The Ballroom scene (or ball scene) refers to LGBTQ competitions called balls, which have various categories of gender identity, fashion, and dance. The Ball community generates its own festive culture with its own rules, dances, musical preferences, DJs, and iconic figures.
People in the Ballroom community form houses that function as families in which the children (house members) are prepared to walk the runway, which is the performance of gender, status, and style in an open area or long raised platform before a panel of judges.
History of Ballroom
The Ball scene comes from a performance tradition going back to the early 1900s. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Harlem drag balls were spectacular, large-scale competitive events in which men, often men of color, presented themselves dressed in extravagant women’s clothing. In addition, cross-dressing men and women danced and socialized before onlookers, including high-society Straight people. Drag balls were held in major cities in the Eastern United States, but the most famous were in New York.
Although drag balls were shut down by the authorities in the mid-1930s, Gay dance parties and cross-dressing continued in smaller venues, and drag performances and competitions persisted. By the 1970s, early Ballroom competitions frequented by African American and Latino Gay men and transwomen were staged in New York Gay clubs and rented halls. As it increased in popularity, the Ballroom scene spread to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, attracting competitors and spectators of many races and sexualities. The AIDS crisis devastated the scene. Many of the original competitors and founders from the 1970s and 1980s died from AIDS-related illnesses. But Ball competitions regained their vigor in the 1990s.
The Ballroom scene in the twenty-first century presents myriad possibilities for identity performance of masculinity, femininity, combinations of the two, and the absence of both. Outside of New York, thriving Ball scenes can be found in cities such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Houses such as Ultra-Omni, Infiniti, Versace, Moschino, Cavalli, Ninja, and many others arose, and their children travel around the country to walk the runway in fundraising events to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and help those who are HIV positive.
Houses, the pillars of Ballroom folklife, are made up of groups of Gay, Trans, Lesbian, and Straight people who form families under the mentorship of a house mother or house father. Begun in the 1960s, houses were often named after fashion designers: the House of Chanel, the House of Manolo Blahnik, the House of St. Laurent. Some founders who played central roles in the Ball scene named their houses after their own stage names: the House of Ninja (Willi Ninja), The House of Xtravaganza (Angie Xtravaganza), the House of Corey (Dorian Corey), and the House of Labeija (Crystal Labeija).
[All photos from DNAinfo were taken at the House of Latex Ball sponsored by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City.]
Membership in a house may be earned by the number of competitions an individual has won, or by the degree to which a performer fits in with the rest of the family. Once they are made part of a house, the children show their affiliation by taking on the last name of their house’s leader and performing under their house name, carrying with them the support and prestige of their house. Well-known house mothers and fathers such as Avis Pendavis, Pepper Labeija, and Kevin Omni carry legendary status within Ballroom folklife.
Two major terms in Ballroom competition are runway and vogue. Runway refers to the competitors’ walk in various categories of gender performance, assessed by a panel of judges. The runway is the prime spot for the performance of realness, the convincing projection of a particular identity category. Voguing, a dance style constructed from sharp and angular posing of the legs and arms, plays off of model poses in Vogue magazine and the fashion industry.
Ball folk speech also includes such terms as fierce (awesome), shade (judgment or insult, as in “That girl is throwing you some shade”) and reading (finding a flaw in one’s opponent). Competitors aim to bring it (alternatives: serve it or sell it) to judges and audience — to present with style. Activities that take place on the runway include peeling (gracefully taking off layers of clothing to reveal a final outfit), punishing (being extremely successful in a performance), being chopped (eliminated by the judges), or conversely, 10’s across the board (the highest approval from the judges) if the performer is snatched (good), severe (fierce), and makes the audience gag (react with enthusiastic approval).
Each contestant walks seeking 10’s across the board from the judges in order to move on, but in case of a tie with a competitor from another house, contestants must go through a battle. Terms for status in Ballroom folk speech include legendary, a title bestowed on those who have won numerous trophies and who have long histories in the Ballroom scene. Even greater than legends are icons. An icon is one who has made history within the Ballroom, for example the late Willi Ninja, who revolutionized voguing by incorporating a series of difficult movements, including his trademark arm contortionist movements around his head and behind his back.
The use of vulgar folkspeech as complimentary is a mark of Ballroom discourse. If a contestant of any gender is walking successfully, members of the audience may yell out, “Sell it, bitch!” in encouragement. Cunty has also been a complimentary word, implying the person so named is sharp and assertive.
Balls originally had only basic runway events, where participants competed for prizes based on the authenticity of their performances of various forms of masculinity and femininity. First called by the generic names presentation and then performance, voguing introduced a high degree of physicality and skill to the competition. Voguers would perform stylized movements of the arms and legs in imitation of poses displayed in high-fashion magazines, and these movements were woven together with break-dancing and African American dance elements to create a new dance form.
Old style vogue gradually gave way to a post-1990 new way characterized by even greater physical flexibility, contortionist movements of the limbs called clicking, and a heavy draw on hip-hop music and dance. Two additional styles are vogue femme, which relies on exaggerated femininity, and dramatics, which makes use of acrobatics and stunts.
Ballroom folkways have intersected with the Circuit (weekend-long dance festivals for Gay men and their allies). Performance artistry and voguing from the Ballroom scene made their way into Circuit parties during the late 1990s, with Ball-influenced performance artists such as Kitty Meow, Power Infiniti, Flava, Kevin Aviance, and Alan T bringing fierceness (intense confidence and style) to the stage as part of an evening’s entertainment. One performance innovation incorporated from the Circuit community to the Ball scene has been the use of flagging (artfully waving weighted squares of cloth as a dance form) on the runway, generating a new Ball genre called floguing.
At each ball, competitors walk the runway in various categories including such things as Butch Queen Realness, Femme Queen Face, Bizarre, Runway/Models’ Effect, Sex Siren, Butch Queen Executive (men’s business attire), and Vogue. In the Butch Queen Realness category, a competitor will perform masculinity which as much detail as possible, avoiding all feminine signifiers, and, in effect, attempting to appear as a Straight man. On the other hand, the category of Femme Queen Face judges a competitor on the their appearance as a woman. This category is further broken down into painted (with makeup) and unpainted (without makeup).
From 1977 to 1980, categories were predominately traditional drag queen-based. There was only one male category: Butch Mod Face for well dressed, masculine men with attractive facial features. Later, that category was broken into three categories: Face, Best Dressed, and Runway Models Effect. Until the 1980s, it was not unusual to have two categories set aside for Straight competitors: Best dressed Women and Best Dressed Men.
Since then, many other categories were invented, such as Hi Fashion Evening Wear, Hi Fashion Executive, Leather vs. Suede, Town & Country, Punk Rock vs. New Wave, Futuristic Bizarre, Space Age Illusion, Precision Hair Cut, Shopping Down 5th Avenue Realness, and Ethnic Effect Coming From a Foreign Country. In addition, there are Body & Sex Siren categories for all genders.
The Ballroom community’s inclusive nature has allowed for a range of competitors across ethnic, gender, and orientation spectrums. Haitian American drag performer MilDred Gerestant is renowned for serving both Butch and Femme categories. Jaimee Balenciaga, Mother of the House of Balenciaga, is a Lesbian who has competed successfully in Women’s Face competitions (a category that typically goes to transwomen). She has worked with women and transmasculine Ball houses (with members who situate themselves within a spectrum of Lesbian identities) and competitions. Gender need not be an issue at all in the category called Bizarre, which has its own legend, Ross Infiniti.
Realness in Ballroom categories is not equated simply with illusion, even if an artist identifies as an illusionist. It is rather the artist’s ability to produce a range of visual cues reflecting embodied, kinesthetically convincing, and certifiable credentials (for instance, a genuine Gucci bag) so that, if encountered in actual social situations in the outside world, that artist would pass (be accepted as genuine).
DJs and Music
Ballroom has its own musical preferences in music taken from club culture. Some popular Ball songs are “Love Is the Message” by MFSB (1974, a classic dance song popular in the early Gay male club scene), “The Witch Doktor” by Armand Van Helden (1994), “Cunty” (1996) and “Din Din Da” (1997, both by Kevin Aviance, a performer in Ball and Circuit communities), “Vogue” by Madonna (1990), and “Work This Pussy” by Sweet Pussy Pauline (1987). Ball DJs include Angel X (Atlanta), Vjuan Allure (New York City), Mike Q (New York City), and Frankie Paradise (New York City).
Voguing, and Ballroom folklife along with it, did not gain mainstream attention until the 1990s, a result of the double phenomena of pop singer Madonna’s 1990 song “Vogue” and Jennie Livingstone’s documentary Paris is Burning (1990). Madonna was introduced to voguing by her backup dancers, and she loved the dance form so much that she penned the hit song and incorporated the dance into her “Blonde Ambition” tour. Livingstone’s documentary provided footage of the balls, detailed descriptions of voguing and runway categories, and interviews with some of the house mothers and legends of the community. However, both Madonna and Livingstone have been criticized for appropriating the styles and practices of a marginalized community. Livingstone in particular has been criticized for representing the community as uncritically desirous of image representing heterosexuality and Whiteness.
As an alternative to Paris is Burning, a second documentary, How Do I Look (2006), provides a different perspective of the Ball scene. A decade-long community project headed by filmmaker Wolfgang Busch, How Do I Look includes some of the original Paris is Burning interviewees as well as many new faces. It showcases community members who opened the doors for future generations, and documents the extent to which HIV/AIDS affected Ballroom from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.
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Freeman, Santiago. “Strike a Pose 2.0.” Dance Spirit 12.6, 2008, pp. 112-115.
hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End, 1992.
Shepherd, Julianne Escobedo. “Face Time.” Fader 56 (2008). 122-131.
Busch, Wolfgang. How Do I Look. Art From The Heart, 2006.
Livingston, Jenny. Paris Is Burning. Miramax, 1991.