Leiomy Maldonado is the “Wonder Woman” of vogue – and if you’ve ever seen her on the dance floor, you’ll know why.
The Black puertoriqueña electrifies rooms as she back flips, spins and dips in her high-heel shoes. Her confidence captivates audiences, with her intoxicating hair flips yelling, “I know I’m bad,” whether she’s smiling or giving the fiercest vogue face.
It’s no wonder the Bronx-based trans mujer caught the eyes of pop stars like Willow Smith, Icona Pop and F.K.A Twigs, who recruited Maldonado for their music videos and tours. Even more, her signature move, the “Leiomy Lolly,” was adopted by some of music’s biggest names, including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears.
The choreographer has taught her style of vogue, a dance evolving out of New York's queer Black and Latinx underground ballroom scene in the 1980s, all over the world, from Italy and France to Jamaica and the Czech Republic.
And when Maldonado is not moving audiences through her vitalizing spins, she’s helping women push forward at the Dominican Women’s Development Center, where she works as a community health worker. Through the nonprofit, she works with survivors of domestic violence, helping them find housing, obtain health insurance, receive HIV/AIDS testing and work through trauma with yoga and dance.
Here’s why Maldonado is with-a-doubt an Inspiring Latina:
You started voguing back in 2002, when you were 15 years old. What captivated you about this dance?
It was the energy. When you see the people, you can tell they’re dancing from the heart, and that spoke to me. It became the way I can let out frustration, through that style of art.
For you, though, vogue and New York’s underground ballroom scene, which is largely made up of LGBTQ Blacks and Latinxs, was more than dance; it was also a community, a “safety within the scene.” What was finding that space, that family, like for you as a teenager?
For me, it was important. Although my immediate family was supportive and there for me, I don’t think they understood me. Really, I didn’t quite understand myself and what I was going through. Being a part of the LGBTQ ballroom scene, it helped me realize there was a world of acceptance, that I didn’t have to be afraid of being myself, living my truth. It showed me possibility, hope, a safe haven where you can be whatever you want to be and not deal with what you might deal with in larger society.
(Photo Credit: Derrick Lejermon)
In 2009, you appeared on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, becoming the first-ever trans woman on that show and one of the earliest, mainstream representations of trans women of color. What’s going through your head?
First, I was actually shocked that we made it on TV. Secondly, I personally wanted to get on TV and show where voguing came from. I didn’t care about being famous; I wanted to show the world, this is where it came from and this is what it looks like properly. But while shooting and being on TV, I learned so much about myself and about dancing outside of the underground, which was important for me. Through that, I discovered a different passion. When I learned to vogue, my passion was just to dance, to imitate what I saw. But being on the show made me realize that I can use my talent to change people’s perceptions, to touch hearts and connect with people through talent.
I love that. Today, you are a widely recognized choreographer, teaching vogue all over the world and working with celebs like FKA Twigs and Icona Pop. Your signature hair flip, "The Leiomy Lolly," was even adopted by huge stars like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. What’s that like for you?
I can tell you that maybe five or six years ago, I thought it was amazing. I was so excited about it, that people were seeing and using what I started and created. However, as the years went by, I realized I was cheated. Although many knew where the moves came from, the people who were doing it weren’t giving me credit. It wasn’t even that I wanted them to cut me a check; I just wanted credit. I still feel honored. I mean, who wouldn’t? Something that I created on my own has become world-known. But, after that, I’m more determined to work harder for people to see me and see what I can bring to the world as a dancer. So many dancers in the world and styles are mimicked and stolen. I just want to be able to stamp it, so that people know and respect it.
That’s real. What’s a personal challenge or hardship that you faced and overcame in dancing?
I think it was earning a specific respect. I believe when you are an underground dancer, especially voguing, people don’t take you too seriously. Today, the style is being taken more seriously. It’s a part of dance culture. But years ago it was just seen as an LGBTQ thing. I feel like I kind of helped change that. The style that I brought to voguing is what helped me; it's how I got the name "Wonder Woman of Vogue." I was such a daredevil on the floor. Before me, it was more about pictures and sensual poses. But I see it more 3D. I let it out. Whatever my body wants to do to the music, it will do it – with no restrictions. I think that attracted people. I’m a strong women, a woman who happens to be of color and trans, and I can move my body without an issue. My confidence carries through, and people appreciate people who are talented and who are confident in their talent.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of what you do?
Traveling the world and connecting to so many people around the world through voguing. I would have never thought that I would be traveling the world and that different countries would be picking up ballroom culture, but they are and they have balls and all. For me, meeting people and hearing their stories of survival, things they have gone through in life, and learning that just by watching a video of mine helped them feel like they can keep going is so special. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve encountered through my career.
Is there a moment that sticks out to you as a favorite?
Yes, it was when I got to meet with the Smiths (Will and Jada). Meeting them, the embrace and love they showed me, told me I can be someone, that I’m worthy of love as an artist. After America’s Best Dance Crew, I was kind of down by the way I was portrayed on TV. In the beginning, I didn’t care about my career. But, afterwards, I had a passion for it, and I thought the show’s portrayal of me would ruin any chance of pursuing that new passion. Being in Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” video showed me I had another chance, and the Smiths were just so genuinely loving and caring. It was beautiful.
You're Puerto Rican. What do you think your Latina identity brings to your work, from your hustle to your dance moves?
I believe it’s just the fire I carry around in everything I do. It stands out.
Any words of encouragement for Latinas hoping to make their dance dreams into a career as you have?
Start by believing in yourself. We waste enegey in waiting for others to see our greatness and talent. That starts with ourselves. From there, you can build your world.