Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. For this series, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
Who: Maximo Xtravaganza
What: Dancer, member of the House of Xtravaganza
How did you start getting into Vogue?
Before I came to New York, my only exposure to ballroom was through YouTube and Instagram. I would watch clips of Dashaun Wesley voguing all the time and listen to MikeQ’s beats on Spotify. While in school, where I studied for a BFA in dance, their influence inspired me to choreograph a piece that was a combination of Vogue and contemporary ballet. With my program at Florida State University, we came to New York in 2018 for six months before our final semester and graduation. As soon as I arrived, I knew I needed to move back once school was over. Those six months in New York were the first time I could be all of myself, all of the time. I was able to express myself fully. I met other people who encouraged and inspired me. I fell in love with Vogue during that time, especially the New Way style of Vogue.
What was the first time you went out to a gay or queer nightlife space?
I know the exact date. It was July 9th, 2019, the day I moved to New York City. After graduation, with a thousand dollars in my pocket, I got on a plane to NYC. My ex-girlfriend at the time had a lease and I was going to live with her until I found my own place. During the flight, I saw on Instagram that there was a club called House of Yes doing a Vogue event that night. Dashaun Wesley was commentating and MikeQ was spinning, so I knew I had to go. When I got off the plane, I went to the Boom Boom Room at the Standard Hotel, had an interview, and got a job as a bar-back. Right after, I went straight to House of Yes for their event, House of Vogue. I hadn’t been to any type of ballroom function with categories and people walking before this night.
“After graduation, with a thousand dollars in my pocket, I got on a plane to NYC.”
There’s a structure in ballroom that people don’t always understand and I was still learning myself. I wanted to know how you should come out, and what is expected in each category. I wanted to enter the space correctly. Before entering ballroom, I never had a space with friends or family, where I could fully be myself, and I felt it that night.
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So what was that night like?
The first thing I remember when entering the venue was the decor. There was a mirror tile wall and a wall of unicorns. Coming from Tallahassee and going out to straight clubs where we literally got kicked out for voguing, this was so different. This was a space where everyone was visible. Even the walls were vibrant here. It was a whole new sense of safety that I had never really experienced before. It was a surreal moment of feeling, I’m in New York now, I can be who I want to be. I sank into myself that night. Seeing people being outrageously themselves, I was able to appreciate and be inspired by others.
It’s crazy how your first day in New York brought you to a place where all of the elements you’d been seeking were tied in a perfect bow.
The universe really told me that day–MikeQ, Dashaun, and Vogue. I can’t remember being with anybody that night. I was a spectator, respectfully taking it all in.
How did you start finding your ballroom community as you began your life in New York?
I learned about a weekly function at 3 Dollar Bill in Brooklyn called OTA (Open to All) from Instagram. It happens every Monday and it’s a “mini-ball” where they have around five categories. OTA is a space for the community, it’s not a full-blown Ball. . People get together to see each other once a week, have a little practice, stay connected, show out, and get inspired. When I heard about OTA, I got a group of girlfriends that I felt safe with to go with me. I went one or two times as a spectator before I walked. I was aware of coming in and not claiming space when I hadn’t put in the time yet. In the words of the Legendary Leggoh JohVera, “Learn your place and earn your spot.” You have to support and give respect to the people who came before you and created this rich history that inspires the world. Who are the icons in the building and who are the legends? I didn’t understand what an LSS was at the time, which is Legends, Statements, and Stars. That’s how every function starts. It’s a calling out of different members in the community to give them their roses—we see you and what you’ve done, we respect you.
After going to a few OTA’s, I saw that they had a Beginner’s Performance category. I thought I was ready to respectfully come out for 10’s and that I possessed the skill level and understanding of Vogue to showcase it correctly. When they got to Beginner’s Performance, I blacked out. I don’t remember what I did. I think I made it through two battles. I was still understanding how to channel the energy in the room. Coming out for your 10’s the first time, everyone’s clapping and screaming, it’s overwhelming. That energy can make you do more than you were expecting. When you learn how to channel that energy and focus it into the simplicity and nuance of Vogue, you can enjoy the affirmation. It’s amazing to hear your community clapping for you.
“Before entering ballroom, I never had a space with friends or family where I could fully be myself, and I felt it that night.”
While I was going to OTA, I was working my job at the Boom Boom Room, and I was coming into myself, my sexuality, and my presentation of gender. Going to OTA each Monday, I felt I needed to change out my closet and pull out looks to express myself fully. New York made me realize you can pull a look whenever you want. Every week I would go shopping in the women’s section. I was new to shopping in that area of stores, and realized that the clothes fit me better. I liked the way that they shaped my body. They made me feel like I could finally see myself in what I was wearing.
From there, whenever there was the beginner’s category at OTA, I would walk. One day when I got off the floor, everyone was coming to me, asking who I was and what my house was. Mike Xtravaganza came up to me and said, “What’s your name? I’m Mike Xtravaganza. I live for your Vogue. I want us to stay connected and bring you around the house.” Coincidentally, on my way to OTA that day, a very polished guy with a black mustache, a flower bandana, and some boots got on the train, and I remember looking at him and thinking, who is this? Of course, he got off at Montrose with me and was going to OTA too. It was Mike Xtravaganza. I didn’t realize it until after I walked and he came up to me. He was like, yeah I felt you on the train. After that, I went to the Porcelain Ball and naturally started hanging around with the house. I started taking Jose Xtravaganza’s class. They invited me to the house Thanksgiving party and I met the old school members like Grandma Coco. Slowly, I started to feel like I had a little community in New York, and eventually, I officially joined the House of Xtravaganza.
I love these stories of New York serendipity from your first night at House of Yes to seeing Mike Xtravaganza on the train before you actually met him at OTA. New York can really throw you for a loop, but it can also hold you and put you where you need to be. What about the ballroom community keeps you coming back to it all the time? Why has it been fulfilling for you?
When I first became interested in ballroom, I was so inspired by the not giving a fuck of what you’re wearing and how you’re moving. Before moving to New York, I was hyper-aware of both of these things. I saw how the movements so beautifully combined masculinity and femininity. The androgyny in the dance form parallels my coming out as a pansexual, non-binary person. Vogue dance was the first kind of expression that made me feel the duality of myself: being able to move my hips, but also clench my fists at the same time. Vogue became therapy for me. Moving in its language helped me understand how I wanted to present myself, how I am fluid. Physically being in the ballroom space recharges my resilience. Ballroom is a scene that was created out of oppression. When I was coming into it, I was feeling oppressed by my own self, and denying a lot of who I was. My siblings showed me I can be whoever I want to be. I don’t need to fit into society’s mold.
“You have to support and give respect to the people who came before you and created this rich history that inspires the world.”
Outside of ballroom, were you going out to other queer nighltife spaces in New York?
Before the pandemic, my life was unsustainable. I worked at the bar from 4 pm to 2 am. I would change, go out with my friends, wake up the next day, and do it all again. Going out was a release rather than a fulfillment. I was working like crazy so any free time I had, I wanted to dance as a release. I was very much the friend who was like, where are we going? I didn’t know the names of any of the clubs. Now, I go out with intention, to connect with and support our community.
What was the start of the pandemic like for you?
I remember thinking that the city wouldn’t shut down, because it’s New York, New York is always open. I was at work, we were at 50% capacity, and then they told us we’re off for two weeks. And then, you know. I started to run out of money and unemployment wasn’t getting back to me. I had to go back to Florida and stay with my dad. I got blessed though. I booked a Facebook national commercial for Messenger Rooms. They saw a photo of me and some friends dancing in a performance that Jason Rodriguez created at a mini-ball at Dumbo House. The commercial was the photo coming to life and had each person in their own box, voguing. We got our coins. After I booked the job, I was like okay, I have some money and the world is shifting. I had been doing photography for three years, portraits for friends and taking classes in college. With lockdown, I wanted to be able to create even though I couldn’t perform. So I used that money to buy a whole setup: an iMac, a new camera, some lenses. I was ready to take photography and videography seriously. I shot a visual for the Dragon Sisters, and soon after shot, directed, and edited a music video for Ms. Boogies’ single Dickscipline in my new studio In Bushwick.
When did you come back to New York?
I came back in June 2020. I was shooting photos and was in a dance company called Abdul Latif Dance Theater. We got a residency and things were starting to open up. The residency was at Windover in Rockport, Massachusetts. We were filming different dance videos in the space that the director choreographed. I got to experiment with my new equipment. In the studio, I was taking ballet and contemporary dance. My birthday was on July 15th, and I hadn’t seen my house since the beginning of the pandemic. We would occasionally have big zoom meetings so we could talk and connect, but for my birthday, things were ok outside since it was summer, and I wanted to see everyone. We went to Dallas BBQ in Chelsea and walked to the West Side piers afterward. When we got there, there was a guy with a big speaker and a sign on it with his Venmo to request a song. My house brother Sydney goes up and asks if we can pump the beat. So we started an LSS and pumped some ballroom beats. They had a microphone. My brother at the time, Alvarez, got on the mic and started doing an entire LSS on the pier. Everybody’s coming out, voguing, walking runway, serving face. I got to do my birthday LSS. We did some battles. It was such an amazing night reconnecting with my family and being on the pier, a legendary spot in ballroom history.
“Ballroom is a scene that was created out of oppression. When I was coming into it, I was feeling oppressed by my own self, and denying a lot of who I was. My siblings showed me I can be whoever I want to be.”
Were you doing any digital nightlife things during the pandemic winter?
I went to one digital Papi Juice party which was cute but I couldn’t really get into Zoom. I’m very much a person of physical energy. As a dancer, I’m used to being in class with people. Taking zoom classes online didn’t work for me.
Were there any intersections for you between your nightlife community and the Black Lives Matter movement last year?
I wanted to be here for Brooklyn Liberation, the march for Black trans lives. That summer Layleen Xtravaganza lost her life in Rikers. The whole family was coming out, Layleen’s sister was there. It was in honor of her and all the people we had lost. I was there virtually on FaceTime from my dance residency, to be there in the moment. The ballroom community comes from Black trans people. During quarantine, a lot of really important conversations started to happen. Light was being shed on how unsafe our trans sisters really are. Although I didn’t go to many protests, I was focusing on my daily practice and making sure that I was checking in with all of my siblings, specifically my trans mother, my trans sisters, my trans brothers, and creating space for them to talk about what they’re going through. I became much more intentional about showing up for everyone in my circle, but especially my trans and non-binary friends and family.
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What was Pride like for you this year?
This was my first Pride in New York City. I feel like I stretched myself a little too thin, which is apparently what happens during Pride. I bought tickets to all of these events and it felt like that Lady Gaga video, where she claps out, a club, another club, another club, no sleep, another club. It felt a little like a chore, it’s Pride, we have to be out. I will say though, there was such a vibrant energy in the city that I’d never experienced before. With the house, we kicked off Pride doing a performance on Little Island. We did some Vogue. We did some runway. I commentated and did a little LSS. We got to ring in Pride in the Meatpacking District, which was really cute. That area has so much history when it comes to gay and trans lives. It was not a cute place back in the day, but it was kind of our sanctuary. Now it’s this luxury section of the city, but it was a really inspiring moment.
What else have you been up to lately?
We had a second performance on Little Island a few weeks back. I got to choreograph and co-direct the experience. I’ve been going to OTA. It’s so good to be back there. I didn’t realize how much it charges me. It reminds me of how resilient I can be, that there’s more to learn about myself. I’ve been wanting to capture these moments, so I began photographing the functions and balls going on. I first photographed OTA Times Square, and I also photographed this series called Werk Ball in Chelsea. I love showing people how beautiful they are through the camera, so they can understand that they’re as beautiful as the celebrities we look up to. A celebrity is shooting in a studio, they’re editing and retouching their photos. There’s so much that goes into making them look flawless and perfect. Now that I have the resources and understand how to achieve that level of production with photography, I enjoy bringing that to people.
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Last week, I had the privilege of living my wildest dreams. I got to dance for Madonna at her Madame X private screening premiere party. I got to meet Madonna and rehearse with her. I was in the room for the cocktail party, the premiere, and the after-party. I got to dance on stage with my house father, the icon, Jose Xtravaganza, my sister Isabella Xtravaganza, and Kalik Balenciaga. Jose got called to choreograph the performance. He did the original choreography for Madonna’s “Vogue” music video. He hadn’t seen Madonna in almost 20 years and this was their first time reconnecting. It was such an honor to experience that moment with my family and getting to dance for her was a dream. It was an honor for my father to believe in me to be a part of the night.
What are some of your hopes and goals for yourself in nightlife, and New York’s queer nightlife in general?
My plans are to continue to find ways to connect with and support the LGBTQ+ community in NYC and beyond. Through my photography, I hope to capture and archive the magical history of New York’s nightlife while showcasing the beauty and power of queer people of color. With my dance and Vogue, I hope to inspire others to live freely and express themselves fully. I want to continue walking balls and pumping the Xtravaganza name. I love to express myself, no matter the medium. My goal is to continue honoring my truth and sharing it with the world in all of the work that I create, chase, and am asked to be a part of.♦