José Xtravaganza, one of the original pioneers of voguing, is proud of the Latinx contributions to ball culture.

Por Jennifer Mota
Julio 24, 2019
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Credit: Photo Credits : David Gannon

Fierce attire, excellent poise, and the right attitude — these are all qualities needed to thrive in the ballroom scene, and José Gutierrez Xtravaganza slays in all three areas. “For years, that's what we were known for,” he tells People CHICA, reflecting on his early days in the House of Xtravaganza, one of the most famous ballroom groups to come out of New York City in the 1980s. The ball subculture, created and popularized by black and brown members of the LGBTQ community, was (and still is) a safe space for marginalized people to express themselves through dance and fashion, and through the formation of competitive “houses” became a place where members could find support in alternative family structures.

Interest in the ballroom scene has surged again recently thanks to FX's Pose (for which Gutierrez is a consultant), but he and his Xtravaganza cohorts were earning 10s across the board long before Elektra started working the door at Indochine. Born in NYC's East Village to Dominican parents, Gutierrez joined the house at age 16, becoming the youngest member at the time. Unlike many members of the ballroom scene, Gutierrez had supportive parents — “my mom kind of became their mom,” he says — but he still found a second family and home in the House of Xtravaganza.

Founded in 1982 by the Afro–Puerto Rican dancer and activist Hector Valle, the House of Xtravaganza was notable for being a predominantly Latinx house. “This whole movement started off because a lot of families disowned [their children] for their preferences,” Gutierrez tells CHICA. “That's what ‘Xtravaganza' means. It means community. It means family as a Hispanic in the culture, in the community, and I'm going to live by that till the day I die.”

Gutierrez was studying dance when he joined as the “baby” of the house, and became known for voguing, a post-disco dance style born in the ball scene. Along with other members of the house (including founding member and house mother Angie Xtravaganza), Gutierrez appeared in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning while still a teenager. “This dance was created [from nothing] — no money needed,” Gutierrez explains. “You didn't have to go to school to learn it.” He spearheaded the transition of the dance from underground craze to mainstream music, though, as one of the people (along with Luis Camacho Xtravaganza) who introduced Madonna to voguing. “She had heard that I did this folk dance, and she was writing a song, so she came and sought me out.” The song she was writing turned out to be “Vogue,” which would become the best-selling single of 1990 and a number-one hit in 30 countries. Gutierrez, who was 18 when he met Madonna, appeared in the video and became one of the main dancers for her Blond Ambition tour; you can also see him on stage with her at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards during her iconic Marie Antoinette–inspired performance of the song.

Season two of Pose, airing now on FX, depicts ball culture's rise to the mainstream, and features specific references to Madonna's “Vogue,” with characters debating the morality of her use of voguing in the music video. Gutierrez admires show co-creator Ryan Murphy for depicting the scene authentically and immersing himself in the community. “Everyone involved is part of the community in real life,” says Gutierrez, who has appeared on the show as a judge in the ballroom competitions. “These are creative people that want to be given an opportunity to show that they, too, matter, and that they, too, can create and do wonderful things. The fact that he came in and gave them the stage to express such a beautiful culture, for us to be seen and to see our creativity and to see our talent — because it is a talent to be part of this culture and amongst family — is amazing.”

Though Pose has made more people aware of ballroom culture than ever before, Gutierrez hasn't lost sight of the community's original activist streak. He spoke to People CHICA at last month‘s fundraiser for the Latino Commission on AIDS, where the House of Xtravaganza strutted the runway, ballroom-style, for designer Raul Penaranda. “A lot of these kids that started this movement no longer have the privilege of being alive today due to the epidemic,” says Gutierrez. “There weren't the benefits that are available today, [like] housing and medications. Back then these kids didn't have that, so they had each other. The House of Xtravaganza is always big on being there for one another. If you had, I had, and if I had, you had as well.”