Life's a drag! James Olguin during a break in the action.
Life's a drag! James Olguin during a break in the action.
John Johnson

Dancing Queen

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.

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.

By now, James was also sorting out questions of identity and sexuality. Although he had never told anyone, he considered the women's ballet parts much more interesting than the men's. The women were often the focal points of the stories and had more freedom to express themselves. And then there were the costumes, the hairstyle -- the overall aura. So when he had the house to himself, James would lock his bedroom door, pop a cassette into the stereo, stand in front of the mirror and "dance just like one of the girls."

Fast forward to October 1999.

James had turned eighteen, moved out of his parents' house, joined a ballet folklorico group and gotten serious about dancing, both in drag and out. "It was fun," he says. "Since I craved attention, and the women always got more attention than the men, it was something I wanted to do. It was a good way to let stress out. Being able to flail my arms around -- which is something I do -- really helped a lot."

When the Auraria campus held a welcoming party for gay and lesbian students, James decided to share his secret. He called his dance-group director and asked to borrow a dress for a friend, requesting a floor-length blue model with purple, green and pink ribbons. "Size nine," James recalls. "Don't ask me how I knew I was a size nine, but I just knew." He and a roommate then shopped for a shoulder-length, dark-brown wig and a pair of earrings. James also tried on a few stage names before settling on Tiana Ramirez. He got Tiana -- "the coolest name on earth" -- from the child of a family friend, and Ramirez "just popped" into his head.

Those basics decided, James stood in front of the mirror and contemplated the cosmetics. Since he had some leftover stage makeup from his community-theater days, he decided to use that. "And it did not come out like I thought it would," he says. "My foundation was too dark. I should have used a different color on my eyes. The earrings were all wrong. It definitely did not come out like I was hoping."

But the audience thought otherwise. "Everyone was like, 'Wow! You look beautiful! You just won the contest for most colorful!'" James recalls. "I didn't know how the crowd would react because they had never seen anything like this before, but they really appreciated the fact that I was showing them something new."

James again performed as Tiana at a friend's Christmas party. This time, everything clicked -- so much so that he made a promotional video. His favorite dance is "El Huizche," which tells the story of a girl who starts out shy, then turns the tables on her partner. "I've still got some work to do with Tiana," he says. "I've pretty much got the walk down, but the voice is another matter."

During rehearsals with his regular dance group, James continued to perform the man's role. During one rehearsal break, though, he was showing his video to friends when the director, Lisa Trujillo, walked in. "When she looked at it, she was impressed with the dancing, but didn't know it was me until she looked a little more closely," James remembers. "And then she was like, 'Why didn't you just tell me?' Now she helps me with everything."

Although there's still room for improvement, James doesn't need a huge amount of help -- in drag or out, says Lisa, who studied ballet folklorico in Mexico and was a Broncos and Nuggets cheerleader. "He's doing really, really good," she says. "I am working with him on hair, makeup and cleaning up his arm, wrist and elbow movements and his skirt technique, but he's coming along great. He already knows most of the footwork. The other dancers are totally cool, too. He's rehearsed with the other guys when he's wearing the skirt, and the girls just love him. He's really a good partner who knows what he's doing."

Which is all well and good for ballet folklorico, but drag is another story. The typical drag performance goes like this: You select a song, by anyone from Donna Summer to Bette Midler, and then perform that song on stage, usually for tips. There are variations, but most songs are lip-synched and most performances are based upon impersonation. "If you walk into a room and get comments on how you look, walk and handle yourself, that's when you know you've done a good job," James says. "The goal is to see if you can pull off a woman's role."

But Tiana doesn't sing or lip-sync -- she simply dances an intricate and expressive form of ballet folklorico. "It's not 'drag' as drag queens might put it," James says. "What I'm doing is not what they do. It's not what they're known for. I'm not impersonating anyone. I'm like a sideshow. I'm like the sideshow of the circus."

As a result, he's often pushed to perform a more mainstream drag act. "They tell me that I might like what I do, and I may think it's entertaining, but how is the audience going to feel?" James says. "And I don't mind that. I do love singing, but if I can't sing with my real voice, I don't see the point. I'd rather stick to what I'm doing. I like a challenge. I want to show people something new. I'm still on stage, and I'm still performing in a woman's role, but I guess it's something that's not known in the gay community in Denver. It might be something they're scared of because they've never seen it before."

If James has anything to do with it, that's about to change.

Five minutes into dress rehearsal, and the dancers are already sweating.

"Oh, my God," says one girl. "I'm not used to working with a skirt!"

"Tell me about it," says another.

But they get no sympathy from Lisa Trujillo, who's preparing them for an April 21-22 engagement at the Phoenix Theater, where James will make his public debut as Tiana Ramirez. The group will do a series of numbers, and as one of the highlights, Tiana will perform solos as well as a duet with Lisa, who wants everyone to be sharp.

"The important key, and I'm tired of saying it for the zillionth time, is none of these weak wrists!" she says. "Elbows back! And hold your skirts as a fist. Okay? Ready. One, two, three and go!"

The studio erupts in a thunderstorm of clattering shoes. The dancers spin and twist like butterflies, their ruffled skirts a blur of red, green, turquoise, lavender and yellow. At the front of the studio, eyes locked on the mirror, is James, rehearsing as Tiana.

"Come on, guys," Lisa barks. "Do the steps!"

James does his best to comply, biting his lip in concentration and sweeping back an errant strand of hair. But even at this frantic pace, there's not much out of place in Tiana's ensemble, which includes a black dress adorned with a rainbow of ribbons, a dark wig tied back with red roses, gold-hoop earrings and impossibly long and curly false eyelashes. The only glitch seems to be a pair of boxer shorts that James bought during the holidays, which bleep little Christmas tunes from under his dress as he dances.

"Elbows! Elbows! Elbows!" Lisa shouts.

James's dream is to join the internationally renowned Ballet Folklorico de México in Mexico City, where he'd probably have to perform the man's role. Mexico City isn't ready for Tiana just yet, he says. But first, he must survive Lisa's dress rehearsal, which is tough even for girls who have danced for years -- and he must do it wearing three-inch heels.

"Okay," Lisa tells him. "Your elbows are fine, but you're holding your shoulders forward. You know what I'm saying? Your elbows have to be forward, but your shoulders have to be back."

James nods. The dance continues.

"Not bad, guys," Lisa says. "Not bad at all!"

Toward the end of the rehearsal, the group performs a blistering rendition of "El Coco," and it's all James can do to keep up. The strand of hair falls back over his face, sweat glistens on his forehead, he misses a beat, loses his skirt momentarily and falls behind a step.

"Smile, everyone," Lisa says. "Come on. Smile!"

Then it happens. His frown disappears, his steps get lighter, his worries fade, and it's again all about dancing. And at that moment, James laughs.


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