The Growth (And New Contexts) Of LGBTQ Ball Culture
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)
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 2019 NPR]