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The Growth (And New Contexts) Of LGBTQ Ball Culture

Performers compete during the "Battle of the Legends" vogueing competition outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 11, 2019 in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Performers compete during the "Battle of the Legends" vogueing competition outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 11, 2019 in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

Underground LGBTQ ballroom competitions started in the 1970s as a safe haven for black and brown young people. We look at how the culture has grown.


Marlon Bailey, professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University School of Social Transformation. Author of “ Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit.”

Rashaad Newsome, multidisciplinary artist. His work explores black and queer culture. Since 2013, he has staged a dance and performance competition called the “ King of Arms Art Ball.” ( @RashaadNewsome)

Sydney Baloue, writer and ballroom performer. He is working on a book chronicling the history and evolution of New York City’s ballroom scene. ( @SydneyBaloue)

Interview Highlights

On the significance of houses in ballroom culture

Marlon Bailey: “Houses are the central kinship structure in the community. And houses function as families. Most of the time they’re social configurations, meaning it’s called a house, but it’s not necessarily a brick-and-mortar place. But, sometimes it is. The kinship system is the unit of safety, of affirmation, of nurturing. You have house parents who, regardless of age — in ballroom, chronological age is really not the main focus of status. It is how long you’ve been in the scene; how prominent you are in the scene. And if you’re a house mother or father, you are often elected or appointed by, sort of, a national house, or father, or mother. And you nurture your children — or what we call the kids in the house —  where, basically, they’re the members. And there’s a real sophisticated kinship system that is not just about mothers and fathers, but it’s also about aunts and uncles, and siblings have certain kinds of relationships. And houses also are the entities that put on the balls. In my book I say there are no balls without houses, and there are no houses without balls.”

Marlon Bailey: “Often for many members of the ballroom community, their house is the only family they know and have that is inclusive, that affirms them. That supports them. That also educates them about HIV, and other STDs and STIs. And it is also one of the only means to which they can learn about themselves, and develop as full-blown human beings. Because often — not all the time, but often, and too often, I should say — the families and communities of origin either are unwilling, or unable to be that support system, and that nurturing and affirmative space — and safe space — for members of the community. The members — particularly LGBTQ people of color — suffer from homelessness, from socioeconomic deprivation, a whole range of issues that the house actually helps to mitigate some of those issues.”

On what it means to be visible

Rashaad Newsome: “I think what I’m interested in, how, you know, people are going to think critically about the visibility of the game in ballroom. And how they’re going to use their voice in these kind of corporate spaces that they start to occupy, to kind of effect change for themselves and the community. I just feel like too often people get that visibility, and they get in these spaces, and they’re quiet. And I think there is so much in ballroom that needs to be dealt with. There’s this whole idea … about ballroom kind of being this utopian space, safe space for black queers. And in some ways it is. But in a lot of ways, it’s not. So much of us in those spaces are coming from violence, and diminishment and abandonment.

“And I just think the notion that we’re going to go over here and create this space and those things are going to be non-existent are not real. I think we have to kind of deal with that. And a lot of the ways that I see folk dealing with that is rooted in the culture of domination, which teaches us that we need things to have power, rather than thinking about power from within. And in an equitable society, you know, black folk, particularly black queer folk, are not given the same opportunities to get quote-unquote ‘things.’ And so when your value is hinged on, you know, that kind of idea, then you can be stuck in a paradigm that you can’t really break free from. And so a lot of the work I’m trying to do is kind of try to get people … to decolonize and thinking about, you know, the power within.”

Caller Highlights

On the experience of watching a ball live

Caller Vanessa, from Richmond, Virginia: “This is a weird analogy, but it’s kind of like hockey. You don’t really get hockey until you go and watch hockey live. And it’s the same thing with a ball. You don’t really get a ball — RuPaul does a fabulous job of it by showing the different aspects of the culture. But I really honestly believe that until you’ve experienced it — until you’re there, until you feel it to your core; you hear the music, you see the performances. It’s something that cannot — it comes close. It does. It cannot be expressed unless you actually witness it. The energy in the room is, in my opinion, everything about a ball. Because you feel it when somebody does something fabulous, and outlandish and beautiful — everybody responds to it. And it vibrates through your bones. So they come close, in a sense, to bring it to mainstream. But the reality is, is everyone should go out more and see a ball live.”

On the importance of understanding the history of ballroom culture

Caller Cleis, from Baltimore, Maryland: “I am actually the blood cousin of Pepper LaBeija, who I knew as Willie Jackson. And I have a special insight on the origination and continuation of this wonderful culture that very specific black and brown individuals created. And I am so happy that Billy Porter and wonderful members of the community like Jamal Milan have gained opportunities and television programs like ‘Pose.’ But I’m also very disappointed, and I have enormous reservations about the decentering of black and brown origination and continuation in these mainstream displays of the culture.

“I’m also disappointed in the lack of actual factual, concrete information gathered from the originators, both first generation that came to the community, and changed it from the previous ball culture in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Around 1973, the first de facto LaBeija ball. And then that’s the ball that Crystal and Lottie and Pepper and Marcel LaBeija all created. And from that point till now, that’s the first generation. The second generations’ moving forward. Although a lot of the actual facts have been invisible lies. And because so many of the originators and members of my blood family, and of my chosen family, have died of AIDS or violence, those facts have been lost to history. And the keepers of them are not heard from.”

From The Reading List

The Philadelphia Inquirer: “ Legendary: 30 Years of Philly Ballroom” — “Meechie Lanvin does not simply walk on stage. When he’s preparing to hit the ballroom runway, wrapped in a midnight-black fox fur over a custom suit, his motivations run deeper than fashion, his ambitions aim higher than winning over judges.

“‘When I walk balls, I walk for three people: me, my house, my city,’ Meechie says.

“So, on that night in Charlotte, N.C., he waited to go last after 14 men strolled out in fine furs, leather gloves, designer shades, even jeweled masks. Each had sauntered out individually, but Meechie had other plans.

“Hundreds stood on the floor to view the action. Scores more watched from the balcony. The beat from Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ beeped through the venue like a ringtone. The best-dressed category called for competitors to bring it as if it were only 13 degrees outside instead of a typical North Carolina summer night.

“The chants for his house went up. The lights in the club shined down. Under the ballroom glow, Meechie knows, he can be somebody different. And that night, he was looking like a goth underlord who had dressed for every funeral but his own.

“Meechie pulled up with a four-man fashion squad, all wearing black from head to toe. They escorted him out as he swayed toward the judges so they could have a look at the triple-ring choker around his neck and his lightning-bolt-shape eyewear. Members of his entourage unlatched his Gucci belt and peeled off his fur. They revealed the jet-black metallic crocodile brocade of his suit. He’d designed that himself. He turned to face the judges. Tens across the board.

“Meechie would go on to survive every battle of best dressed and win the category. The $1,313 grand prize was his – and Philadelphia’s.”

The New York Times: “ Opinion: Has the Ballroom Scene Outgrown ‘Realness’?” — “‘The category is love!’ Billy Porter shouted from the podium last month after accepting an Emmy for his role on ‘Pose,’ the FX show about New York City’s ballroom scene during the 1980s and ’90s. His words expressed the positivity around L.G.B.T.Q. acceptance, echoing ‘Love Is the Message,’ the title of a classic ballroom track from the Philadelphia-based soul band MFSB that was featured prominently in a Season 1 episode.

“Mr. Porter’s win is part of a string of recent events that have accelerated L.G.B.T.Q. visibility in new ways: a passionate speech about trans rights at a Human Rights Campaign event given by his ‘Pose’ co-star Dominique Jackson; the town hall presidential debates that have put L.G.B.T.Q. issues front and center; and the news that the singer Sam Smith now identifies as nonbinary.

“As society has become more inclusive, those of us within the ballroom scene — a community of predominantly black and Latino L.G.B.T.Q. people who compete in fashion and performance categories like ‘Voguing’ at events called ‘balls’ — are debating the ways in which the changing cultural landscape affects how we view ourselves and approach our art. This is especially true when it comes to the ball’s ‘Realness’ category.

“‘Realness’ is about portraying archetypes usually associated with straight culture through dress and dance; to be considered ‘real’ at a ball, a performer must ‘pass’ as straight if they are gay or as cisgender if they are transgender. In ‘Paris is Burning,’ the 1990 documentary about ball culture, categories included ‘Schoolboy Realness’ and ‘Banjee Girl Realness.’ ”

The New York Times: “ Two Vogue Shows Strike Art-World Poses” — “If vogueing is taken out of its original context, what is the cost?

“That’s the concern that has been raised whenever vogueing, which developed decades ago as a competition form in underground balls, mainly for black and Latino gay men, gets some mainstream attention — as it has again recently, with the success of ‘Pose’ on FX.

“Usually, the discussion is about appropriation and misrepresentation. But those weren’t the issues raised by two performances in New York this weekend — Rashaad Newsome’s ‘Five’ and Kia LaBeija’s ‘Untitled: The Black Act.’ The vogue-ballroom credentials of both productions were strong, which left the seemingly less fraught question: If you take vogue dancers out of the ballroom and put them in a theater, what does the new context demand?

“In the case of ‘Five,’ at New York Live Arts, the context was actually at a double remove, since the work has previously been presented mainly in art galleries and museums. What might serve, in those settings, as a challenge to definitions of drawing and sculpture, seemed in the theater like something less than a substantial dance show.”

Washington Post: “ On ‘Pose,’ dancing isn’t just about self-expression. It’s a survival skill for trans women.” — “On a recent afternoon, a few floors above the ballroom set where the FX series ‘Pose’ is filming, a rehearsal studio pounds with the 1990 dance-club hit ‘Strike It Up.’ Leiomy Maldonado, a ballroom icon known as the Wonder Woman of Vogue, is trying to get her dancers to feel the beat with their hips.

“‘Pump, pump, girl,’ Maldonado commands one young woman in blue stiletto booties and a sheer top dripping in fringe. ‘You’re doing it without even caring!’

“Snapping her haunches side to side and crisscrossing her thighs with every step, Maldonado demonstrates a full-out, queen-of-the-catwalk strut, Naomi Campbell style. She drops her voice and purrs, with a note of reverence: ‘You on the runway, dahling.’

“Perfecting the moves and the sassitude is crucial in this show. ‘Pose,’ which begins its second season June 11, is part family drama, part musical extravaganza, as you’d expect from creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, of ‘Glee’ and ‘American Horror Story.’ (Writer Steven Canals joins them as a co-creator.) Premiering during Pride Month, as it did last year, the series centers on the trans women and gay men of color in New York’s underground ballroom culture.”

INTO: “ The Colonization of Ballroom Culture” — “I remember going on Twitter one day looking for the perfect ‘vogue’ gif to pair up with a tweet. I was shocked and appalled by the first clips coming up being those of various white people. There was Madonna, Channing Tatum, and the little white boy, Brendan Jordan, who kinda vogued on that infamous news clip, followed with tons of press and appearances that surely led to somefinancial gain.

“Madonna did not invent vogueing. Madonna is not the founder of ballroom culture.

“Madonna, like most other culture vultures, used a community for their style, dance, and passion until it she couldn’t and placed it back on the shelf, leaving the members of that community and their oppression behind her as she moved on to her next big hit.

“Many people’s first reference to the word ‘vogue’ and dance style known as voguing comes from her 1990 number 1 hit, ‘Vogue.’ Stiff arms, and striking poses, adorned with queer people dancing around her as ornaments has been ingrained into the lexicon of music history as a revolutionary moment in pop culture. But the actual culture from which this creativity and greatness was being stripped continues to suppressed and marginalized. Those in the voguing community Madonna borrowed from don’t get to take off their Blackness and queerness and move on to the next thing.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.