La Mona: A Photo Essay

Celebrating nearly a decade of parties from the French promoters putting the “dance” back in dance music

March 8, 2017

Every second Saturday of the month for the last nine years, a disparate crowd of dancers, soulful house music enthusiasts and regular punters has been gathering in Belleville nightclubs for La Mona, a night that has successfully pulled off its mission to reconcile dance music with dance.

At La Mona, the spotlight is intentionally turned away from the DJ and back where it fundamentally matters – on the revelers, who come to participate in classes and contests that celebrate classic club dance forms like voguing and waacking, or to simply to shake a leg among friends.

In the wake of yet another anniversary celebration, we sat down with two of the party’s founding members, Frédéric Pellegrino and Nick V, and flipped through their memories from nearly a decade of sweat and sass, Belleville style.

We started out as just a bunch of friends who’d met while clubbing throughout the ’90s at places like the Boy, the Queen and the Palace – essentially witnessing the birth of the house music scene in Paris. The idea to put on our own club night came much later, at a time when the clubbing scene was losing steam: Back in 2008, Paris was still in the grips of electroclash and minimal house. Rock music had also made a comeback, but we were fans of deep house, disco and Detroit techno, and we couldn’t find a place where we could go dance for hours like we had been over the years. At one point, we came across La Java and met Mani and Christine, who were probably the coolest and most community-minded club managers we’d ever met. The club was still somewhat secret, and the place had this soul that quickly made us feel at home. It didn’t look like a trendy club – it was more like halfway between an abandoned ballroom and an underground concert hall, and we fell in love. Seeing as the other club nights around town had these punchy, Anglo-sounding names, we tried to think of a name with a more Latin, feminine and sensual tinge to it. La Mona had been born. David Volants
Those first couple years at La Java, our parties would always take a while to get going. The room was practically empty until 1 AM, and then, when the many surrounding bars would close at two, we’d get slammed with an often drunk, sometimes rowdy crowd. So, we came up with the idea of starting the evening with free dance classes to fill up the dancefloor and instill a more positive ambiance. Ylva Falk gave the first dance class, and she got everybody on board right away. Her style, her dancing and her unique presence were a huge part of the format’s success. David Volants
At the dawn of the ’90s, voguing was an underground phenomenon in Parisian gay clubs like the Boy and the Queen. Its performers were actual clubgoers – you could see them rubbing elbows with the rest of the crowd on the dancefloors – but since there was no notion of a house scene or culture that they could unite under, it couldn’t last. In 2010, when it became obvious that a real scene was taking hold in Paris, we invited them to share their passion with La Mona’s crowd. After a few editions that were a bit more freestyle, we collaborated with a few members of the Paris ballroom scene, like Lasseindra Ninja, and put on a dance contest. We didn’t want it to be too competitive, to keep things playful between dancers and to let that energy carry on for the rest of the night. At the same time, we wanted to respect the spirit of that style of dance, which implies a lot of skill, as well as hours of rehearsals and practice. That was a fine balance to achieve, but after a series of discussions, arguments, boycotts, negotiations and adjustments, we were able to put on an event that appeals to the dancers, the crowd and ourselves, and that keeps evolving from month to month. David Volants
We met Diva during one of our Mona Dance Contests. She’s a formidable contender on the runway, a heavenly mix of strength and tenderness. We fell in love with her and asked her to become our official door person. If you’ve seen the documentary Paris Is Voguing, you saw her at her day job as a city bus driver. She’s a complete natural in both settings – she’ll patiently explain the ball scene to her neighbors who say they’ve seen her on TV in a miniskirt, and by night,proudly proclaim “I’m a diva on the runway, but tomorrow, I’ll be behind the wheel of my bus.” As Cheryl Lynn belted out in Paris is Burning, “You gotta be real!” David Volants
A few editions in, we decided to add waacking to the Mona Ball. A close cousin of voguing with its feminine energy, dramatics and LGBT roots, but more steeped in disco music, waacking is practiced in Paris by a small circle of dancers, who are mostly women (whereas voguing is mainly the province of men). We wanted to provide a showcase for the style at La Mona, but adding disciplines other than voguing to our event stirred a bit of controversy among the burgeoning Parisian scene, which has strict codes. To show respect for the culture, we changed the name of the “Mona Ball” to “Mona Dance Contest.” That turned the event into an occasion for voguers and waackers to bridge their cultures, and even exchange moves. David Volants
For our first theme nights, we really pulled out all the stops. We were inspired by the mythical S&M night at the Queen for our first “Mona Masters and Servants” at La Java, where we set up a four-poster bed and a huge cage. We asked the guests to wear a mask or to come dressed in lace or leather. The experiment was a success, and the crowd really got into the theme! So we got a bit cocky and put on a second edition in a Pigalle club with a slight brothel feel to it that seemed perfect for the theme. We didn’t predict that our La Java audience wouldn’t make the trip across town. The club’s usual crowd was more of the “golden youth” type – and then a bunch of swingers who’d taken the theme a bit too literally turned up and started getting down to business. So, while were big proponents of diversity, we really couldn’t please everybody who showed up that night! What a fiasco… So we softened up the theme a bit, and it became “Mona in Black!” Pictured above is Amélie Poulain, waacking judge, taking her turn. David Volants
October 2015: a sudden change of ambiance after Alex Mugler grabs the mic. The crowd parted in two, smartphones in camera mode, the music changed, and voguing took over the dancefloor in a spontaneous LSS [that’s when the MC calls on the dancers to introduce themselves to the audience]: Yanou Ninja, Lei The Night, Mounia Liza, Tiger Melody, Alex Mugler, and Lasseindra Ninja all did their turn on the catwalk to the raucous sounds of ballroom beats, in a great moment of improvised grace and exchange. David Volants

Header image © David Volans

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