Channing Tatum’s voguing scene in Magic Mike XXL (and in that Vanity Fair clip) seemed to ignite the internet, but even more legendary was the part of the film that featured real-life voguer and MC Dashaun Wesley.
In the scene, Mike (Tatum) and his pals hit up a drag bar en route to a stripping competition; while there, two voguers hit the runway—Wesley, of House of Evisu, and Javier Madrid, of House of Ninja—and deliver one of the most true-to-a-real-runway scenes ever seen in a film of this magnitude. When Tatum and friends hit the stage for their own go at voguing, Wesley gets on the mic to narrate the runway in a style called commentating, which is done (by Wesley and others) at real balls.
In a culture that is frequently appropriated, misrepresented and straight-up jacked by those not within it, the scene was astounding to see—especially considering that recognizable members of the real-life community had been included, and that for their parts, voguing had not been diluted. (I could have done without the Carmen Miranda shtick, though.) Even in recent years, when people outside voguing culture have become more interested in the form—as with FKA twigs’ Congregata performance, in which Wesley also performed—it’s really never happened on the scale of a summer blockbuster starring one or a handful of America’s big-money-raking, straight male heartthrobs.
America’s Best Dance Crew fans might have recognized Wesley from Vogue Evolution, the dazzling New York City crew that came very close to winning the show’s fourth season (and frankly, was robbed), or from his teen years as a protege of the legendary Willi Ninja, or from any number of television ads or, again, from Congregata, where he also lent his formidable commentating and dance skills and gave the old gong to twigs herself (at her request).
After I finished hyperventilating from seeing Wesley in Magic Mike, I called him on the phone for an interview. We talked about how Channing Tatum made the scene more authentic, the mechanics of putting together a vogue presentation for twigs, and Wesley’s work as an HIV/AIDS awareness educator, world-traveling vogue instructor, and purveyor of “bitch tracks” for New York-based vogue label Qween Beat.
JEZEBEL: I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, and it was really exciting and surprising to see you in Magic Mike XXL, as well as something that was a pretty authentic representation of vogue culture in the context of such a mainstream movie. How did they initially approach you for the role?
DASHAUN “EVISU” WESLEY: It was in the script and knew they were looking for voguers for the scene, and I had to audition for it like anyone else! I had to do a Skype interview with the casting directors, we had more than one interview. But it went pretty good! It was awesome.
It’s awesome that it was in the script—I really just imagined that a choreographer had suggested it.
The choreographer on the movie was a part of another season of America’s Best Dance Crew. I live in LA now, and one day we ran into each other and she was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been looking for you!” She told me about the audition and that’s how everything started.
Was it surprising to you how it went once you got the part? It didn’t seem like you did anything much different than what you would normally do on a vogue runway with your chanting/commentating.
When they asked me to do it I was like, should I be censored? I don’t know if they know exactly how everything goes? But the funny thing is, as soon as I walked in the door the first day of rehearsal, there’s Channing walking in, he said hi to all of us, and we just focused on the dancing at first. Then on the second day of rehearsal he was like, “Um, I heard you do the microphone thing, you should do that.” And I turned to him with a weird face like How do you know this…? And he was like, “Dashaun, I know everything about you.”
I was a little culture shocked right there, but he was like, “I need you to grab the microphone, give this a test run and see if we can put this in the movie.” Cause originally we were just supposed to dance.
Wow. Well, Channing Tatum is a big movie star, but he’s always been a dancer first, right?
He’s always been a dancer first, and that was part of the realization. He knows about dance styles, the differences between all of them.
He was the best one.
I said the same thing.
How do you think he knew about your commentating? YouTube?
What happened is I think the choreographer let him know about me and he just did his research, so when we had that moment he was just like, “Dashaun, I know everything about what you do, what you have done.” And then he was like, “Teach me how to do a death drop, a sha-blam.” And I was like, okay! And he did it!
It’s crazy to see that kind of stuff in a blockbuster film, and I think there’s a mainstream interest in voguing right now as an art form rather than a commercial element. From my perspective it really started with you, when Vogue Evolution was a part of America’s Next Dance Crew. I wonder what your thoughts are on mainstream interest in voguing, how it’s reached this point.
For me, it started off as an extracurricular activity that I just enjoyed doing with my friends, people who were close around me. And of course it’s been in the mainstream before, you know—in the Madonna days. But me and my friends were sitting around together watching America’s Best Dance Crew, and we saw a team do something that Leiomy would do. So we thought, why don’t we make our own team and just bring it on television. I would say that really started to be the moment where we started to break through.
What do you attribute to the increased interest in more recent years?
You know what? I would say social media. If it wasn’t for YouTube, or the Facebooks, or the MySpace, if we wanna go back. When these social networks started to get popular, me and other individuals were voguing and people would post us up online, and we didn’t understand it but you could kinda say we were there when [this era] started. I think that played a major part in it.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this scene exists, and that it’s not divorced from the culture from whence it came. As someone who’s been in voguing culture since you were a teenager and now are in this film, how do you feel about this?
I was excited when I first did it but it’s nothing like seeing the finished product on the big screen, where you don’t see it so often. When I was doing it, it was fun, it was like oh my god, it’s Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez and we’re sitting there teaching them how to vogue and everything. But I think once it hit the theaters, like oh my gosh, this is really real, out here in the bright lights doing what you enjoy. It’s really awesome. I’m getting every message on Twitter like oh my god, oh my god, yas diva, you know how you get the random ballroom quotes, it’s really fun. But the response has been really good and people have been so supportive, and I think it was about time that it happened, because it’s long overdue, to be honest.
For sure. Historically there can be a necessary feeling of preservation and protectiveness of vogue culture because it’s been so exploited. But do you think it’s now more about giving credit where credit is due?
Yeah, very much. Me and some of the other voguers who travel around the world, we enjoy doing it and we feel that we have a high responsibility in teaching the art, so when people acknowledge us and point out where credit is due or show people where it comes from, we feel good about it. And [misrepresentations] continuously happen still, but it’s up to us to take full responsibility to get it back to us.
So at the same time that it’s good, it’s still a challenge because when you see these stars voguing, the only thing that people see is the stars voguing. They don’t ever wanna go like, oh, who is this person? Where’d he learn that from? It’s always just like oh, he’s voguing, and that’s it.
One antidote to that seemed to me to be FKA twigs’ Congregata performance, which you danced and chanted in, and was phenomenal. You brought in a lot of the voguers to that, right? How did that happen?
One of her major dancers who’s always with her, Benjamin, started off as my student. So I knew him for quite some time, and he’d been with twigs for some time and teaching her to vogue. He said, you know twigs, you must go to Dashaun’s class if you want to learn voguing. So one day I’m teaching class and here comes FKA twigs in my class and I’m like okay, fine! And then we got each other. She was in class like a regular student and everything, which was so weird, but like after the class ended she’s like listen, I need you to teach me one-on-one. And then she was like, Dashaun, I need you in Congregata. And we talked about and she was like, wanted to put certain people in there, bring Leiomy and Javier and we’re all gonna get together and we did it planned it out, and I still get chills to this day thinking about it because it was so different!
Me too! It was so beautiful, and I was really impressed with the voguing parts. Especially when you were commentating, she was voguing, and then it was written in that you would shoo her off the stage like, okay, let’s see the legends—she went deferentially. To me, it showed she really has respect for the actual culture.
I know prior to when we went to New York for Congregata, we were supposed to get an MC but then she asked me to MC. And she always came to Vogue Knights, which is a vogue night in New York. I feel like she’s a part of the scene, rather than other people who come in, do one thing, and leave.
But for the part in Congregata, she said, “I need you to chop me.” At first I was like are you sure? You want me to chop you in your own concert, in front of thousands of people? She was like yes, just chop me. Chop me like you would at a ball. And I was a little bit apprehensive and she was like, listen, Dashaun, I need you to do it like you would at a ball! So I was like sure, let’s go for it, so when I got on that stage, it was like, let’s go, let her have it! Everybody was like, oh my god, you chopped FKA twigs! But then when they seen what was going on they loved it. It was really her idea. She knows the culture.
Tell me about “Move,” your new song with producer Divoli S’vere.
Oh, the song! I’m a part of a company/label called Qween Beat with MikeQ, we’ve been cooking together about ideas. I’m one of the voices—they have people who are voices, people who are producers, all that other stuff. I was trying to do a voiceover with something else, and then MikeQ was like, come on, let’s make a song. Just go for it, shoot. And I was like okay, something compelled me to just like “Move,” like I want this. Sometimes how society can keep you from reach your goal, I was just like “Move” and let me dip. It was so sporadic but when it just hit me, I was like, oh, this is it.
You can tell you were feeling it. You’ve done other tracks on Qween Beat as well, right?
I have songs. I’m only a person who puts out music so often but I do it as much as I can.
Do you think chanting (or commentating) is an art form?
It is, it really is. I’m hoping that one day it will be picked up as more than it is, but chanting is an art form because you have to know what it is and you have to have a skill to do it. You have to know the rhythm, you have to know how to think on your feet, because at a ball, most of the stuff that happens is so natural and on the spot that that’s just how you have to think as an MC.
It’s such a specific and different style than any other type of MCing—I guess you could align it with hip-hop but it’s not that, and it’s so specific to ball culture, like it wouldn’t make sense to chant to a non-vogue track. Do you think it makes sense outside of the context?
It’s now starting to feel like people are starting to pick it up and get the idea or the concept, but the context needs to happen. Things like Magic Mike XXL, these are the opportunities that people get to understand it.
What I’m nervous about is that when it comes to it is that when it becomes big, that now other [unrelated] artists are gonna pick it up and they’re just gonna start commentating and make it harder for people who do this naturally.
Just like ballroom house, or vogue house. But also, outsiders kind of dipped in and dipped out with that. They tried it and moved on. It’s music journalists’ responsibility to make sure that the originators are recognized. Who are other people who are your peers?
Me, Jack Mizrahi, Kevin JZ Prodigy. Kevin JZ is a person who’s been more stuff commentating, and there’s MC Deb. We call them “bitch tracks” because that’s where the guidelines they come from, but you can understand what they are because it’s commentating over music.
I know you started voguing in high school—how did you initially get into it?
When I was 14 years old in the West Village, just coming to a place of like me being comfortable, I was walking down Christopher Street, and I seen people voguing. I was 14 and was like, what are they doing? And it was a huge crowd and they were walking down the block with a guy with a boombox and I was just following them, and they ended at Christopher Street Piers, so they sat there and just vogued, so I just went there every day from that day forward. I began to understand the lifestyle of voguing, and understand who I was.
When you formed Vogue Evolution, had you been voguing professionally before that?
Yeah. I would say I had been doing small gigs here and there. Willi Ninja was the first person who got me my first gig. He really loved my voguing, so he was like, you need to take this and you need to do this. I didn’t know anything; I was young, I was a teenager, I was living my young life, and he brought me to Club Roxy—I don’t remember what year it was, but it was years ago and he was like, we’re about to perform, and I said okay, let’s perform. He also got me my first commercial, for Coca-Cola.
How did you get involved with HIV/AIDS awareness activism?
I was working for a nonprofit organization and I had a great idea, that in order to get people to come in and get tested to know about your status, you could then come take voguing classes for free. So me and a guy created that, and there was a good response from it.
From there, we started performing at Pride, and eventually formed into an actual group. That’s how we came up with Vogue Evolution. It played hand and hand with that—I would always hang out in the West Village, and I was familiar with the people my age who were figuring out their lifestyles as well, so we would go to youth organizations after school. One of the places is GMHC, which is the House of Latex Ball. They had a drop in center so I would always get information about HIV and STDs and then started working as a peer educator.
From there, I just stuck in there. My mom was actually HIV-positive, so it was pretty good because I learned more information about how to deal with it. I’m passionate about that. They always tell lesbians and gays that you have to watch out for STDs and HIV, but when it hit home, it cut. I think my contribution today is always to give back because I’ve experienced the same thing those people are going through. It hit home. It hit family.
Is your mom still living?
No, she passed away. Sometimes, we might sort of regret because we wish we could have done more, and it’s so weird that like… I thought it would happen to someone like me first before it would happen to someone like my mom. It was a little bit weird. But it really inspired me to be a better educator and to give back. Because I know the ways it can touch you.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dashaun Wesley image via Sailey Williams.