What is Ballroom
Now that, we’ve given a kind of sweeping historical lead into the Ballroom Scene, it’s really important to understand what Ballroom is at its core. And to be honest, you probably won’t fully understand what it is until you’ve attended a Ball because it is in essence a live event born out of a lived experience and community kinship. It is related to and incorporates elements of drag performance & and is performed by different Houses who compete against each other like teams in a variety of different categories for various prizes. There is an emcee who directs and narrates the event, and a judging panel who give scores to decide who wins each category. There’s a set of clear criteria they are judging against in each category. Ballroom has also evolved its own dance genre called Voguing, and its own Ballroom music genre which sonically interacts with the dance form. There is also a whole set of Ballroom specific lingo; terms and phrases that have evolved within the scene over time. The Houses do not just exist to compete within the Ballroom performance setting, the Balls give the houses a kind of mutual purpose but they are deeply bonded queer kinship and chosen family structures set up for the mutual support and stability of individuals within each house.
Although Ballroom culture still exists and is in fact growing and spreading internationally, when people refer to Ballroom they are usually referring to a particular place and point in time - New York from 1970-1990, the time before Ballroom became more widely known about. During this period the Ballroom community was deeply impacted by the Aids Crisis. We have dedicated a section of this project to this, because it’s impossible to consider the contextual conditions of being Black and queer in New York at that time without considering the immense emotional impact and intense climate of fear that the Aids crises created. People were really scared of Aids as there was a lot of misinformation being published about how you got it. For a long time it was being directly linked to homosexuality by the government and scientists, and a side effect of that of course was an upswing in homophobia and a further marginalisation of an already heavily stigmatised community. Life for a Black Trans/Queer person in New York was tough (still is), and it’s clear that many of the community members came to Ballroom because it difficult for them to survive and find a place of belonging in wider society. Kids who ran away or were made homeless by homophobic family members joined Houses as young as 12/13 years old, many of the girls in the houses did sex work to pay the bills, people were struggling with addiction, HIV/AIDS was decimating the community and people were scared.
Ballroom emerged out of a need and necessity for Black queer and Trans community in particular to have a space where they belonged, where they felt protected, supported, validated and celebrated. A place where Black queer folk could become whoever they wanted to be and be celebrated for it. It was a means of survival and also a kind of protest against the whitewashed and racist drag scene of 1970’s New York. This combination of the social conditions and cultural context that Ballroom sprung out of created a kind of intensity, coupled with the amazing creativity of the members of the Ballroom scene meant that Ballroom soon became a thriving culture in its own right.
As with most fabulous things Black people do, mainstream culture soon noticed and wanted to extract and make a profit off this incredibly vibrant and imaginative culture. It started with Madonna’s Vogue video which was released in 1990 just before Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning (named after the annual Paris is Burning Ball run by House Mother Paris Dupree) was released later that same year. Prior to the release of FX series Pose, whenever you brought up Ballroom these were usually the two main reference points people had for the culture. Over time Madonna’s vogue essentially commodified Voguing as a dance form. And whilst Paris is Burning does give us some valuable insight into the Ballroom scene of 1980’s New York, it is made by a white woman and the documentary has often been criticised as being voyeuristic and extractive. Of the 4 million dollars Paris is Burning has made since its release a mere 55,000 of that was divided between the main 13 cast members. They made basically no money off the ting. The late Bell Hooks (may she rest in peace) has written 2 amazing essays on this white-gaze extractive-white-woman-weird-flex and says it so much better than we ever could.
To paraphrase some of her points for you here (although we do recommend reading the above…no seriously, read them!); Bell argues that in the film the white gaze is presented as neutral. That by Jennie Livingston not being within the work she fails to critique her own lens and thus protects her innocence as a white woman. That the film takes the ritual of drag and makes it spectacle. And that this film is basically the time old colonial tale told in a new media form of Livingston a white woman who ventures into the contemporary “heart of darkness” to bring back the knowledge of the natives. (No really y’all should read the essay because Bell reads that white lady to filth)
We’re going to end this History download with a reminder that Ballroom is a whole culture and lifestyle that sprang out of the survival necessity, sheer tenacity and collective imagination of one of the most vulnerable sectors of society; Black & Latino Trans and queer people. It’s not a pop culture fad that you engage with on a surface level; watch Paris Is Burning, dance to Madonna’s Vogue video, watch Pose FX, take what you need and are done with it… It’s Black Queer & Trans lives and experiences that sit at the core of Ballroom, and so any engagement needs to be handled with care. Legendary names to be learnt, context needs to be understood, Black Trans people need to be paid, and the energetic intention needs to centre the wellbeing of Black queer/Trans community. We’ve tried our best to do this with House of Origin and we ask the same respect and care from you as you engage with the work.
Rockland Palace: https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/the-rockland-palace-dance-hall-harlem ny-1920/
Harlem Renaissance, Black History Moment of the week: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkTVYtjKiF8
Queer Harlem Renaissance, A prospectus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1uq8IAI30I
Lesbian Blues Harlem Renaissance: https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/singing-the-lesbian-blues in-1920s-harlem/
Great Migration: https://blacknewyorkers-nypl.org/education/
Hamilton Lodge Ball: https://queermusicheritage.com/nov2014hamilton.html
Harlem Drag Balls: https://www.boweryboogie.com/2019/06/the-oft-overlooked-drag-balls-of-harlem history/
Prohibition ctd: https://www.history.com/news/gay-culture-roaring-twenties-prohibition
Life after Paris is Burning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4YUO1CudXY
How Do I look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E-AhouEL_s&list=PLOpk7Z-uiBz--VenrjvyoQU5Womb3vJe0
Is Paris Burning? Bell Hooks
Voguing: A Brief History of Ballroom: https://mixmag.net/feature/a-brief-history-of-voguing
The Colonisation of Ballroom Culture
Fabulous + Father Figure
Queen Of Lapa - 2019 film
Fabulous - Lassiendra Ninja - Guyana http://www.docmonde.org/en/fabulous/
Marlon Riggs: In the Life Interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGgtVpjcqak
THESIS: LIVE.WORK.POSE (ARCHITECTURE OF THE BALL SCENE)
The Queen (1968) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeXrIZqMAfY
NowHoldThatPoseForMe — BALLROOM TIMELINE (HISTORY EDUCATION) By Kevin
My House Vice TV: https://www.vicetv.com/en_us/video/my-house-series-trailer/5ab02275f1cdb35dec706381
Archival photos: https://umsi580.lsait.lsa.umich.edu/s/a-history-of-ballroom-documenting-the-era-of-ballroom-1972-1990/page/houses
House of Omni: https://youtu.be/bCYuA6CgJEk
Carmen Xtravaganza interview: https://youtu.be/Ktt0H164s0Q