profile: House of Kenzo

House of Kenzo is making the world safe to dance. Through a combination of music, messaging, and movement, the art collective puts audiences in touch with their bodies, engaging them with liberating and unpredictable performances. At any given show, the group may hand out candles and lay on the floor, playing dead before coming to life in a fantastic rebirth of movement. They may show up in boxes and act as human plants, as they did at SXSW 2016. They might attack each other and mosh to a soundtrack of metal-infused electronica. There will be costumes, leotards, jock straps; some people might get naked. There may be shouting of phrases like The music is the message! and The pussy is the portal! At some point, the group will come together for a choreographed routine, harnessing chaos into a display of strength and balance. When it’s over, you’ll find yourself in the thick of the crowd, moving your body in unexpected ways, and you will realize that you, too, have become part of the performance.

House of Kenzo is made up of seven members: Bobby Bearz, Breezy Artistic_Kunt, Flo, Gemel (LEDEF), Karma Stylz, Roxy rnbwstrchld, and Tony Padron (@TONEPADRON). Participants vary by performance, but each member brings unique strengths to the group, and each plays an individual role. Roxy serves as house mother and Karma, who lives in New York, is house father. Bobby is responsible for media and PR. Flo, who lives in San Francisco, is considered the “house artist,” and she works in set design and as a graphic artist. Gemel and Tony create House of Kenzo’s music, and Tony acts as choreographer. Breezy brings an extensive dance background, having danced since the age of two; she’s the only member with a degree in the field, and she worked previously with Janet Jackson. Roxy and Karma have dance experience, too, and Tony crashed quinceañeras as part of a dance crew in high school.

In typical ballroom fashion, each member has adopted the last name of Kenzo; I will refer to them by their first names throughout. Each also uses the gender pronoun “she,” another common practice in ballroom culture.

A quick primer for the unfamiliar: Balls are fashion and dance competitions where participants dress and act in accordance with a variety of categories that run the gamut from the casual to the outlandish. Ballroom culture grew out of the Black and Hispanic LGBT community in Harlem, dating back as early as the 1960s. Balls offered the most marginalized members of society a place to escape the prejudices of heteronormative white culture. They allowed for a place to engage in fantasy—“Fantasy of being a superstar, like the Oscars, or being on the runway as a model,” as Pepper Labeija explains in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

For much of America, Paris Is Burning served as an introduction to ballroom culture, alongside “Vogue,” Madonna’s ubiquitous single from the same year. Voguing, the hallmark dance of ballroom culture, is instantly recognizable for its jerky, angular body movements and feats of acrobatic prowess, and it is an integral component of House of Kenzo’s style. The dance was internationally popularized with Madonna’s video, which whitewashed the dance and stripped it of its cultural roots. For many, knowledge of voguing begins and ends with Madonna. However, balls remain a vibrant cultural institution for the LGBT community, and competitions take place in cities all over the world.

House of Kenzo is not a vogue troupe—a point the group is quick to emphasize—but they are indebted to ballroom culture, and their association with it has gotten them a great deal of attention in a city where the scene, historically, has not existed.

clockwise from top left: Tony, Gemel, Karma, Roxy, Breezy, and Bobby

We’re eating charcuterie in a spacious exposed-brick apartment in downtown San Antonio with Roxy, Breezy, and Tony. A leather couch curls around a massive wall-mounted TV—possibly the biggest television I’ve ever seen. You’d never know that one floor below lies one of the city’s most popular haunted houses.

Breezy puts on makeup and adjusts a blond wig, readying herself for a performance. She tells us how she recently moved from Denver back to San Antonio. She’s excited, happy to be back with the House of Kenzo squad, and her enthusiasm erupts when footsteps ricochet down the hallway.

Karma!

Karma enters, Gemel and Bobby in tow. Breezy jumps up and runs across the room.

“This is our first meeting with Karma!” she shouts, embracing Karma in a hug. “And you got tacos!

For the first time in two years, the entire House of Kenzo crew (with the exception of Flo) has come together. The love and affection is overwhelming: it’s almost uncomfortable to watch, as if we shouldn’t be privy to such an intimate moment. But at the same time, there’s so much warmth, so much positive energy that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the festivity. Everything is charged with sweetness and light. Breezy pours out shots of gin, and we toast to their reunion.

House of Kenzo’s ties to ballroom culture run through Karma. Karma learned of balls and voguing while touring with the Harlem Globetrotters for four years. When she returned to San Antonio, Tony recruited Karma to walk for a fashion show that Roxy had put together under the name Rainbow Starchild. The rest, as the group would say, is herstory.

“When I got the chance to go to New York, I just started hitting up people, being like, Hey, I come from Texas, teach me how to vogue,” Karma recalls as we settle around the table. “I just started jumping into the scene, learning from all the OGs from back in the day. I started learning from them as much as I could, so that when I came back here I could teach everyone and spread it, because I knew it was something that San Antonio wasn’t going to find.”

Roxy’s fashion shows became the catalyst under which House of Kenzo came together. Roxy would design the clothes, and Tony would orchestrate the choreography. The first Rainbow Starchild fashion show took place at Bond’s 007, Roxy’s parents’ metal bar. They met Gemel at one of the shows; Bobby, who Roxy had met at her 20th birthday party, would often walk the runway. Breezy met the group later, at a party that involved 300 Jell-O shots (the details are hazy).

Voguing played a prominent role in the group’s gestation. “Roxy’s natural movement—I knew she didn’t know how to vogue, but when she was dancing, I was like, She’s kind of voguing, but she doesn’t know,” Karma explains. “So I thought, if I could just spread it to them, they could do so much with it. Because I saw that it was already there.

“I didn’t know anyone else who listened to experimental house music, voguing music,” Karma continues. “I thought I was the only one in San Antonio, because the scene’s so small. I’m at home, on my headphones, on YouTube, and then Tony brings these people to me, and I’m like, They seem pretty cool, they’re interesting. They’re like me. They took me to some parties, and I was like, Wow, there can be a big scene for this. There is a place for voguing here.

The group began showing up at parties and, building off each other’s energy, would slowly take over the space with their frenetic dancing. The moves grew more elaborate, the costumes more outrageous, and people began to take note. Their favorite parties were thrown by Ben Aqua, head of experimental electronic label #FEELINGS and a stalwart in Austin’s small but beloved underground club scene.

The group quickly captured Aqua’s attention. “We would go in and take over the dance floor, hard,” Karma explains. Impressed with their talent, Aqua booked them to perform at his #FEELINGS SXSW showcase in 2016 and again in 2017.

“Ben Aqua is a fucking genius,” Roxy extols. “He’s a visionary. The artists that he’s springboarded are people that are fucking icons now.”

“Rabit and Lotic, their first projects were released on #FEELINGS” Bobby points out, referencing two highly regarded figures in Houston’s electronic scene. (Rabit is a prime contributor to what The New Yorker has referred to as “the resurgence of grime.”)

“And it’s all come full circle now, because we’re signed by Rabit, on [his label] Halcyon Veil,” Roxy adds. “And that’s tight, but it’s also Texas.”

The Rainbow Extravaganza, San Antonio’s first vogue ball, took place in July 2015. It was House of Kenzo’s first official event, and it immediately cemented the group’s legend. It took place at the Uptown Studio, an art space located in the city’s Deco District.

“There were lines going around the corner,” Roxy tells us.

“We tripled capacity,” Bobby adds.

The event proved that voguing could not just exist but thrive in a city like San Antonio. It also drew the attention of the city’s Vice Squad.

“It was the peak of the moment,” Gemel recalls. “Everyone was so alive in the room. It was the last category, people were feeling it, everyone was praising the Lord—it was like church up in that bitch. And, of course, when the energy was the highest, right at the moment, everything was cut.”

“Gemel was like, Stop everything!” Bobby adds, thrusting her arms out in dramatic fashion. Everyone laughs.

The scene sounds like something out of a movie. “The police pull up, and I’m titty out, I go inside, I run up and tell [the DJ] you gotta turn the music off, there’s cops,” Breezy tells us, relishing the tale. But she’s too late—the cops are already inside. One of them handcuffs her. Pandemonium ensues.

“I’m like, I ain’t trying to have no handcuff!” she exclaims. “So I get out of the handcuff, and there’s a bathroom right there. I’m like, I’m gonna lock myself in the bathroom, and they’re like, Get her! Get her! They open the bathroom and I’m on the ground. I’m nude—the paint is already off—”

“There were three male cops on her,” Gemel explains. “She’s screaming, the music is cut, they’re blocking the exits, and the whole party is just watching Breezy get beat up by three male cops.”

It’s striking and sad to realize that this same scene could have played out at any moment in the past 50 years. For all of the progress the LBGT community has made, it comes as little surprise that the police would eventually put an end to the city’s first vogue ball. In the end, four people were arrested, including Breezy for public indecency. However, the charges were eventually thrown out for everyone but Roxy, who was convicted of bootlegging.

“What happened was, our little dance studio was right next to an art gallery that had been throwing after-hours parties, and they had gotten in trouble for selling liquor without a license,” Roxy explains. “Drugs, too. There was a lot of stuff—they were hot. And the Vice Squad showed up with three paddy wagons, prepared to arrest everyone for drugs, because they thought we were that art gallery. And when I got arrested they were like, We warned you, we already told you, this is it. And we were like, What are you talking about? This is the first event we’ve ever thrown.”

“People think we got charged with some obscure shit, but it was bootlegging,” Breezy tells us. “And I got charged for nudity in public, and I don’t give no goddamn! Girl,” she says, “I’m nude at every performance.”

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“Shit is going down right now,” Roxy says. “It’s an intense time to be alive, and you have to stand for something. I think as we challenge music—music, movement, ourselves—we challenge the world. There’s a lot of bullshit going on, and you have to stand up to that positively.

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Ballroom culture plays a role not just in the group’s dance style but also its ethos.

“Ballroom culture was created to empower people,” Karma tells us. House of Kenzo has a similar goal, which they refer to as cuntceptual.

“Cunt is about strength. It’s about presence, and it’s about being present. You can tell when a cunt is in the room, because she is there,” Roxy says.

Messaging is an important part of the House of Kenzo project. The goal is to get people to “be awake and be present in themselves,” as Roxy explains it. To accomplish this, the group focuses on activating the space with their performances.

“People aren’t ready to be vulnerable to the stage, or to themselves, or to other people,” Roxy says. “They don’t want to let that shit go. But you got to force yourself, and just be like, I’m going to dance to this music… That’s why people got so shook when we showed up, because nobody was doing anything before. We’re activating the space and letting people know that it’s safe to dance.”

Safety, paradoxically, requires a level of inhibition. The group doesn’t just dance—performances can involve slamming into each other and demonstrating feats of athleticism that may be mistaken for haphazard violence.

“We’ve definitely hit each other,” Gemel says. “We’ve kicked each other in the face; we’ve stepped on each other.” About five percent of each performance is choreographed, and the rest is improvisation, which can make for accidental collisions. “But we’ve been doing it together so much, we definitely know how each other moves, and how to catch the energy really well,” Gemel explains.

Tony acts as the group’s choreographer, and she and Gemel work together to create the group’s music. Gemel worked as a DJ and producer for years before joining House of Kenzo, spinning at Top 40 bars and a strip club, where she often clashed with the owner over the choice of music. “I would play hardcore female-empowering music, and the owner of course didn’t like it,” she explains. “He was like, You’re here to pander to the men, and I would get in trouble for being empowering to the females.”

Female empowerment runs through the group’s messaging and music. “Conscious Cunt,” from their Intro to Fuckwave EP, combines the group’s twin messages of social awakening and sex positivity; the song’s refrain—“Is your coochie conscious?”—serves as both a humorous tagline and a serious question.

House of Kenzo’s latest EP, Bonfires of Urbanity, released by Halcyon Veil in August 2017, offers a subtle shift in the group’s approach. The title alludes to the “bonfire of the vanities,” the infamous burning of “sinful” objects led by Friar Girolamo Savonarola in 15th century Italy. Important works by Dante, Ovid, Boccaccio, and others were destroyed by reactionaries who felt they posed a threat to moral values. With the rise of Trump and the ascent of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic officials to the highest levels of power, one wonders what threats a group like House of Kenzo faces from government authorities. It’s no exaggeration to say that everything the group stands for is under siege.

Their new music reflects this: it’s darker, angrier, and more violent. The track “Melania Carry” starts with a clip of Trump saying “This country is different today, and it’s going to be different than it ever was,” followed by the sound of broken glass and screaming. Later, a voice intones: “America won’t let us ring our liberty bell, so what you do is you buy your own bell. That’s right: America won’t let us ring our liberty bell, so we’ll bring our own.”

“Shit is going down right now,” Roxy says. “It’s an intense time to be alive, and you have to stand for something. I think as we challenge music—music, movement, ourselves—we challenge the world. There’s a lot of bullshit going on, and you have to stand up to that positively.

“We always say, It’s a war out there. There are literally wars going on. You need to be prepared to defend yourself.”

“In traditional vogue history, you’re supposed to name your house after a couture brand that illustrates your style, and we were looking through a Vogue mag and we saw this Kenzo ad,” Roxy explains, referring to the French luxury house. “It was all rainbow. Everyone was doing splits, and it had tons of texture; there was cheetah print and polka dots and stripes.”

The group’s name was perfect for a voguing collective, but House of Kenzo has moved away from its ballroom origins. “Initially, when we formed, we thought we wanted to be more of a traditional vogue house, which is why we went with the traditional way of naming ourselves. But afterwards, we departed from being traditional vogue. We’re more of an art collective,” Gemel tells us. “I don’t think we identify with the vogue scene or ballroom scene too much, because we aren’t doing anything traditional, and we don’t resonate with it, but we incorporate it into our performance.”

The group’s popularity also transcends the ballroom scene. House of Kenzo maintains a singular presence in San Antonio, and the group’s reputation is quickly spreading. They stole the show from Mexican club crew NAAFI at SXSW 2016, creating such an impression with their dancing that NAAFI invited them to perform at their next show. They’ve performed with Elysia Crampton, among other notable artists, and recently completed a West Coast tour, where they gleefully surprised audiences with their San Antonio origins.

“[People in] LA were like, Oh my god, are you guys from New York? Oh my god, are you guys from here? And we’re like, No, we’re from San Antonio, Texas. And they’re just like, San Antonio!? Where is that, I’ve never even heard of that!” Bobby recalls, laughing. But San Antonio, with its low-key profile, progressive politics, metal bars, and DIY club scene, has proven a perfect petri dish for the group’s growth, and there has been talk that they may be asked to perform in commemoration of the city’s 300-year anniversary.

As House of Kenzo’s popularity grows, the group works hard to remain connected to their audience. They host occasional workshops to promote dance and movement, and they remain focused on fostering a community as opposed to rising above it. Audience participation is as important to the group as ever.

“There’s a distinction between people who are observing a performance and people who are participating in it,” Roxy explains. “Our performance is getting other people to perform for us. You came here to see some shit?” she asks with a swagger. “Well, so did we.”

 

Profile by Sean Redmond, with research and interview assistance by Sunny Leal.
Photography by Sunny Leal (top) and Sean Redmond.