All video is a loop: an option to return to / double-marked “exit” and “entrance.” And so I unfold this performance on tape again and again and again to pass a landmark I know. If nothing else, I am not lost.
If you want to understand a drag show, drop a drinking glass on the floor. Watch as a unified curve of matter reveals all the other arrangements that could be. Read the entropic juncturing, the creation of meeting points. The glass was always many shards. In a drag show – a really good drag show – each number ruptures from the rest of the set list, from the bar. Good drag is a terrifying illusion: only you and the performer exist in the universe, and you can’t help but feel this is a complete arrangement. Nothing else is needed or wanted. It turns out beauty was the meaning of life, glamour its fullest expression. Good drag is rare but all drag is a release of the glass towards the floor and the seductive suggestion of a break. Sequins, wigs, makeup, lashes, tape, garments, props, dancers, lights, music, shoes, flippers, boas, tear-aways all in service of breaking the glass maybe. One day, we will find that drag was never about gender but about the persistence of existence: Am I who I was just a moment ago? Will I be who I am now, but later?
Three backup dancers step-march from the left of the camera frame, legs and arms clenched in programmed movements which look unsure but hopeful. As leather jackets above, so light blue denim below. VHS does not tell me texture in this instance, but the denim seems supple and cooperative. These are not new pants. Following in short order is a taller woman in a simple gold sequin cocktail dress. Her head turns to the beat of Tina Turner’s “Addicted to Love,” and she – Snowy – entices the camera to zoom towards her. Lyrics begin (it’s hard to believe she even needs lyrics) and lithe hands gesture: open palm against side of head, open palm with fingers gliding across collarbone, open palm gathers a kiss and pushes it on video waves away. Steps to the left lead to a spin back towards the right and VHS reveals its hidden glory. A camera sensor is overloaded by the glare of a sequin
which is – I think – the maddened glare of the gods when they strike us with fortune or failure and
which is – I think – the maddened glare of a person challenged with the impossible.
A sequin shines with a glimpse of the infinite, but the infinite which we cannot fully bear to witness. An infinity which necessitates breaking all the glasses everywhere. No one passes, and no one matters, and no one survives. High-resolution video does not reveal beauty, but obscures it with detail and with the false promise that we can bear to see what Grace Jones calls, “definition of the end.” As Snowy spins, the VHS camera falls off the swing-set, lands on its back, has the wind knocked out of it. Shards of light refract parallel to her body across her face and head as though she were being crowned by the visible spectrum. Lyrics roll on and Snowy misses a dance cue. There are many reasons to smile when you miss a cue in a performance. I do not know why Snowy smiles here. It doesn’t matter. She smiles and my eyes are zoomed like the camera, back onto her and always onto her.
I cannot feel anyone here with me in this moment about Snowy. I worry I am over-determining this video and making too much out of one performance. I fear that I will embarrass myself by writing about sequins
which are most unspeakably powerful
as the spectral entities they are. I will reveal myself to be the insubstantial faggot you have always thought me to be. You might laugh when Roxxxy Andrews calls it a “sequince” dress, but what glory to accord the sequin: an irregular plural! Angels of syntax sing out at the birth of a new wonder. Prius to Priuses, U-Haul to U-Hauls. But sequince join the golden geese.
Snowy smiles after missing a step. Crouching, pivoting, pointing along with the music, her backup dancers are pinky fingers daintily following the shimmering index as best they can. A complex body is apparent now and I wonder: Is Snowy writing here, or am I? This is good drag and so it is unclear where the performer’s power begins or ends. Perhaps the universe is Snowy’s simulation. On auto-focus, the camera loses track of its focal point and Snowy – in a head & shoulders shot – is blurred. As the image recedes back, I crane my neck towards the computer hoping to manipulate an optical situation almost thirty years past. Some air is held on reserve in my lungs while I wait. A rush of data spreads itself on my screen and Snowy’s visage returns, her forearm framing a backup dancer’s head as she leans back to caress his face.
“And you’ll be mine.”
She smiles a loss of control. A horse is mid-hurdle. Good drag is between the video frames and perhaps that is why it is so hard to describe. There is no formula to making good drag happen and thus no way to synthesize a mock-up in text. Is it possible to write in such a way that knowledge becomes impossible, like the way sequince glare into a sensor? When I pause the video, Snowy’s hands are splayed across the interlacing fields and I see a birds-eye view of a jagged pyramid. Thinner at the edges, denser towards the center, lines extending with uncertainty. Which part is palm, is finger, is nail? I resume the video and for a few moments Snowy generates the music around her without effort. Then Tina resurges as shaky choreography brings the pinky-heavy hand of Snowy into dance line formation. The line changes from clockwise to counter-clockwise. The line becomes points.
“The lights are on, but you’re not home.
Your mind is not your own.”
Snowy reveals herself to be who I have always wanted to be. She is what all performers chase. We all know the attracting pulse of good drag. It’s a pulse that simultaneously promises an impossible closeness, while making unbearably apparent how separate we are from others. We wish to become another, to dissolve our independence and flow into confederacy. Performance mocks individuality. We all want to emit that pulse, to have that power of attraction. Activists might rally a community together, but it is performers who lend desire to intimacy. This verse of the song parallels the first and I realize Snowy is repeating choreography. It is a bodily chant: fist, fist, pull, thrust. Each cliche, each seeming error tilts the surface between Snowy and myself and I roll towards her. One backup dancer lipsyncs along with Snowy. Another looks like a frightened version of Cornelius S. Pecially from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Mystery gives way to busy-ness and I wonder about the remaining runtime. A cold sensation below the neck distracts me from the final minute of the video – more dancing, Snowy lifted aloft by her pinkies – and I decide to watch the video again from the beginning. Performance spits out pieces of time which dry up and are forever gone. VHS allows me to return again and again to Snowy’s performance but it’s harder to stay with her. My mind wanders here and there. I return to see what I missed on my last visit. I can never really remember what I saw the last time I was here. I return to the video and complete the loop. I unfold time compressed into a video file and let that expansion compress my awareness of my surroundings, my anxiety, my banal problems. This maneuver will reverse as the video closes and the surrounding world re-inflates. I will return to Snowy again.
“Your mind is not your own.”
In 1989, Snowy competed in the Miss Pittsburgh pageant at Pegasus nightclub in Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Captured on VHS, she performed Tina Turner’s “Addicted to Love” and won the crown. While this performance can be placed in context of the pageant, the bar, the era, or even Snowy’s rousing speech during the Question & Answer round, to me this performance always breaks free of the tape.
More footage from the Miss Pittsburgh 1989 Pageant can be found in the Pittsburgh Queer History Project Online Archives: http://pittsburghqueerhistory.com/omeka/items/show/1568