That a fight over a dancing body, vibrant and free, led to a killing is still hard to believe. No — as a crowd chanted at a Brooklyn gas station on Friday night — vogueing is not a crime.
The memorial ball protest, called “Vogue as an Act of Resistance,” was full of bodies — stylish, of all sizes and shapes, young and old. But missing was the body that mattered the most: O’Shae Sibley’s. The 28-year-old dancer and choreographer was fatally stabbed July 29 after vogueing to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” in the gas station’s parking lot when, the police said, several men had told him to stop and yelled homophobic slurs at him.
“It is truly painful to have to walk up here, to literally see the area where his blood was taken,” Qween Jean, a costume designer and activist, said, speaking through a megaphone. “The stain is still here! They do not care what happens to our bodies.”
Sibley’s story should be familiar by now: After returning from a day at the beach, Sibley and his friends stopped at the gas station in Midwood to fill up their car; while they pumped gas, they danced to Beyoncé. At that point, the police said, a group of men told them to stop dancing, using anti-gay slurs. One of them stabbed Sibley, who died that night. (A 17-year-old has been charged with second-degree murder.)
The bodies that Qween Jean referred to are those of L.G.B.T.Q. people, who continue to face regular discrimination. How can they move through the world with ease, much less dance through it? That watching Sibley — vibrant, celebrating the gift of being alive by vogueing to Beyoncé on a hot summer night — would lead to anything but smiles is heartbreaking.
But Sibley’s death is a stark reminder that his kind of expressiveness can still be seen as threatening. He was a gay man whose ballroom category was “vogue fem.” When it comes to male dancing, there are unspoken rules about what is acceptable, what slides through the cracks and what, in certain public spaces, is deemed dangerous.
Sibley didn’t seem to want to hide his light. He wasn’t interested in toning himself down, in moving through the world with an inauthentic self. That was part of his inherent grace, power and, by all accounts, loveliness: his way of carrying himself and his body in the world. But what his aura meant before his killing isn’t the same as what it means now.
Robert Garland, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem who, like Sibley, is from Philadelphia, recently presented a ballet at Lincoln Center. One moment in particular — a male soloist pays homage to John Carlos, a runner who stood on the podium of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City with a raised first — reminds him of Sibley.
“O’Shae put his body on the line,” Garland said in an interview. “And his expression was turned into resistance. It didn’t start out that way. He was just being who he was.”
Because of the way he died — and the way that he was dancing when he died — Sibley’s body is now an act of resistance. That has much to do with vogue, a language that grew out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s. It’s more than a dance form — it’s a community, a way of being and of summoning true selfhood. It explores, boldly and beautifully, issues of race and gender. It is a way to have a family (chosen), a home, a place of safety.
Sibley studied other forms of dance — he trained at Philadanco, also known as the Philadelphia Dance Company, formed by Joan Myers Brown — and in May, he performed at the Ailey Spirit Gala, but he will probably be most remembered as a vogue artist.
On Friday, the art and the act of dancing, ways to release pleasure and pain, were palpable at the ball protest, which grew from tearful remembrances to louder chants for justice and, ultimately, a vogue celebration. It took convincing, but the crowd, which had spilled into the streets, parted enough to create a runway or at least brief pockets of space open enough for a mini stage. Gliding down the runway was Jason Rodriguez, a vogue artist who was featured on “Pose” and who had seen Sibley just two weeks ago in conjunction with a video shoot he arranged with Adidas.
“I felt it was very empowering for me to have been there, like reclaiming what was taken,” Rodriguez said later in an interview. “I think it’s like washing away what was left there and reinvigorating it with the statement that it is correct to utilize your body however you like. We choose to use our body and move in a feminine manner to be responsive and to be expressive.”
Members of New York’s experimental dance scene were there on Friday to show their support, along with Honey Balenciaga, the phenom currently on tour with Beyoncé. As dancers spoke with their bodies, the gas station — under the shadow of luxury condominiums across the street — was an unassuming place of catharsis where moving in an expressive manner was not only permissible, but expected.
It was as if Sibley’s dancing spirit was no longer alone, that the dance that was stolen from him became bigger, greater, grander: a collective ode to self-expression, the more outspoken the better. Sibley should not have achieved fame this way. But it was fitting that his vogue memorial had echoes of something Josephine Baker once said: “I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”