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Shining a light on Harlem’s underground ballrooms

Photographer Adam Reign entered the underground vogue ballroom scene to shoot a short documentary in April 2012 and never left.

His video project with French director Etienne Truchot ended, but Reign continues to photograph the vibrant, energetic dance spectacles. He says it’s something rarely seen or acknowledged outside of Harlem.

As a former professional breakdancer who has appeared in commercials and a Missy Elliott video, Reign respected the time and care that went into something so underrepresented in the mainstream.

Like other forms of dance, voguers have a close-knit crew, or house, that battles against other groups to gain respect. Each house has a mother or father – legends who were around when the dance started to evolve in 1980s Harlem.

But ballroom culture is more than expressive dancing, fashion and music – it’s a lifestyle. And with roots tracing back to New York’s gay and transgender black and Hispanic community, it’s also a haven for those who are often ostracized.

Reign says that some of the dancers choose to hide their sexuality in public. “You would never guess. And then they show up at these balls with their boyfriends and they get down.”

As a straight white guy, he was immediately questioned the first time he showed up to one of the balls. But he explained his mission – to tell their stories through still photography and eventually a long-form documentary – and they embraced him.

He stays out of the way, a fly on the wall with a camera. While he doesn’t plan to join in anytime soon, he says his history as a dancer has been instrumental.

“It’s really chaotic, the ballroom culture – just people everywhere,” he said. “Having the dance background definitely helped me out: knowing when to anticipate a movement, when they will hit a beat or not hit a beat, where to plant myself.”

Besides nonstop training and practicing, many voguers will also spend weeks putting their outfits together. Then they battle before a panel of judges, performing back-and-forth routines that can go on for hours.

Capturing the dancers’ movements and emotions has become one of Reign’s passions. “The facial expressions, the body positioning – they’re just loud,” he said. “Even if a facial expression is soft and internal, they’re still in a crazy backbend.”

People largely know the dance from Madonna’s “Vogue” video. But the movement has grown leaps and bounds since 1990. The style trends they set make it into mainstream culture, but the vogue ballroom scene is almost entirely unrecognized.

“They do feel like they are originators of a lot of things, but they don’t get any credit for it,” Reign said. “I’m just trying to celebrate them at the end of the day. I feel like they deserve a voice.”

- Ashley Strickland, CNN