Family Through Fantasy: The House of Xtravaganza

Some families you're given and some you make. In this family portrait, we take a closer look at the House of Xtravaganza, the legendary ball house whose father, Jose, took the Xtravaganza name to the wider world as a dancer and choreographer for Madonna. We sat down with the fam to hear stories from the house's early days, and how they still make time for each other to this day.

Suite 1608—a futuristic, lacquered black-and-white room at The Standard, High Line—takes in views of New York City from the north and east. On a recent Friday night, the sitting room hosted a family: The House of Xtravaganza. Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, the house father, dressed in black, sits opposite Gisele Alicea, the house mother, wearing a long red dress. Surrounding them are one of Xtravaganza’s children, Chelsea Marie, and house elders Jimmy Wong—resembling a stylish character from The Matrix—and Hector Simone—sporting a fishnet bodice and long gray knee-high boots and a matching beret.

The House of Xtravaganza in the Penthouse of The Standard, East Village. Standing from left to right: Chelsea, Simone, Dominique, Jose (father), Gisele (mother), and Angie G. Below: Bendy, Isis, Jimmy, and Alexsa. 

“Freshman year of high school, I was already Xtravaganza,” explains Jose. He joined the house after walking and winning the grand prize for “Vogue Performance” at a 1986 ball held jointly by the House of Xtravaganza and the House of Pendavis in Washington, D.C. The scene is captured in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, which chronicles New York City’s ballroom scene and underground vogue houses in the late 1980s. Jose describes the houses as “a gay gang that acts like a family” that evolved out of the pageants held in 1920s Harlem. The houses—consisting of a mother, father, elders, and children—which vogue and partake in the elaborate balls, are queer people of color’s response to society, mainstream gay culture, and their biological family’s discrimination and erasure—an act of survival that the Times in 1993 called a single, Pyrrhic victory of the imagination over poverty and AIDS.

This is all captured in the seconds-long scene near the middle of Paris Is Burning when a fervent-looking 16-year-old Jose angles his hands and body across a makeshift runway in white pants. The crowd falls silent, mesmerized by his inventive mixing of a decade’s worth of classical ballet training with poses he had seen in Vogue and on the Christopher Street Pier. The commentator overseeing the competition yells, “Worrk! Let’s hear it for him goddammit!
Required Viewing: Jennie Livingston's "Paris Is Burning" (1990)

“I was so nervous,” he says, remembering his first vogue battle. “I remember, Angie Xtravaganza, the original mother, being on stage because it was her event. She said, ‘Who are you? Are you Hispanic?’ And I answered, in Spanish, ‘Yo soy Dominicano,’” explains Jose, who grew up in the gender-inclusive Latinx enclave of Alphabet City within Manhattan’s East Village. “You would go to these balls and your dreams would come true. Everyone was famous for those ten minutes.” He continues, “We were all dreaming big. We were all hopeful and we wanted to make something out of nothing.”

In 1982, Hector Valle founded the House of Xtravaganza, the only Latinx group in the predominately African American ballroom scene. “What drew my attention back then,” says Jose, “was Xtravaganza’s unity and that they were considered the underdogs of the ballroom scene because they were Hispanic. There are prejudices right in the community, believe it or not. You still see it today.” From the far corner of the room, like a wisecracking auntie, Jimmy adds, “My advice for every young Xtravaganza that comes into the house is always this: know that if we give you the option to be an Xtravaganza, it’s because you are a star.” 

Hector, who died in 1985 at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, recruited Angie to be the mother of the house. Angie set about recruiting other young and rejected Latinx trans and gay kids in the club scene. She fed and loved them, honored their birthdays, and taught them what could be achieved in life through fantasy.

Led by Angie and Danni Xtravaganza in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the house resembled a halfway house. When Jose visited Danni’s apartment, other house members who had no other place to go stretched out across the floor in sleeping bags. The house also provided younger members with an allowance and clothes to compete in the balls. “Angie was a mother to many who needed that support,” says Hector Simone, who ran away from home at age 13 and credits the house with helping raise him. “We promised Miss Angie that it would never die,” he says, recalling when Angie died from AIDS-related liver disease in 1993. She was 27 years old.

“When all of them started dropping, man, as a kid, I didn’t know how to deal,” explains Jose. “At that time, no one knew what it was killing, not just them, but the community.”

As  she began to decline, Angie asked Jose to become the father of Xtravaganza. “Initially, I said ‘no’ to the position,” explains Jose, who was dancing in Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour when Angie’s health began to deteriorate. David Ian Xtravaganza, another founding member, joined Danni as head of the house after Angie’s death. AIDS took both of their lives a few years later. “When Danni and David died, I then said, ‘If not me, then who?’ It was such an honor. They were my elders,” Jose says. He pauses for a moment, trying to find the words to measure the impact of Angie, David, and Danni on his life. “No, they were like gods.” 

Jose and Gisele carry on the Xtravaganza name today by keeping the traditions of the house going. For instance, Chelsea recently offered up her home to a new trans member of the house who underwent gender reassignment surgery. “She posted online that she had nobody there for her and I said, ‘Hey girl, I am here for you.’” She moved in with Chelsea during her recovery, and Chelsea, like members before her, took care of the younger member. “It isn’t just about vogueing,” says the 28-year-old in a moment of self-reflection. “We agreed to join this team of people and to treat each other like family. She is a human being, a transgender person, who doesn’t have 100 percent support, and we have to be stronger together,” she adds, sounding like Hillary Clinton. “She’s my sister. That’s how I view her.”

Gathered in the suite, the members acknowledge that as the circumstances of LGBTQ people have improved and social media has stalled “IRL” communication, the services the house once informally provided aren’t as necessary; as a result, it’s harder to bring the family together.

Like many modern families, the House of Xtravaganza comes together around big annual moments: the house ball, a spring picnic, Christmas dinner, and New York City’s AIDS and lupus walks. “Every family goes through situations, but I would describe ours as loving and chaotic,” says the house’s current mother, Gisele. “There’s a lot of passion from both sides, so there’s going to be clashes,” she says, sipping wine and looking at Jose. “Like husband and wife,” he responds, giggling. “She sometimes thinks I try to tell her what to do.” Chelsea, their daughter, adds, “When there’s a call for us, hunty, we do get together. Once you are in a house, it’s all about family. If you are missing something, we will come for you and help you out.”

As  the father of the house, Jose has been integral in bringing the Xtravaganza name to prominence, something that can be traced back to his rise as a dancer and choreographer for Madonna. In 1989, the actress and former club kid Debi Mazar took Madonna to Sound Factory Bar and introduced her to Jose. “Madonna came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I heard you do this vogue thing that’s amazing. Would you show me?’ It took someone like Madonna discovering me vogueing at the club. We’ve taken it around the world. Xtravaganza has rung bells! Madonna screamed, ‘Xtravagaaaanza!’”

Describing the influence of vogueing on the wider culture, Jose provides a concise definition: “Vogue, it’s a dance form, like break dancing, where you take it and you bring your own element. It’s all on the eye.”

Madonna took it and ran with it, says Jose without resentment—perhaps because he helped her take it mainstream. Jose choreographed and appeared in Madonna’s “Vogue,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Justify My Love” videos, routines for her 1990 world tour, and the iconic Marie Antoinette-inspired “Vogue” performance during the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. The influence of vogueing on the culture has been profound and continues to this day. After playfully walking the Mugler Ball in 2011, Rihanna recently toured with vogue dancers; contemporary artist Rashaad Newsome uses vogue in his practice; and celebrities like FKA Twigs and Robert Pattinson are spotted frequently at the weekly New York ballroom club night Vogue Knights. The lyrical adlibs of the ball commentators have led to an entire genre of underground house music, typified by acts like DJ MikeQ. Terms like “shade,” “read,” “slay,” “yass,” and “kiki”—invented to provide voice and specificity to the burgeoning scene—have become ubiquitous, too, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

For Xtravaganza, Madonna’s hand in bringing the scene to the mainstream has led to opportunities in fashion, TV, and nightlife. The house has appeared in magazine editorials, a campaign for Barneys, and a commercial for Sephora. Jose teaches dance workshops worldwide and stars in the recently released documentary Strike A Pose, which reunites, 26 years later, Madonna’s dancers from the Blond Ambition Tour. He also works as a model coach, helping perfect the walks of supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Joan Smalls, and Kendall Jenner. Jose says of Jenner: “I taught her how to pose, align her silhouette, get her shoulders out of her ears, and elongate her beautiful neck.” 

“When we get projects, we pick a lot of the kids to be a part of them,” says Gisele, who has been a member since 2001. “I just got back from doing a show in London.” Gisele also appeared in the first season of Netflix’s late 1970s hip-hop series, The Get Down. (Jose is the assistant choreographer on the show.)

But opportunities have also fostered a kind of uneven exoticism. As much as the House of Xtravaganza and other notable members of the community are asked to play roles in creating popular culture, they seem to always be a supporting act. It’s easy to think of vogueing—both the imagery it creates and its language—as art without a history. To only see Madonna vogueing and not Jose teaching her. To view RuPaul and his cast and overlook Angie, Hector, and the legendary Dorian Corey, who threw shade and read the girls while dreaming of something larger than survival.

After dinner, Jose observes, “The ballroom scene has changed drastically. It’s become so worldly. It used to be an underground family culture like a private club,” says the 45-year-old. “Now you have people all over the world in houses, and you can learn how to vogue through a tutorial on YouTube.” Jimmy agrees. “Ballroom lost its magic. When I was a kid, we would go to the Village and the pier and you would see these people from the scene and there was a sense of celebrity. Now you can see them on Facebook,” he says, as if he wants to turn back time. “It used to be very magical.”

“The ballroom scene can be very competitive,” says Jose, as the members of the House of Xtravaganza prepare to head out. “I want vogue to live on forever,” explains the house father. “I want to pass it down to the next generation—what it means to be a family,” he says. “A lot of us still need that.”
The House of Xtravaganza on the terrace of the Penthouse at The Standard, East Village. 


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