to bell hooks’s idea that you have to be aware of what you’re doing when you shake that hand or sign that line. If you hire somebody, or you want their skill set, then you need to know what it means, and you need to value it in and out of whatever venue you hire them for. So, it’s getting everyone to step up their awareness because we can’t go on like Madonna and the rest of them.

In the book, you propose the concept of a “sponsored body.” What is the idea behind a sponsored body?

If you hang out in Ballroom long enough, you start to see the narrative arc of folks getting endorsements. I think heavily about the merits — or lack thereof — in a lot of these relationships with corporate entities. But what’s really interesting is to watch the ebb and flow of it.

People like Leiomy Maldonado, who was on [MTV’s] America’s Best Dance Crew, and who’s now a judge on HBO’s Legendary. Before I was writing the book, in my Vogue’ology class, I watched an episode where she had to go through the fire of the panelists on America’s Best Dance Crew being transphobic. That was a bit of a tragedy.

But again, with paradoxes. I’m at a retreat upstate with some young folks who are predominantly in Ballroom, and Michael Roberson, my house father, showed a Nike commercial with Leiomy that had been out for a couple years. I hadn’t seen it because I guess I don’t get out much. So, in writing a book like this, that’s supposedly an indictment of capitalism, I’m not looking for redemption through capitalism, but I had to be open to change, too. I don’t think capitalism can redeem anything, but the very fact that Leiomy was on MTV and treated horribly, and then maybe 10, 15 years later has her own Nike ad for the Super Bowl alongside Colin Kaepernick — that’s something, that’s notable.

In one of your interviews, you reference reader response theory, the idea that when you write you anticipate the reader’s reaction. How did you anticipate readers would react to this book? And have you been surprised so far?

When you’ve written long enough and taken enough workshops — which I’ve taken about 23 in my undergrad and master’s degree, and then also taught as much as that — you just know what to anticipate. You become your own workshop in the editing process. There aren’t too many surprises that I expect other than people saying really nice things. The bad stuff I’ve sort of guessed. Like, my hopping around from media to media and subject to subject is just my style. If it feels breakneck to some people, then they probably aren’t my audience and I’m okay with that.

My major concern is how are people from Ballroom going to perceive it. I think I took care of a lot of that in the preface, where I say this book can’t be everything to everybody. The people that I know from Ballroom are in a particular age bracket, and this is about Ballroom in New York City. Disclaimer: If you come in thinking I’m gonna mention your friend, because y’all are doing the Kiki Ball, then that might not be the case. And, also, I probably tried to reach out to them, but they’re youngins, and they don’t know how to keep an appointment. So, it’s a very specific book. I want people from the community to know that I was here to serve, and I hope that they agree with that.

¤


Zach Shultz is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Louisiana State University and the nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. In 2019, he was selected as a nonfiction fellow to the Lambda Literary Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices.