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Strictly Ballroom

Vogue legend Leiomy Maldonado brings passion, power, and family to the floor.

FEW PEOPLE HAVE done more to single-handedly raise awareness and spur a dialogue about their own chosen art form than Leiomy Maldonado. The 34-year-old dancer has, by sheer force of will and with an almost superhuman amount of skill and charisma, become the living standard-bearer for voguing, one of the most widely imitated and generally misunderstood forms of dance to emerge in the twentieth century. Though it was popularized in the ’80s by the likes of Madonna, and immortalized in the culture-defining 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” voguing itself — and the ballroom culture that spawned it — has evolved enormously over the past 30 years. While a slate of popular new television shows like “Pose” and “My House” shine a light on the queer history and the inner familial workings of ballroom culture, it’s HBO’s hugely popular dance competition show, “Legendary,” that has given the most rousing look at just how impactful the art and culture of voguing has become. At the center of the show’s panel of resident judges, Maldonado sits on her rightful throne. Known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” for her spinning, soaring, and wildly acrobatic take on the form, she has managed to bring vogue into the mainstream consciousness in her own unique way. In addition to serving as mentor and judge on “Legendary” (as well as working as choreographer for “Pose” and making an appearance on “My House”), Maldonado has taught voguing all over the world, been featured in ad campaigns from Nike, and collaborated with a variety of pop stars. She was recently tapped to be a part of Rihanna’s 2021 Savage X Fenty show. After over a decade of hard work, Maldonado is finally having her moment.

The attention is something the Bronx native doesn’t take lightly. “As an artist, it’s such a blessing,” she explains. “A lot of times when you come into the industry, they try to change you. They try to mold you into something different. I’ve been blessed to be able to just come into the space and have people say, ‘We want to see Leiomy. Just do you.’ And that’s what I give them.”

While simply being Leiomy Maldonado these days is more than enough — a kind of creative actualization forged by steady determination — the dancer herself will tell you that becoming Leiomy was not an easy journey. “Growing up, I didn’t really have dreams,” she recounts. “I didn't really feel like I belonged here. I didn’t really know how to express myself. So I didn’t really have any aspirations in life. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 years old and I discovered ballroom — I started sneaking out to the clubs in Harlem to see the balls — that I started to find myself. Being a teenager, not really knowing who I was, and not feeling accepted in the world, I allowed that anger to be portrayed through voguing. When I first started voguing, my style was way more high energy than what other people were doing. It was drama. You could feel the struggle and the pain. And then not long after that, things started to change. I saw within the LBQTA community that there were other ways I could live my life. It wasn’t until I started transitioning that I realized, ‘Oh, I can be happy.’ It wasn’t until then that I actually was able to see myself in the world, which is crazy. And from there, that’s where Leiomy was born.”

Eventually as an artist, I was able to grow. I was able to find different forms of voguing, different ways to collaborate, to combine voguing with different styles of music and different genres and make it into something magical.

And to what does she credit becoming the global ambassador of vogue? “I still am in awe of how much I’ve taught myself as a dancer,” she explains. “I haven't been formally trained; I've never taken a class to become as skilled as I am now. It’s all because of the passion. I truly allowed my body to be in tune with ballroom music and the commentator and just be in the moment. I perform based on emotion. Eventually as an artist, I was able to grow. I was able to find different forms of voguing, different ways to collaborate, to combine voguing with different styles of music and different genres and make it into something magical.”

The appeal of a show like “Legendary” is not only rooted in the desire to watch people competitively dance, or in seeing the innumerable ways voguing itself has grown from vibrant subculture into its own highly nuanced art form, but in knowing the lives of the dancers themselves. The world of ballroom — a culture that can be traced back to drag balls happening in Harlem in the latter part of the nineteenth century — not only gave us voguing and an entire queer vernacular, but also a world predicated on the ability of queer and POC communities to find, create, and construct their own definition of family. In ballroom culture, the competing groups of dancers, known as “houses,” are surrogate families for everyone involved. Becoming a part of a house is not simply about having a means for competing, but about providing a sustaining support system for people who might not otherwise have one. (Maldonado is herself the mother of the House of Amazon.) Aside from their prowess as dancers and creators, this glimpse into the private lives and struggles of the contestants is one of the most endearing things about “Legendary.” It’s also a testament to the way that, when done correctly, television can simultaneously entertain, educate, and humanize.

“These people are coming on the show and they’re sharing their whole life,” says Maldonado. “And I love how the world is now accepting ballroom and the way they’re embracing “Legendary.” It almost feels like an award to me, in a sense, because of all the work that I put in. I worked so hard because I wanted people to respect the culture and to understand that it’s real art. I remember a time when people would talk about vogue like, ‘Oh, that’s the gay dance. That’s a gay thing.’ They didn't really respect it as a dance form or an art form. And look at us now.”


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I’m not here to impress anyone. My journey, my story, my authenticity — those are the things that draw people to me, along with my art.

For Maldonado, the potential of vogue and her role in its continued evolution remains limitless. Though she already spends much of her time teaching, the future she envisions for herself is one that involves educating people: “I want to open my own school — Leiomy’s Vogue Academy.” And it is one that includes all manner of performance, storytelling, making music, or perhaps eventually doing a one-woman show. For someone who has spent their life leaping over hurdles while navigating the various burdens of representation — as a ballroom luminary, and as a trans woman of color — she is both optimistic and realistic about the path forward.

“The ideas and the things that can happen, they’re endless,” she says. “I've learned that based on my own journey and the things that I’ve been blessed with and the opportunities that I’ve been able to have. But a lot of times they will try and put you in a box. For example, I am super proud of being trans, but that’s not my identity. Yes, I’m a trans woman of trans experience, but I’m a woman first and I’m a woman of color. And, more than that, I’m a human being. Trans is just my experience in this world. A lot of times people want to put that label thing in front of you thinking it’s going to stop you. And it’s like, ‘No.’ I am someone who for years struggled with people trying to get to know me and get to know my personality. All I wanted was for people to hear me speak and to listen to my ideas and respect me. Now, I finally feel that I’m being given that. I’m not here to impress anyone. My journey, my story, my authenticity — those are the things that draw people to me, along with my art. But beyond that, my hope is that when they get to know me, they see that, ‘Wow, I can relate to this woman. I've gone through things that she’s gone through and look at her, she’s here and she’s showing positivity and she’s smiling and she’s showing that you can get through anything and do whatever you want.’ I want people to know that you can have a tough life, but that’s not the end. In fact, it’s just the beginning.”

Where to Watch, Learn About, and Love the World of Vogue


  • The Queen

    This 1968 documentary — directed by Frank Simon and narrated by legendary drag queen Flawless Sabrina — follows the experience of the drag queens who organized and participated in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest at New York City’s Town Hall. The film provides a glimpse into the nascent, pageant-like early days of ballroom culture.

  • Voguing and the Ballroom Scene of New York 1989-92

    First published by Soul Jazz Books in 2011, this volume showcases Chantal Regnault’s incredible photographs from NYC’s ballroom scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The book also features interviews with iconic figures from the vogue and ballroom scene like Hector Xtravaganza, Tommy LaBeija, and Robbie Saint Laurent.

  • Legendary

    This American voguing reality competition television series explores the world of ball culture. The series follows LGBTA house members — predominantly from eight houses — as they navigate through nine balls (dancing/voguing/walking events) and vie for a $100,000 cash prize. Leiomy Maldonado is one of the regular judges, along with Jameela Jamil, Law Roach, Megan Thee Stallion, and MC Dashaun Wesley.

  • Paris Is Burning

    One of the more iconic and compulsively quotable documentaries of all-time, “Paris Is Burning” remains one of the most venerated objects in all of gay culture. Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film is a time capsule into the ballroom culture of New York City in the late 1980s and the African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved. The film is also a kind of love letter to a queer New York City that no longer exists. Truly legendary.

  • My House

    This reality show, produced by Vice TV, follows the lives of several young vogue dancers as they navigate through the world of ballroom.

  • The Queen

    This 1968 documentary — directed by Frank Simon and narrated by legendary drag queen Flawless Sabrina — follows the experience of the drag queens who organized and participated in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest at New York City’s Town Hall. The film provides a glimpse into the nascent, pageant-like early days of ballroom culture.

  • Paris Is Burning

    One of the more iconic and compulsively quotable documentaries of all-time, “Paris Is Burning” remains one of the most venerated objects in all of gay culture. Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film is a time capsule into the ballroom culture of New York City in the late 1980s and the African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved. The film is also a kind of love letter to a queer New York City that no longer exists. Truly legendary.

  • Voguing and the Ballroom Scene of New York 1989-92

    First published by Soul Jazz Books in 2011, this volume showcases Chantal Regnault’s incredible photographs from NYC’s ballroom scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The book also features interviews with iconic figures from the vogue and ballroom scene like Hector Xtravaganza, Tommy LaBeija, and Robbie Saint Laurent.

  • My House

    This reality show, produced by Vice TV, follows the lives of several young vogue dancers as they navigate through the world of ballroom.

  • Legendary

    This American voguing reality competition television series explores the world of ball culture. The series follows LGBTA house members — predominantly from eight houses — as they navigate through nine balls (dancing/voguing/walking events) and vie for a $100,000 cash prize. Leiomy Maldonado is one of the regular judges, along with Jameela Jamil, Law Roach, Megan Thee Stallion, and MC Dashaun Wesley.

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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Max Bartick Director

Max Bartick is an award-winning director and photographer based in New York. He was previously the senior video director at American Vogue and has shot for various Vogue editions as well as Vanity Fair, GQ, Glamour, Interview, Farfetch, and Gagosian Gallery. Max is the creative video lead at Departures.

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