The foundation of a house is usually made of concrete (for versatility) and a wooden framework. The foundation of this house is the history of Ballroom. In to the restrictive framework of gender-based and racial oppression, poured the versatility of Black queer people, pooling in the spaces where white folk weren’t looking. In the “cracks” in society, a new kind of groundwork was laid; the kind that endures, the kind that saves lives. So adaptable & sturdy that the stiff beams of oppression could be removed and the house could stand on its own.
The history of Ballroom cannot be surmised in a written format by the likes of us, flatly narrated by people who weren’t there at the time. Like any history it is a collection of human stories and experiences and there are holes in each retelling. However, the story is valuable because it is an entry point into understanding the resonance and relevance of Ballroom for all of us today. You have to understand your past to know yourself, and we feel that it’s important for our community to have this context. The foundations of every new house depend on the passing down of this history. This knowledge is a gift for within this story are embedded nuggets of information and ancestral dreaming that an help us find and choose our own liberated pathways...
Perhaps it is best to start with a place?
New York City.
The birthplace of much African-American culture, and home to many Black creative visionaries.
During the Jim Crow era (1877- 1960s) -that is post-civil war America, right after owning people as property had been abolished- racist segregation laws were being enforced in the Southern States. Over time these racist laws and poor socio-economic conditions gave rise to what’s now known as The Great Migration (spanning from 1916 to 1970); a mass movement of 6 million Black Americans from the oppressive South to the “Free North”, & particularly to Northern urban centres such as New York. People moved in search of better work opportunities, and ultimately more freedom. Until 1910, Harlem was predominantly an upper middle class white neighbourhood. The impact of the Great Migration meant that by 1925 it had become a Black mecca of
sorts. For a lot of people (with the caveat that heteronormative-patriarchal-capitalist-racism was still operating as a hugely limiting factor), this was the first time they got to self- determine who they wanted to be and what kind of work they wanted to do.
Of course Black creativity had always existed and been important but this was really the first time Black artists got to stake their claim on modernity. The resulting surge of Black creativity was dubbed The Harlem Renaissance - a rebirth of African American music, art, dance, literature and politics in 1920’s & 30’s Harlem. This movement also had a lot of Black queer artists at its core. It is part of a history of Black queer cultural expression being cultivated and shared. Most of the queer expression during Harlem Renaissance was cloaked and underground at the time, but it was definitely there! These artists are part of the same legacy that later gave birth to Ballroom;
Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee
Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Angela Weld Grimke, Alice Dunbar- Nelson, Alain Locke.
We cannot possibly mention all the amazing work that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, but Fire!! “A quarterly devoted to younger Negro artists” was a publication that really encapsulated the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, initiated by some of the leading Black literary minds of that era.
To read FIRE!! In full, click here:
There was also coterie of queer divas that emerged onto the music scene at that time; Bessie Smith, Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker. Ma Rainey’s song “Prove It On Me” is often singled out as a song from that era that expresses her queer sexuality containing the lyric; “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, Must’ve been women cuz I don’t like no men.”
Here is a 1932 map of Harlem’s gay nightclubs:
Here is a Spotify playlist we made in honour of our Harlem Renaissance aunties/baddies:
Drag culture in Harlem didn’t start during the Harlem Renaissance, there have actually been Saloons, Cabarets, Speakeasies, Rent parties and Drag Balls happening in Harlem since the 1800’s. In 1865 slavery was abolished, and no less than 4 years later in 1869 Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge -founded by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (a Black fraternal organisation)- held their first drag ball called the ‘Masquerade & Civic Ball’ or ‘Hamilton Lodge Ball’. This ball, held annually, is the seed of what later grew into the Ballroom Scene or House Ball.
By the time the 1920’s & the conditions that sparked the Harlem Renaissance came around, word and popularity had spread within gay community and the number and proportion of Hamilton Lodge Balls or “faggots Balls” was growing steadily. This upswing in LGBT culture in the 1920’s and 30’s is sometimes referred to as “The Pansy Craze”.
Many of the Harlem Renaissance artists and “bohemians” mentioned above would have frequented these balls. In 1926 there were reported to have been 800 attendees at the Hamilton Lodge Ball, but the balls steadily grew in popularity so that by 1937 there was recorded to have been 8,000 guests who attended. There was much more overt drag queen presence at the 1920’s balls and as their popularity grew, so did their public visibility. However, although more people were being drawn by the spectacle and splendour, not all visibility is a good thing and as they garnered more attention the public criticism and disapproval also grew; it wasn’t widely socially acceptable to be gay in 1920’s/30’s America. Over those years of exponential growth a moral reform organisation called The Committee Fourteen released an excessive 130 reports decrying the immorality & “male perversion” they claim to have witnessed. As we know 1920’s America was also prohibition era & they really loved banning things and ruining a good party. The balls started getting raided by the police, so whilst in the 1940’s & 50’s the Hamilton balls were still being staged, they were forced to be much smaller affairs, much more underground.
“To one of the largest gatherings that has ever graced this hall [Rockland Palace], came the all-conquering Hamilton Lodge Ball, resplendent in all the panoply of pomp and splendor, to give to Harlemites who stood in wide-eyed astonishment at this lavish display a treat that shall never be forgotten. The usual grand march eclipsed in splendor all heretofore given by them, and women screamed full- throated ovation as the bizarre and seeming impossible paraded for their approval… [We] say ‘All Hail, Hamilton.”
- 1932 New York Age report.
The 1940’s saw the second wave of the great migration; a new wave of Black folks moving North in search of jobs (in the years spanning 1940 -1960 half a million Black Southerners moved to New York City). As cultural and political conditions changed over time Black queer folks revived the Rockland Palace Balls and by the early 1960’s they were reaching their former vibrancy again (coinciding with the apex of the Civil Rights Movement). In the 1960s was really when we saw a shift from the Harlem balls being more broadly oriented toward white spectators, to being more decidedly Black & B.U.F.U.
In 1967 Crystal Labeija entered the Miss All American Camp Beauty Pageant Drag Contest held at New York City Hall as Ms Brooklyn. She didn’t win because… anti Blackness (for context and to see footage of this contest you should watch The Queen, 1968 Documentary by Frank Simon). Black Queens were generally being excluded and negatively discriminated against by the white New York Drag scene at that time. This put a fire under her ass to make her own scene, a space where she would be appreciated and safe - the Ballroom Scene!
It’s important to remember the wider context surrounding the birth of Ballroom. It was in 1969 that The Stonewall Riots happened in Greenwich Village. They occurred soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the public outcry that followed.
Stonewall is rumoured to have been sparked by a police raid of a Gay bar which included the brutal police assault and beating of Black Drag King Stormé De Larverie along with other butch queers. Another Black queer icon Marsha P Jonson; of the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R) acted as one of the main instigators of the protests. Miss Major Griffin Gracy is another Black Stonewall veteran of note; to this day she is still working for Trans Black people/of colour.
The riots entirely shifted the conversation and context for our OG Ballroom baddies, with stonewall and the events that followed meaning that queer people were finally standing up for themselves en mass, and the Civil Rights movement meaning that Black voices were speaking out publicly against the racism, oppression, and violence they frequently faced. This signified a fundamental change for New York drag culture, as the Black Trans and Queer community reached a climax of frustration, and they became more outspoken and emboldened.
In 1972, against the recent and galvanising backdrop of Stonewall, and in response to the exclusion of Black queens in the NYC drag scene, the first ever Ballroom house/family was established by friends Lottie & Crystal Labeija; The House of Labeija.
They held their first event “the first annual House of Labeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem, NY” which is considered to be the first Ballroom scene Ball, in the form that we know them today.
In the early days of Ballroom the scene, the house Balls were happening really underground. Balls had really early 3am starts at places such as Harlem’s Roller Rock Skating Rink, Imperial Elks Lodge and Uptown Social Club. People would come and compete and then go to work in the mornings. In 1983 Kevin UltraOmni ( father of the house of Omni; who’s meticulous archival work has made much of this project possible), held a ball at a more visible time and place starting at 10pm and at a mid-town venue. By the 1990’s the Ballroom community was deeply involved with Aids fundraisers in Downtown Manhattan, in the white gay environment of Bowery Village.
This geographic movement from Harlem, to midtown and eventually to downtown, reflected the fact that Ballroom slowly but surely became more integrated into mainstream gay club culture in NYC.