The next time you sit next to Archie Burnett, just listen, and listen carefully. You probably won’t find another artist that humble and wise for the next years. For our luck, this man had the vision and oportunity to be able to travel all over the world spreading his knowledge.

A house dancer who also teaches vogue, waacking, hustle and many more. You probably know him for being one of the original Ninjas (named by Willi Ninja himself), who nowadays is also the grandfather of the House of Ninja.

Last july we had the priviledge to spend some time with this icon and hang out with him listening to his favourite songs, which happen to become our favourit songs aswell. Thanks to him, i tried cheesecake for the first time in my life, in Junior’s, that he claims to be the best in New York City. We drove and walked through Crown Heights, where he lives, talking about Trump and Temer. When we mentioned that we would like to go to Vivacious’s drag show, he not only called her and warned that he was sending his girls – letting her be prepared to make a scene with the brazilian girls – but also drove almost an hour to meet us there. Lastly, in our last days in NYC, he took us to his favourite barber shop in Queens, where he’s been a costumer for more than 15 years. While he was cutting his hair, he spoke to us.

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BH is Voguing: How did you start Voguing? When and why did it happen?

Archie Burnett: Well, let’s see, I started in 1980, Voguing. I found that out by accident, cause after coming from the club – The Loft – we used to go to Washington Square Park, cause the party started at midnight and it went on ‘till Sunday, the next day, ‘till about one in the afternoon. So what we did is we went to the park and took the balloons, and sold them for money for batteries for the boombox, you know? So we’re dancing in the park.

So, I saw these different entrances in the park, we used to nickname the entrances because there’s, like, about four entrances into Washington Square Park. So we gave them nicknames where a certain clientele used to hang out. So, one was lesbo row, the other one as fag alley. The other one was like, where the Jamaicans were, they were selling drugs over there, you know… So, that’s where I first saw it. In Washington Square Park. And it’s really weird when I saw that, then I said: you know what? My exact words were: you know what? I gotta have me some of that. Yeah.

Archie Burnett

BHV: When was it?

AB: 1980.

BHV: Who was with you?

AB: A friend of mine, Anthony Marshall. He’s no longer here, cause he died to the virus. Yeah… Cause I asked him what that was and he told me that was Voguing. And it was old way, the Egyptian thing. And I was, like: yeah, I like that!

BHV: You were already a dancer.

AB: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been a dancer since I was 3 years old, you know? So, that was just another thing that tuned me on.

BHV: And what happened after that? 

AB: Well, then, you know. Still, I went to the clubs and then I met Willi [Ninja] in Washington Square Park. And then we started hanging out and I started going to some of the clubs that he went to. And the clubs that he went to, that’s where I saw a lot of that stuff – Tracks, you know? There was a whole world I didn’t know about, just didn’t know about it. You know?

BHV: We see that you had a great friendship with Willi. 

AB: Yeah!

BHV: You said you’ve met him at the Washington Square Park.

AB: Hmmrmm

BHV: What does Willi Ninja represent to you?

AB: Well, you know. He represents somebody who’s got passion, you know? He set out to do something and he did. And most people, when they say that they’re gonna effect change, they never do. But when somebody does it in a really big way it’s, like, wow!, you know? It makes you just think that the possibility is real. He wanted to take it all over the world and he did. I was like, wow! And not many of us know people… that are like that! [starts laughing because the barber next to us turns the hair dryer on.] Not many of us know people like that, at least not in a lifetime. So it’s kind of cool. It’s really cool, actually.

Archie com Tyrone, Bravo e Willi Ninja. Arquivo de Bravo Lafortune

Archie with Tyrone, Bravo e Willi Ninja. Property of Bravo LaFortune

BHV: And you had a great friendship with him?

AB: Yeah, real cool people. You know? I’m still looking on his mom, cause she’s in a nursing home now. And, yeah, that’s what friends and family is supposed to do. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. But see, that’s another thing about the culture: for Willi, family meant first, and that’s not necessarily by blood. It’s by who’s in your inner circle. So, that’s very important.

BHV: By this, you mean the House [of Ninja, created by Willi].

AB: The House, yeah. And you can also lead people who are not necessarily in the house, but the relationship that you have with them, you know? So, it’s too fold. It’s too fold. There are people that are transiting, that come through and leave. And there are people that stay for a lifetime. So, it’s that kind of thing.

Check your body at the door (Andrew Eccles)

Archie with Willi, Bravo and Barbara Tucker (Andrew Eccles)

BHV: What are the differences between the ballroom scene today and back in the days? When you look today, what do you see?

AB: Well, there are some good points in there, some bad points. Some bad points is that, I said, like, over 30 years ago that they’d be chasing the tails, doing the same thing with no progress. And to some degree that’s true, but there are a few gems in the scene that make the scene alive. For instance, Dashaun [Wesley], he’s a gem. I do believe the future’s with him.

I think a lot of them are trying to get back to the sense of family, that the scene is created for a harmonious thing, not a vicious rivalry. Competition is good, but in the spirit of competition, is good. Not to the point of it becomes, like, a game. Because for a while, Voguing Houses in the 80’s, for a while they were, like, gay gangs, you know? And joining any gang is not exactly the way to go.

BHV: You are spreading Voguing seeds all over the world and, luckily, Belo Horizonte is one of them. When did you decide do to this and what do you thing about this new hunger of Voguing generation that is coming?

AB: To me, personally, I know what it gave to me. So what I wanted to do is it: if I plant a seed and it comes back, maybe it will change and inspire what’s happening here at home. In that regard, I was right. It did. Because when a scene gets so lazy or complacent that they think that oh, well, you know, that’s our thing, and that’s only our thing and bla bla bla… you know? In order for anything to grow you need new blood. Sometimes it has to come from somewhere that is so alien from where you’re from that it gives you a different possibility. That’s progress, you know?

So I figured if I taught it would sooner or later come back home, cause I know what it gave me. Now, when I teach, I don’t give everybody the bad part of it. I don’t give them the shade part. And if I show the shade part, I show it as in means of humor, not in means of aggression. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. And so far, it works, you know? Some people did get angry at it. That’s alright. I’m giving them a scene, I’m representing something that maybe they’re not able to represent because they don’t have access. But it’s all about how you’re introduced to something. That sets a person on fire or tunes them on for life. So I really try to make my introductions to this scene welcoming as opposed to non-welcoming.


BHV: Are you proud of the work that you’ve been doing?

AB: Oh, absolutely. I can’t say I have any regrets. Not at all.

BHV: What do you expect to happen with Voguing in Brazil in five years?

AB: Acceptance… for a lot of the community that can’t express themselves without, how do you say? Without violence, you know? And hopefully, it will bring them closer to the non-discriminatory line.

BHV: You’ve said during the class that you only started teaching after 19 years. What’s the difference between a good dancer and a good teacher?

AB: Okay. Not every dancer can teach and not every teacher can dance. Oh, boy… that’s rule number one! The main problem with a lot of dancers is that the process that they went through in order for them to get what they got, sometimes they can’t articulate that clearly so a person can understand what they mean, you know? I think if you are aware, meaning aware of everything, you can become a good teacher, because you can articulate exactly what you’re going through, how you felt, how this feels in your body to translate that to somebody else. So I think awareness is the key.

Archie Burnett

BHV: Did Voguing change your life?

AB: Yeah, it did. I mean, for what I have achieved so far, yeah. It’s given me a different access and it also helped… well, it’s therapy. You know? Voguing is therapy. We had some issues, you know, growing up, so that helps. It helps a lot.

BHV: And the last one, it’s probably going to be a little weird. What it the meaning behind all this, behind all this that we are living, the voguing things that we are living?

AB: Well, you know? Art reflects life and life reflects art. So they say art imitates life and then life imitates art. It’s a cycle kind of a thing. Without arts and without creativity, a culture dies. That’s just the way it is. You know? It will never change. And that is something that has to be respected. It will never change. And that is something that has to be respected. We have right now where the republicans or the rather, the arts had been under the fire for the longest. And the truth is everything that we see has been designed by a vision. Imagine if those visions aren’t there anymore? We would stagnate as a people. So, art imitates life and it’s necessary.

Archie Burnett

BHV: Do you have any message for the Brazilian voguers that will be watching?

AB: Yeah, don’t get it twisted. Don’t get it twisted! Enjoy the moment. You’re gonna contribute a lot to the scene when you do what you do and you live it in a real way. But, don’t get it twisted. Don’t start joining little gay gangs and carrying on and acting as if it’s your only sole ownership because dance belongs to everybody, freedom belongs to everybody, and that’s something we all have to share.

Production: Danielle Pinto e Tetê Moreira

Interview and writing: Danielle Pinto

Translation: Danielle Pinto and Pedro Nogueira

Edition: Pedro Nogueira

Main photo: Archie Burnett at the barber shop | Tetê Moreira