“I was able to break down those barriers through dancing, being visible, and showcasing my artistry. A lot of times, we are so afraid to do things because we don’t know if we are going to be accepted. But I’ve realized that dance is its own language,” Maldonado, known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue,” tells Refinery29 Somos.
Born in the Bronx, Maldonado first brought the voguing techniques she learned in New York's Black and Latine ballroom scene to mainstream audiences in 2009, when she became the first-ever openly trans woman to appear on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew. Making the top five, her signature hair flip, "The Leiomy Lolly," caught the attention of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Willow Smith, who all adopted the move. In the 2010 music video for Smith's "Whip My Hair," Maldonado is seen on screen executing the iconic dance technique.
Maldonado has been gracing American TV screens ever since. On the Emmy Award-winning FX series Pose, Maldonado was the choreographer and also played the character Florida Ferocity. She was also a judge on HBO Max’s Legendary, a dance show where ballroom houses compete against each other in weekly vogue battles. Maldonado has also walked the runway in New York Fashion Week and in the 2021 Savage X Fenty Show.
Despite her icon status, Maldonado remains grounded and connected with her community. From social media to her in-person dance instructions, she preserves, remixes, and popularizes the dance styles of queer communities of color and teaches emerging artists how they can use their own unique talents to create paths to the worlds they want to build and/or infiltrate.
The democratization of technology has been key for her and her students. “When it comes to different artists, it can work in different ways, from dancers who create their own content dancing from their own point of view to nail techs,” she says. This year, Maldonado joined Meta's "It’s Your World" campaign, becoming one of the first creatives to use its Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses, which allows users to livestream from their glasses to Facebook or Instagram, use “Hey Meta” to engage with Meta AI, and snap photos and videos from their own point of view.
We chatted with Maldonado about how she is embracing new technology as an artist and how these tools can help marginalized creators connect, create, and explore the lives and careers they want.
Marginalized people often have to pave their own paths because we aren’t always given the same access to spaces, opportunities, and resources as others, but creating your own lane also isn’t easy. What have been some of the biggest challenges or setbacks you’ve experienced so far?
Personally, as an artist and as a voguer, just that has been tough to go through and deal with, especially when I first started, trying to introduce voguing as a popular dance style. A lot of times, people laughed at it and looked at it as the so-called “queer dance,” and I was able to break down those barriers through dancing, being visible, and showcasing my artistry. A lot of times, we are so afraid to do things because we don’t know if we are going to be accepted. But I’ve realized that dance is its own language.
When you create your own world, you make your own rules. What are some of the rules or guidelines you set for yourself as a dancer, model, activist, and creator?
Most importantly, having boundaries. As an artist and public figure, people see you as public property. So you have to have boundaries. I might not like things that people say or do, and I should be able to tell them that, and they should be able to respect it. But a lot of times that language is lost when you’re a public figure. For me, I stand behind that.
Also, staying true to yourself no matter what. It’s okay to say no to things, especially if they don’t align with you as a person. A lot of times we get lost in brands and social media, but I’ve always been focused on keeping true to myself and my self-worth.
As a dance instructor, how do you teach and inspire your students to pave their own path, too?
Overall, I teach my kids to be themselves. That’s important to me. As a teacher, a lot of times dancers come into my classes and want to be like me, but everybody’s body is different. Especially with voguing, it’s such a free style of dance that you can bring your own personality and it should be personal to you. And I try to teach them that. I’m not in class trying to create clones. I want people to know they should be able to be who they want to be and show themselves to the world however they want to. We’re often put into boxes, but right now this younger generation is breaking through that, getting rid of the boxes and just being themselves because they are enough.
How do you think technology like the Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses can help artists who don’t always have access to big platforms and technology?
I feel like a lot of the time we are a little bit apprehensive of new tech and hearing about things we’re not used to, and a lot of people get scared. And I was scared as well in the beginning, but for me the experience has been so amazing.
The glasses are so easily accessible. You can learn how to work them so easily. When it comes to different artists, it can work in different ways, from dancers who create their own content dancing from their own point of view, to nail techs, to even enjoying roller coasters. I’m a roller coaster girl. That would be so amazing. There are so many ways artists can use the glasses. I’m interested in seeing what more technology they add to this. This is only the beginning, so I’m excited to see where it goes.
How are you using the glasses in your work right now?
I’ve been trying to work on how to dance fully with them, and for the content to be more stable. I’ve worked with them, and then watching the videos, it kind of makes me dizzy. It’s so much movement. So I’ve been seeing how it’s helpful. I’ve also been asking it questions, seeing how much information it provides. It tells you it in your ear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity