Words by Simon Gage
Darren Suarez, founder and artistic director of House of Suarez, the dance company appearing at Pride in August, explains the history of their dance style ‘Voguing’ – a style that Madonna famously adopted – and reveals how the warm ‘family’ culture associated with it has changed the lives of so many LGBTQ+ people worldwide.
Suarez was born in London but raised in Liverpool, where he now lives. As well as being a classically trained dancer, he’s also an entrepreneur, campaigner and ambassador for queer culture.
For the uninitiated, he describes House of Suarez as, “a dance theatre company that draws on the influences of Vogue dance style”.
His talented team of performers will be doing a series of high-energy shows on Yahoo’s ‘Let’s Glow’ catwalk in Preston Park at Brighton & Hove Pride on 6 and 7 August this year. The glamorous 10-strong team will also be leading the Yahoo procession through Brighton on Saturday morning, joined by 100 Yahoo employees.
Here Suarez shares the surprisingly powerful story behind Vogue dancing…
How would you describe your team’s style of dance?
We’re heavily influenced by Vogue culture. House of Suarez specialises in what they call New Way, which includes hand performance and contortion, and we fuse that with other dance styles – contemporary, classic ballet and commercial work. We put it all together to create a theatrical piece.
What exactly is Voguing and where does it come from?
Voguing is a dance form that originated in the US and became popular in the Black and Latino communities in the mid-80s and early 90s with people like Madonna and Malcolm McLaren capitalising on it.
The style drew on images from VOGUE magazine, so the poses seen on the magazine pages were emulated in the dance.
There’s also an influence from hieroglyphics – framing the face and emulating hieroglyphic stances. There’s even a form called Tutting – from Tutankhamun – which Michael Jackson used in the Remember the Time video.
I learnt all this by going out to clubs in Liverpool back in the 80s, hanging out with people like Dean Murphy, learning from each other… bearing in mind there was no internet back then.
Read more: LGBTQ+ terms explained – how to get it right
People who Vogue together often also live together in ‘Vogue Houses’. I gather there’s a more serious side to this lifestyle too?
Yes, it goes back to a time in the 80s and 90s when, in New York, to be Black and gay, or Latino and gay, was looked down on. So some older drag queens set up houses, where younger LGBTQ+ people could come and live.
LGBTQ+ people were being molested, their parents were disowning them, many were into drug-taking, the trans community back then had no voice… So these older drag queens saw that young people were literally living – and dying – on the streets of New York and took it upon themselves to give shelter and offer support to them. They created a system where they’d have somewhere physical to live and be a family.
Read more: Coming out as LGBTQ+: How to support someone
The teenagers would move in with these drag queens so they could go out to work and often then contribute financially to the family, so they were part of the household. They saw their ‘House Mother’ – as the older drag queen was known – as a real parent and they’d adopt the name of the House as a drag name.
As my name is Darren Suarez and I created the House of Suarez – not a physical house but a company – anyone who’s in my house would usually adopt the Suarez name. My ‘daughters’ – mostly gay men – are now scattered across the country.
Does that make you a House Mother?
Yes, but to be honest, it’s usually a drag queen who’s the House Mother so they’d say House Father! But House of Suarez is not a physical house, it’s a project-based company and we get commissioned to put together performances, often for big brands.
How did you first get into Voguing?
I ran away from home when I was a teenager. I was an only child, didn’t have a great upbringing and I met these people on the gay scene who mesmerised me with this dance style.
I loved how confident they looked, how much fun they were having and the connection they all had. When I got involved with them, they became my family.
Dean Murphy was the Mother and I’d never been out on the gay scene and so he was a big part in my development, helping me step out on the right foot. And that’s what I do with my ‘daughters’. If they’re new and exploring their sexuality, everyone knows that at the House of Suarez, they’ll be respected.
So how did you hone your Voguing skills?
Back then in the 80s the clubs would close around 2am so we’d go to the cathedral grounds in Liverpool, in the deep cemetery, and there’d be a raised platform that we’d use as a runway to practice. When I became a professional dancer and set up House of Suarez, I did a piece called Dancing With The Dead about drug-taking among young club kids… and those cemetery experiences.
Do you find the young people drawn to House of Suarez are in need of that support you looked for?
To be honest, that whole maternal instinct happens when you’ve not had it yourself. You pick up on when people are going through something.
We’re offering the same network of support. I’m twice the age of most of my ‘daughters’, so they can come to me if they need counselling. A lot of them don’t have parents, so they’ll turn to me for advice and support and to find a way through situations.
Now you’re working with Yahoo. What exactly are you doing?
We’re going to be the face of Yahoo for Brighton & Hove Pride. On Saturday we’re going to be leading the parade all the way through the streets of Brighton. That’s going to be magic and the dancers are beside themselves with excitement, especially as it’s the first one since lockdown.
Then we’re going to the Yahoo stage where we’re going to do activations throughout the day until later in the evening when Christina Aguilera comes on. We’ve got nine- or ten-minute pieces that cover everything from Voguing to hip hop to commercial, lyrical and even Latin. There’s definitely Voguing running all the way through it because that’s our signature.
What does Pride mean to you personally?
Pride is a beautiful thing with a lot of good energy around it so you leave the event feeling charged. And obviously we’ve got the political aspect of what Pride stands for, which we all believe in. I’ve been doing main stages since 1995. I came out in 1988, so I was a baby, but Pride gave me a platform to embrace who I was as a dancer and artist.
Did it help give you a sense of community?
When I came out in 1988 it was basically against the law to be gay. Community was key because I ran away from home to the gay scene in Liverpool.
You’d be running down alleyways when there was no one passing so you wouldn’t be seen and you’d have to knock on the door of a gay bar and if you weren’t known, you weren’t allowed in. But as soon as you were allowed in, you got really connected and the older generation looked after us.
So, do we still need Pride and the gay scene now the LGBTQ+ population can go anywhere, do anything?
Obviously we still deal with homophobia and transphobia and our rights can fade out in the blink of an eye. Look what’s happening in the US. I think the younger generation need to understand that even if they don’t need to go to Pride or go into the gay scene they need to hold onto it still, because you never know.
If you would like information and support, contact Stonewall.org.uk.
Watch: Strike a Pose: Voguing with the House of Suarez