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Category Is: Q&A With Legendary Ballroom MC Dashaun Wesley

Dashaun Wesley Photo: Roy Richlin/Getty Images

On HBO Max’s Legendary, eight houses from the ballroom scene compete at weekly balls, voguing and walking in highly themed categories, for a grand prize of $100,000 and the status of Superior House. To those who have been to a ball, or who at least follow some houses on social media, it’s exhilarating to see the art form codified into a television format — with a television budget — and put on full, glamorous display.

But for many more viewers, Legendary may be their first exposure to the contemporary ball scene. That’s where host Dashaun Wesley comes in: A dancer, MC, and actor who appears as Shadow Wintour on Pose, Dashaun is pure stage presence, and he runs the show by keeping the audience energized, quelling shade between the 40 contestants and judges Jameela Jamil, Law Roach, and Leiomy Maldonado, and freestyling over every walk and final battle. He also serves “voguecabulary,” inviting outsiders in on the party. In late June, Wesley spoke to Vulture about the evolution of ballroom, the highlights of hosting, and what he’s playing in quarantine.

On Legendary, you’re both a ball MC and a reality TV host. How are those jobs different, and how do you find a balance between being the MC in the room and hosting on-camera for the audience at home? 

I’ve been commentating and hosting balls for many years, and now that it’s on this platform and I get to grab that microphone and do it with 14 cameras around, it changes the dynamic. Now, I have to educate not only those who are there watching in the moment, but those who are watching on screens. What I did as a host was make sure I connected with everyone, so they understood what was going on as it was happening.

Legendary is about a subculture and art form that has influenced mainstream pop culture, but hasn’t often been in the spotlight itself. Was it a challenge to balance authenticity to the scene with guiding new viewers through it? 

We have little clips of “voguecabulary,” where we try to break down the wordings that we use. Like what’s a category, what’s an element, what’s a move? Years ago, we weren’t in this mainstream view, but people had an idea that stuff was going on, because of things like Madonna’s “Vogue.” When she went on tour, she took people from House of Xtravaganza. There was that [early ’90s] moment that we had, and then we had a gap in between.

Social media plays a big part in ballroom becoming mainstream. Us putting videos on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, we thought we were just sharing among one another, not realizing that people were watching what we were sharing and loving what we do. Now, you can click and find us within three keystrokes. There are so many [opportunities] we have now to reach out to others. Like Vogue Evolution [on America’s Best Dance Crew], My House, or Kiki. It’s so weird — I remember those conversations years ago with people in the ball scene, where they were like “We’ll never be that big,” or, “This’ll never happen. That’ll never happen.”

Does anything get lost from the in-person ballroom experience as it becomes a show? 

On television, you only get a specific amount of time. A ball event can go for 10 hours, 12 hours sometimes. We’re trying to do the best that we can at Legendary, so everyone outside can look in and understand what’s going on. Yes, it’s gonna be hard to try to understand what a category is when you have an hour to break it down, with five other categories following along. So that’s why we’re doing our best to give you an eye-opener into what the ball scene is. It’s up to you as a viewer if you want to go to a ball, or support by watching, or support it by doing something else. I wish that we could tell the whole story, because the majority of times in the balls, yes there’s action on the stage, but there’s action all around: There’s houses sitting at their tables, there’s people walking around talking, there’s friends connecting, maybe even some shade in the room, and enemies who can’t wait to get to the floor to battle it all out.

How much freedom did you have shaping your role on the show? 

My stylist, Eric Archibald, is part of the ballroom scene as well. He’s an icon. I gave him my ideas from the beginning, and episode after episode, he just turned it all the way up. I think it’s so beautiful that we get to sit on this platform and get creative. The creative control I have as the host, again, you just want to make sure things go right. I’m throwing in a couple of jokes, I may be a little bit shady, or have to get things back in order. It’s just making sure the show is running fine. And that creative process has been so open for me to just jump in.

Like when you were the only person in the world who could ever tell Dominique Jackson to sit down. 

When I was telling her to sit down, I was saying it in Spanish, like, “Sientate girl, sit down!” On Twitter, we have a big Latino fanbase, and everyone ran and jumped on that. But you have to crack that whip on the judges.

Do you have any bias as a member of House of Lanvin?

When you’re at an actual ball, the commentators are usually part of a house. But when you’re on that microphone, everyone’s trusting you to make sure you do what’s right for everyone. It’s that unwritten rule of not being biased to a house, even if your house is participating. Because you have houses that might be walking a grand prize worth $10,000. So, if you ever look to do anything in front of anyone? Oh, trust me, they’re gonna let us know. Every time I’m on a microphone, it’s all about being fair. Does it happen? Yes it does. But do I do it? No, bitch, I don’t play those games.

At a time when everything is shut down, what’s it like watching the rollout of this series that captures the energy of a big communal event?

It’s Pride month, the protests are going on for Black Lives Matter, for the killing of our trans sisters and brothers and mothers, the fight to tell everyone out there in the world about the issues and shed light on what’s going on. This is a perfect time [for Legendary] because now we get to speak of the Black and Latino LGBTQ culture, the talents, the creativity that we have. We get to speak and celebrate our trans sisters that are on the show. We get to speak and communicate, going out to any who may not understand, or may have a child out there who sees the show. I get so many messages every day about this show. Someone came out to their family. I had another message from someone like, “I’m ready to start walking a category. I’m all the way in Alaska. How can I get involved?”

What do you want people whose only exposure to ballroom is Paris Is Burning or a period piece like Pose, to know about how vogue and ballroom has evolved over the last 30 years?

Pose shows what was happening and how the categories were so different, whereas Legendary is what’s occurring at this moment. If you look at Pose, you see how the scoring system used to be. Now we only go with 10 or chop. Then we have categories that have evolved. Voguing femme didn’t exist in the ’80s like it does now. In the ’80s, there was the old way: a bunch of lines, straight points, and opposition. Now, we have categories celebrating difference. Compared to years ago, where [it was more about] “realness.” Because realness is about fitting into society, being able to blend, being able to not even tell that I am who I am. Back then, it was highly celebrated. But now, it would be a little bit controversial. You have to be very careful about how you choose to do it. And then the dynamics of voguing! Back then, it wasn’t as acrobatic as it is today, because baby, these kids! I’m glad I hit my prime in the scene, but the kids today and their acrobatics are just mind-blowing. The battle between Makayla of the House of Lanvin and Shorty Ebony, it was emotional, but it was a battle. 

Do you have any ideas for ball themes for Legendary season two?

I would love to have an American Horror Story theme. I would love to do a Christmas theme. At a ball, when we do these categories, you’ll see the description and then there’s the title. So the title may be “Femmebot,” but then the description will say, “You gotta bring it like a robot, and bring your robot moves.” So you go back home and figure out your best robot. You can say one specific thing, and so many people will attack it in different ways.

So, what you’re saying is, Legendary should be renewed for ten more seasons. 

I’m rooting for a season 12. There are many, many other houses that people have not had an opportunity to get to know. Now, we know these eight houses. If we’re going for a season two, we’ve got another eight houses. And season three, we’ve got another eight.

I saw in another interview you mentioned you play PS4. Any games you’re playing to get through quarantine? 

No one has ever asked me a PS4 question! I’m getting emotional. Yes, I’m a gamer. I’ve played all the Call of Duty games. And yes, I have headphones and I have a microphone. The majority of the time I’m talking crap to people who are talking crap to me. Other games I play are Grand Theft Auto, Injustice … me and gaming? Oh, I don’t play. My friends will tell you. When I’m on my game, I’m on my game.

Category Is: Q&A With Legendary Ballroom MC Dashaun Wesley