Dancing Queen

Tiana Ramirez bends sexual and cultural stereotypes.

There are many secrets, but you can never underestimate the importance of good blush.

As any drag queen worth her mascara will tell you, everything starts with foundation. Then it's contouring, highlighting, accentuating and blending. Blending, blending, blending, with special attention to the area under the chin to smooth the jawline, and around the neck to hide the Adam's apple -- if such a thing is possible.

You use the blush for the five-o'clock shadow. Go with one shade darker than your natural skin tone, apply and then brush it away, apply more and brush it away again until the stubble fades. After that come lipstick, eyeliner and lashes, which can be their own hell, then costume, hair and, finally, accessories.

Life's a drag! James Olguin during a break in the action.
John Johnson
Life's a drag! James Olguin during a break in the action.
James Olguin in full swing as Tiana Ramirez.
John Johnson
James Olguin in full swing as Tiana Ramirez.

As with everything, the magic lies in the details.

That's what other drag queens say, at least. James Olguin is new to this, and when you're new -- a "drag princess," the drag queens call him -- the entire process can be slightly overwhelming. Especially when you're not just busting sexual stereotypes, but cultural ones. It's like this: How many gay people in Denver have ever seen ballet folklorico? And how many straight people have ever seen ballet folklorico done in drag? None.

Which is why James, who is only nineteen, is having trouble getting a high-heeled foot in the door -- or on the stage, as it were. He's not doing traditional drag, and he's definitely not doing traditional folklorico, so he's getting quizzical looks from both sides. But then, this isn't the first time he's been misunderstood.

And besides, once he walks away from the mirror on performance night, costume perfect, accessories perfect, blush perfect, he doesn't care what anyone thinks. When they cue the music and the first trumpet sounds, it's all about dancing. And then it's uno, dos, tres, cuatro...Adiós, James Olguin. Hola, Tiana Ramirez!


Ballet folklorico comes from Mexico, where the dance is as much a part of cultural tradition as mariachis at fiesta time. If you've ever attended a Cinco de Mayo celebration, you've probably seen the ballet -- men dressed in black pants, black jackets, black boots and sombreros, strutting around with their hands behind their backs while women twirl away in flowing dresses the colors of tropical birds.

At the heart of the dance is a story, and at the heart of the story is romance. The man flirts with the woman, the woman flirts with the man, and they both fall in love before they walk off stage. Usually. There are dozens of folklorico dances, and each is as unique as the village where it originated. But in all of the dances, there's much foot-stomping, skirt-twirling and hand-gesturing, all to the festive accompaniment of guitars, trumpets and violins.

The dance has always been part of James's life. His uncle and his dad performed with some of the largest folklorico groups in Denver. Whenever Cinco de Mayo, September 16 or the Mexican rodeo rolled around, both of his parents would take to the stage; each Wednesday night was rehearsal, and each Wednesday night James was there. When he was four years old, he sat near the front of the auditorium, riveted. "My brother would rather run around on the playground, but I was always inside," James recalls. "I'd never leave."

It's hard to say what first attracted him: The music, the movements, the stage -- he loved it all. But the stage definitely was key. James was one of those kids who always had to be the center of attention. "Even if the TV was on, I had to try and take over," he says. So it wasn't long before he climbed on stage during rehearsal and performed a toddler's version of folklorico. "Oh, yeah," he remembers. "At that time, I had no cares or worries about what anyone thought, so I got up and tried my little thing."

Within a few years he'd memorized the dance steps, the hand movements and the song changes, so his parents put him in charge of the rehearsal music. "I just learned by watching," James says. "They were doing it for the love of doing it, for the fun of performing, and I wanted to see what the attraction was."

At thirteen, he found out. During a September 16 celebration, he performed publicly for the first time. He was terrified. "Being one of the smallest ones, I was stuck up front," he recalls. "I was completely nervous. I was more worried about the people watching me than doing it for the fun of it. So I felt like I bombed."

But he hadn't. And when James was a freshman at Alameda High School, a visit to the school by a folklorico group inspired a career decision. "I want to do that," James remembers thinking. "That could be me." He also worked on his performing skills in the school choir, the Denver Opera Company and community theater. And his parents encouraged his efforts, more or less. Although his uncle, dad and mom continued to perform, they didn't take James's dancing as seriously as he did. They offered occasional advice, like telling him to pick up his feet, or bend an elbow, but ballet folklorico was more of a hobby for them, so they assumed it was the same for James. They were wrong about this, as they were about other things.

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