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More than a “moment”: How Legendary celebrates ballroom’s longevity and looks to the future

Leiomy Maldonado and Dashaun Wesley reflect on the changing television landscape for LGBTQ+ stories
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In the world of ballroom, talent speaks for itself. That holds true on HBO Max’s Legendary, the eye-popping, boundary-breaking competition series built around ball culture. Legendary challenges representatives from different houses (the central social structures in the ballroom community) to leave it all on the floor in weekly categories that test their skill in voguing, runway, and more. Now in its second season, the series has been a remarkable platform for Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ performers, shining a spotlight on their artistry without forcing a narrative on them. Sure, there’s drama—that’s what happens when you have 50 people vying for a $100,000 cash prize—but Legendary stands out in the world of reality television because it gives its competitors space to tell their story, and the story of their celebrated houses, on their terms.

In the not-too-distant past of 2009, ball culture made significant advances into mainstream media in the form of Vogue Evolution, the first team of “openly gay and trans dancers” on MTV’s hit America’s Best Dance Crew. Though the crew ultimately placed fifth in season four, Vogue Evolution was an undeniable crowd favorite and a trailblazer for the queer community, bringing the eponymous dance form to the national stage. And while its members—which included future Legendary MC Dashaun Wesley and judge Leiomy Maldonado, the “Wonder Woman Of Vogue”—were clear on their intent to educate and legitimize the art of vogue in the eyes of the masses, they also found themselves pressured to act and perform a certain way. As Maldonado recalls, “They felt like, ‘Okay, the world knows the gay—or LGBT—community to be a specific thing, so you need to be that.’” Though Vogue Evolution’s run on America’s Best Dance Crew was a groundbreaking win for inclusivity, it showed just how far the media landscape had yet to go.

Over a decade later, Dashaun Wesley and Leiomy Maldonado are proud that Legendary has created a space where queer people of color can be their authentic selves and instead focus on, in the immortal words of fellow judge Law Roach, doing “what needed to be done” in the competition. As Legendary’s thrilling second season comes to a close this week, it coincides with the finale of FX’s acclaimed drama, Pose (which both Wesley and Maldonado have been involved with throughout its run), capping off another milestone moment for ballroom’s ascendancy in pop culture. But Wesley and Maldonado are quick to point out this is not just a moment, not just a fad—the ball has been around for decades, and will be around for many more to come. The A.V. Club spoke with the pair about their evolution after Vogue Evolution, and how they hope Legendary will help bring ballroom into the future without forgetting its past.

AVC: What has the experience been like filming the entirety of Legendary season two without an audience? That feels like such a crucial component of ballroom, but the show has really kept the energy up without a crowd.

Dashaun Wesley: It did change the dynamic of what we experienced last season when an audience was there—you know, the vibe was different. I feel like, without the audience this season, you felt more of the passion, you felt more of the energy, you felt more of the vibe of what everyone was trying to say on that runway without the interaction of the audience. So, it just changed the mood, which wasn’t too bad because you were able to connect a little bit better. You see what was happening in front of you without anything taking away from it. So, although it took away what we wanted, it added a little beautiful gem on top of it.

Leiomy Maldonado: Honestly, although everyone’s so used to the crowd being there and we feed off the crowd, for me, it felt more personal to allow the talent to just live on that stage and just to be able to execute their performance without sometimes having that pressure with extra people actually watching. You know, it could be a good and a bad thing. But I feel like, like Dashaun said, it made it more special. I felt like I was more engaged with the performances, as opposed to season one. Sometimes some of the crowd would get kind of feisty with the judges, you know? [Laughs.] And that kind of would throw me off because I’m such a witty person, so I would hear something that I would have to respond to. Like, “Girl, you’re in the middle of a show! Ignore the people!” But, as far as the show itself, it gave the competitors enough time to make it about themselves and not make it about like the crowd and having to showcase outside of just the judges.

AVC: With this being the second season, do you get the sense that the houses are coming to Legendary more prepared? If they’ve seen the first season, they might have a better idea of what to expect from the competition.

DW: Yeah, it kind of gave a little heads up of what to expect compared to season one where they just went straight into it. I guess what happens is, as we get to season two here, you’ve got to not give them the same kind of draft you gave them for season one. You kind of add a little bit of spice to each and every category, to change things up.

But I think the houses just came. As you can see this season, they came and they were ready, and you’re able to see each and every house for who they are. And you get to love what you love about them, and then you get to look at other houses like, “No, I don’t like that house.” [Laughs.] Because that’s the response I’m getting now from people! They’ll tell me what they like about one house, then they’ll tell me what they don’t like about another house, you know? So, season two, they came prepared, they came ready, but they were hungry, and you can tell.

LM: Yeah, I do agree. One thing that people don’t realize about the competition—although, yes, some of the competitors were ready based on [past] challenges, they knew they would have to come for certain categories—but the actual work that it takes for them to put the performances together, I feel like they’re never going to be prepared. [Laughs.] Especially because we come from ballroom and, for us to prepare for a ball, we find out about a ball weeks prior, so we know about the categories, we have meetings with our house members where we are like, “You’re going to wear that, I’m going to wear that.” We prepare; we have more time to actually prepare. And they literally have less than a week to put together different performances. So that, to them, is the challenge. When it comes to the competition, they were prepared, but when it comes to the building [of performances], that’s something that it’s going to take a while. I feel like you’re never prepared for that, honestly. [Laughs.]

AVC: There’s also the aspect of being on a competitive television show—because you’re there to win, but you’re also projecting who you are, and what your house represents, to this massive audience.

LM: Yes, that’s true. [Laughs.]

AVC: That’s something the two of you are familiar with, because you competed on season four of America’s Best Dance Crew as Vogue Evolution in 2009. You were there to compete, but it also seemed like there was a pressure to educate this broader audience on vogue, on ballroom, and even just to speak for the wider LGBTQ+ community. Did you feel that pressure? And how do you think things have changed now, especially on Legendary?

LM: The motto behind Vogue Evolution, for us, our goal was to literally go on the show and educate [viewers] on where voguing came from, to educate them about ballroom culture and how important ballroom was to us. But also to show the world that vogueing should be respected as a dance form. Because, back then, [the public] didn’t look at it like that—it was “the gay dance,” it was like a mockery. They didn’t see and they didn’t respect the value of what vogueing is, the true artistry of [it.] It took Vogue Evolution, and me and Dashaun—it took work, even after America’s Best Dance Crew, but that was the catapult.

It was like, “Okay, here you have five individuals who come from a culture, from an underground community, and here they are.” Not only [were we] in the competition, but we felt like we had to be a specific way. Even working with production and stuff, they expected the guys to be “flair-ing,” to be extra, and all these other things. They felt like, “Okay, the world knows the gay—or LGBT—community to be a specific thing, so you need to be that.” And we weren’t there for that, you know? We were there to be our true selves, to explain where we come from and our experiences, and the fact that we should be respected as human beings. This is our dance, and this is our culture, and we deserve to be celebrated.

I feel like now it’s easier. For us, it was hard to even be on that platform. And me, as a woman of trans experience, to even have to talk about, you know, “Hey, here I am, and I’m trans.” That’s something that, for me, didn’t work in my favor being on the show because I didn’t want to tell my trans story. I personally didn’t feel the need for that. A lot of the interviews that I was having, they were like, “Oh, so explain to me [what it’s like] being the face of the trans [community.]” Like, they made me feel like I had to be this person, and I didn’t like that, I didn’t want that. That’s not why I was there. And, because I didn’t give them that, they wrote me out to be a bitch, you know? To be a diva, to be this person who was hard to work with.

Now, this show, they don’t have to go through half of that. They’re able to be themselves. Nowadays, in 2021, being your most authentic self will get you the furthest. And that’s what this show has. That’s what Vogue Evolution did. They broke these walls down and opened up these doors for a place like Legendary to happen. A place where you don’t have to out-sell yourself and be this person that you’re not. Now, someone can celebrate you and love you for exactly who you are—whatever box that goes in, or even if you don’t fill in a box—whoever you are, you [can be] true to yourself.

AVC: Legendary allows us to learn about the houses, and the individual competitors, and it’s always, “Let’s meet them on their level.” It’s not about identity; it’s just about humanity. Maybe that’s a cheesy way to put it— 

LM: And it’s crazy that you even have to put it in those terms. It makes you feel embarrassed even having to say that, but it’s like, in the world that we live in, unfortunately, these are the subjects, and this is how we have to attack things. And not even attack, that’s just how we have to address things.

DW: Leiomy nailed it right on the head. We go back to these moments—I remember us sitting back during the Vogue Evolution times, and they were like, “Snap for the camera,” “Do this,” and we were like, “We did not come here for that.” And as Leiomy explained, the work that we’ve done, even beyond Vogue Evolution, was so we can even get to a place where we are today. We traveled overseas, we did jobs with celebrities and high-end clients—we did the work in the field to let people know how they should and should not treat us, too. If there weren’t times that we were there to step up and make this change, we wouldn’t be in such a place right now. You have figures out there in our community who can be identified and then used as an example to let people know where the originality comes from. We want to let everybody know this is our community, this is our world, this is what’s been going on, and this what you’ve been doing that you may not know you have been doing.

I’m just so glad. Me and Leiomy have lots of moments where—I’m such an emotional sap [Laughs.]—I’m like, “Sis, we have it! Look at this!” Now, 11 years later, we get to see two seasons of a show and experience it in such a way, on such a platform, and we’re able to now guide [others.]

AVC: Leiomy, for the 2019 Out100, you talked about your involvement with Pose and said, “The ballroom scene is becoming mainstream now, and I hope we remember our roots.” With Legendary on its second season, and Pose’s final season airing this month, ballroom arguably has more exposure than ever. So how do you stay connected to that legacy without getting caught up in the success?

LM: It’s hard when it comes to the ballroom scene, especially in my shoes, because I come from the ballroom scene, but not all of my ballroom career was positive. I dealt with a lot of backlash, and I had to fight my way in the ballroom community for my style to be respected. I’m one of the reasons why voguing has revolutionized and has changed to what it is nowadays. And it took a long time for me to fight and to be respected.

So the way that I try to give back is by educating the new generation and giving them a place of belonging, a home. I never want them to feel like, “Oh, look at Dashaun, look at Leiomy, look at them!” Because, even Dashaun, this is his persona, too. We don’t want to be in a place where we reach these platforms and we’re “getting the bag,” like everybody likes to talk [about]. We come from a place, within our community, where we’ve seen people who are leaders that are not real good leaders. We’ve watched people follow the wrong leaders for years. So that’s something that I personally put on myself.

I want to make sure that I’m the perfect leader—and not even to say “perfect,” but I say perfect in a sense of being authentic. I’ll share the fact that I’m going through depression, too; I share those things. I want to share everything about myself because I want people to understand that, no matter where you are in life, you should always remember that you’re a human first. You should always remember that you’re a person before anything. You have emotions, you have your ups and downs. A lot of times when you’re put on these pedestals, people forget about that, and they want to think that this life is so perfect. It’s like, no, life is not perfect; I want to share with you that, you know, I have to go through these things and it’s okay. I’m the person that you can come cry to. And, if you need advice, I’m here for you. A lot of times we don’t have that. We don’t have people who are open to helping, open to pushing the person and be like, “Listen, that’s not the path that you want to take, maybe you can take this one.” It’s finding different ways to be a positive role model to people in different ways. Within the ballroom community, you come across so many different people that your job is never done.

DW: When you come to the ballroom scene, [no matter] how big you are, how fab of a celebrity you may be, we have to remind you—we’ll give you the acknowledgment when you come in the room, we’ll celebrate you and let you know. But, after that time is done, we’ve got to continue on with the ball. So that’s what I still love about the scene: Although, yes, you will receive some love, you’ll have people pull you aside to talk to you, but when you come inside this room and the ball is going, the ball is still happening. We love you, but we’re going to keep going. So it’s not always difficult to go back to a ball; the difficult part is you deal with what’s left in there, like some of the nonsense that you deal with, some of the shade, some of the things that you want to get away from. Sometimes that keeps you away from some of the opportunities of experiencing something so great. You know, it comes with the plateau, so you have to be ready for that.

When it comes to this culture, we want to make sure that, like, the right people who want to be a part of it are a part of it. Everyone who wants to contribute contributes. And, if you love it, you will love it and not try to outsource it. Because we put so much of our everything into our love of our family so we can be presented right when we come out there to a ball. So, again, I’m always grounded because I still commentate balls to this moment because I enjoy it, it’s fun. And I’ll always go back to do it because I know what I didn’t have growing up—what we didn’t have—we didn’t have many positive figures who [were] on television, or doing something out there, like performing with artists, traveling the world, teaching everybody, and then coming back and saying, “Okay, so hey, what’s up? What’s going on?” So, you know, it’s always being humble by going back inside the room to be reminded that—Leiomy just ate that when she said it because I was like, “Oh my gosh”—the work is never done. When we came in, we were the new kids coming in, and then when the generation switched, there were new kids under us. So, you’re learning to teach, and then, when you get to this point in the career, now you’re just teaching. So like, right now, we’re not done. The work is never done.

AVC: So, all of that being said, what do you hope for the future? Both in terms of Legendary, and the future of ballroom?

LM: Many seasons, to start off! [Laughs.] Many, many seasons, darling! What I would hope is that we get more shows that are not even like Legendary, because Legendary is specific only to ballroom. Now I want to see shows that bring in collaborations of different dance cultures too, because that’s something that we need as a community—like, community as in humans overall. We need that unity that we still don’t get. Yeah, people are living for Legendary and it’s like, “Oh my god, I’m living for Legendary; I’m loving vogue right now,” but it’s not that full unity. To me, some of it still kind of feels gimmicky. Like some of these brands [during] Pride, when it’s like, “Okay, it’s the moment; we’re going to use it for now.” I just hope that we get to a place where people are actually being celebrated for their talent and for what they can actually do, and not only because, “Oh, I saw this right now and this is what’s hot right now.” I can’t wait to see the longevity of it and not just, “Oh, you remember when they had those shows in 2012? What happened to that show in the ballroom community?”

DW: [Laughs.] Right now, I can honestly say there are kids who are looking at myself and Leiomy—and even some others in the community, from the culture, from the scene—and saying, “Oh my gosh, I can achieve something. I can look at Leiomy and be inspired to get dressed up, to want to perform, to want to walk the runway.” Right now, we are changing the norm, of what people understand about our culture, about our community, but also teaching the original source, where it comes from. So, again, what I’m hoping for is that it’ll open up more shows, more opportunities, for the people in my community who love to perform and participate, and you’ll be able to see their talents and see where they go.

I know when you go back to these movies of the past, like Paris Is Burning, and you hear the stars of that saying, “I want my name to be in lights,” they had to put the work in during that time. You know, we also put our work in so we can get to where we are now. So I’m just hoping that this [can lead] to those who want to put the work, so they can educate, and we can have more opportunities like this.

LM: And many more seasons!

DW: [Laughs.] Many, many more seasons.

Graphic credit: Natalie Peeples (Photos: Leiomy Maldonado and Dashaun Wesley, credit: Ali Page Goldstein/HBO Max)