Photo: BIRK ALISCH
With marginalization, exploitation and endangerment not only because of your ethnicity, but also your gender identity and sexual orientation comes an incomparably strong need to create a safe space to shine and be your true self. And this is what the black and latinx trans and gay community did in Harlem, New York, in the sixties. It’s called Ballroom Culture.
Harlem plays a distinct role for the establishment of black LGBTQ culture. During the Harlem Renaissance movement (1920-1935) black-centered literature, art and music were thriving with many of its leaders being openly queer. They challenged social, sexual and gender constructs and made the neighbourhood the home of black LGBTQ activism and culture.
It also is the birthplace of Voguing, a dance created in the 70s whose main inspiration are the poses of models in Fashion Magazines like “Vogue” and that – over the decades – evoluted into different style of Vogue Performance, named Old Way, New Way and Vogue Fem. After facing decades of exclusion from or discrimination in white queer spaces, black queers created their own drag competitions known as “Balls” which transformed from elaborate pageantry into Vogue Battles between the 1960’s and 80’s.
Back then racial tensions were at yet another peak not just in the USA as a whole, but also at the drag pageants. Fed up with it one competitor, Crystal LaBeija, accused the organisers at one of the events of racism and manipulating the vote, so she as a black queen can’t win the first prize in the All-American Camp Beauty Contest. She then created her own black ballroom events, making her one of the pioneers of the ballroom scene that we know today.
Link to that Crystal moment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnsvgdGU12E
Figures like her – Drag Queens and Transwomen – welcomed the participants of the balls into houses that were a lot more than a collective of ballroom walkers. They took over the role of a mother. Young black and latinx queer kids struggle with a lot of extreme problems: Racism, homo- and transphobia, being neglected by their biological parents for their sexuality and especially in the 1980s and 90s the Aids crisis that hit the gay community the hardest. Gay and trans mothers helped their family members to navigate through queer life and saved many of them from homelessness, murder, prostitution or drug addiction. Some Mothers even shared their apartments with their kids to take care of them. Offering a home to those that don’t have one.
Today the concept of Houses still exists and has spread worldwide. Doing so a lot of white queers and hetero-cis-women entered the scene, since it creates a great safe space for them as well. Also in Germany Ballroom is a flourishing culture that gains more and more popularity and importance in the queer community. Of course the German white mainstream society also reflects in the demographics of the ballroom scene here. So it’s important for non-black members of the scene to always remember and respect who the creators of this space are and give most room to black queer bodies.
The names of these Houses are often inspired by big fashion houses and names of designers (House of Miyake-Mugler, House of Gorgeous Gucci, House of Balmain) or Fashion epicenters (House of Milan) as LGBTI-Queers of color rarely had access to the high fashion world dominated by privileged white folks. Instead they imitated and twisted the white heteronormative norm and aesthetic their way – and in various different categories at a vogue ball.
The categories are distinguished in Pageant, Fashion, Performance, Realness and Sex and Body among others. For “Runway” the judges are looking for a fierce walk that can compete with every Super Model. One can present their perfectly groomed, flawless Face in the same-named category. “Best Dressed” is asking one to flaunt a head-to-toe red carpet look. For Performance categories like Vogue Fem the competitors showcase their Voguing elements and creativity. Other categories can be about your Designer-Sneakers, your Sexiness or you telling a story with your hands only. Voguer or not, everybody could find their place, their recognition, their healing, their family and their challenge in Ballroom.
Realness is a special category as it asks the contestants to perform actually toxic heteronormativity. Who looks the most heterosexual or what Transperson really comes off like a cis-person? Many of the gay and trans protagonists have to pretend to “be real” in order to not get called names, harassed, attacked or even murdered. And no, – trigger warning – this is not a problem of past times. Alone in this 23 killings of Black Trans Woman were reported (dark figure unknown) in the US until writing this article – nearly matching 2019's total of 27. A black trans woman is in (life) danger of facing racism, misogyny, transphobia and or homophobia only by stepping one foot outside her door. In 2020. In Ballroom at least trans women are the queens of the community and get the praise they deserve. Black Trans Lives matter and need to be protected.
But who gets to win one of the categories? Vogue Balls are complex, often plenty of hours long competitions with a long list of rules and traditions. On a long runway the competitors showcase their talent, skills and beauty. At the head of the runway, you find a judge panel consisting of members of the scene mostly in leader positions or renowned for a long time. These judges choose a winner for each category. A host and a commentator lead through the night and give the participants energy by hyping them with rap-like chants and directions during the competition.
Photo: Tonya Matyu
In a preselection, called “tens” (ten points as with beauty pageants), the participants prove they understood and perform their respected category well. If one or more judges don’t approve, the competitor is out of the competition, This is blatantly called a “chop”. But if they do give their ten points, the participants get to battle, competing against each other simultaneously in their category. “1001, 1002, 1003, and hold that pose for me”, the commentator counts down the end of each battle. The judges decide who made it to the next round until there is one winner left. Participants of the same house won’t battle. They are family and could bring the Grand Prize home together for the whole House.
Every Vogue Ball has its own theme, allowing the community to escape into a more colorful, glamorous and fun world than the one outside of Ballroom. The host of the ball is free to choose: From Circus to Fashion Trends to Beach vibes to Royalty to Fairy Tales to Black Panthers everything is possible. Also mostly every category is asking for different outfits within that overall theme. Let’s say for the Fairy Tale Ball you have to embody Cinderella in her ball gown for “Face” and perform as Robin Hood for “Old Way”.
Photo: Tonya Matyu
As if the culture isn’t complex enough yet, there are two different communities within the ballroom community. In the early 2000s the so-called Kiki Scene popped up, founded by younger ballroom kids who practiced voguing and other categories in LGBTQ youth centers in the black neighbourhoods of NYC after closing hours. They made up their own house names for fun during the practices which then turned into Kiki Houses. On one hand Kiki Balls were more approachable and affordable for the participants as the outfits don’t have to be as elaborate and they were held in community centers during the day a lot, on the other hand, supported by these youth organizations, Kiki Balls are a lot more educational. At the Kiki Balls the Kids get informed and kept away from Aids, Alcohol, drugs and exploitation, which were and are more predominant in the older Major Scene. The Major Scene is fiercer. The looks and performances are expected to be a lot more flawless. Not everybody is ready for this, but it can be a great challenge for you to grow. Now you pick your scene.
The popularity of Ballroom and Voguing in the mainstream came and went, but the community itself always kept it alive and thriving. This way they turned Ballroom into a culture comparable to Hip Hop (which is younger than Ballroom by the way). It’s a whole lifestyle. Vogue Performance, which was danced on House Music, reached a more and more distinct flow and sequence of movements. It’s climax move being the Dip – the falling to the ground in a dramatic or soft way. In the nineties the song „The Ha Dance“ by Masters at Work got the voguers hyped. The ‘Ha crash’ in the song hits on the four-beat, which turned out to be the perfect counting for the ‘dip’. In 1999 Ballroom DJ Vjuan Allure sampled this “Ha” to produce new beats and by that created a whole new music genre: Ballroom music. Nearly every vogue fem beat contains this crash-sound now. The beat will ultimately come to life when the commentator of the ball chants over it to hype up the competing voguers.
A culture also comes with a distinct language. Ever said “yaas”, “fierce” or “slay” before? Then you used Ballroom-lingo. Maybe you know these as well: “To shade someone” is an act of belittling your opponent without having to say anything. It can be a cold look or a scarf that covers the other person’s face, so you are in the spotlight. Shade is supposed to stay on the runway. And it does – most times. “To gag” is inspired by the actual meaning. Ever seen something so good or shocking or beautiful, that you had to rip your eyes wide open and actually gag? This is the feeling. One might not actually do the throat movement, but when you are hyped about a performance or an outfit, then you are “gagging”. This little tour through the Ballroom dictionary is not a free pass to use these terms for everybody. Respect over appropriation!
The protagonists of the ballroom scene are also categorized according to their gender identity. The term “Drags” should be well known. It labels a cis-man or cis-woman that performs the opposite sex. A “Butch Queen” is a gay cis man, that is allowed to play with his feminine side by wearing heels for example, but could also decide to act very hetero (Remember Realness?). “Fem Queen” is the Ballroom term for a Transwoman. Other terms revolve around the status of a ballroom persona. If someone wins a category over and over again, does a lot of good work for the community or is part of Ballroom for decades and slays, they can be deemed by the elders as Star, Statement, Legend and Icon.
With the growing amount of people defining as gender-non-conformative or non-binary entering this culture, Ballroom – which is strongly based on the confining heteronormative binary – faces new challenges and it will be interesting to see it evolve.
Despite its challenges, Ballroom creates bonds as strong as barely seen in any other community. We speak the same language, we know the rules, we are family, we can experiment with fashion, gender, performance and sexuality and we are beautiful and worthy of everything no matter our body. My appreciation goes beyond. I love you.
- Yours, Mother Zueira Gorgeous Gucci Angels
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