by Kira Lingala
House. Shade. Realness. Work. Vogue.
To many, these words are a product of the internet age or the slang of young people. But for those in the know, these words are a small symbol of the massive impact of a unique culture that stretches back decades—ballroom.
Rooted in Black and Brown queer communities in New York City, ballroom has influenced music, fashion, dance, and even the words we use.
But where did it come from?
How have so many aspects of our culture been influenced by it, when most straight, white Americans know nothing about it?
Ballroom culture can be traced back to the late 19th century in the Black communities of Harlem. These events allowed those attending to dress in drag, compete, and watch.
While Black and white communities were both a part of this early ball culture, queer people of color began forming their own spaces in the 1960s, as racial tensions boiled over, both in the ballroom and on the national stage.
Over the next few decades into the 1970s and 80s, the modern ballroom we know today took root. Unlike the earlier drag balls, this period saw the rise of voguing and the importance of dance.
Willi Ninja, often referred to as the “godfather of voguing,” would eventually break into the mainstream and go on to a successful career as a choreographer and coaching models like Naomi Cambell on their runway strut. The uniquely dynamic voguing dance form would not be widely seen by mainstream culture until the early 1990s, but it was a major part of the ballroom scene long before then.
Another crucial facet of ballroom culture was also being born in these decades—houses. Houses quickly grew to be much more than competitive teams. As a safe space for queer folx of color, the ballroom community was defined by close relationships and caring for one another.
The “mothers” and “fathers” who led each house were given those titles for a reason—for a community that frequently faced family rejection, the house became a chosen family that could provide the support and guidance needed to fend against a frequently hostile outside world.
As the new ballroom culture evolved, categories grew in precedence. Some of the well-known categories are ones that award prizes for embodying the look of rich business executives or Hollywood starlets. Competition in these categories was an artistic and creative pursuit, but also illustrate how subversive and aspirational the ball could be.
For Black and Brown queer folx in the 1970s and 80s, the world of a Wall Street boardroom or a Hollywood backlot felt far away from their lived reality. But at the ball, those who walk had the chance to be superstars and models.
In the 1980s and 90s, the inaction of the US government and marginalization of queer folx of color led to countless deaths in the community due to the growing AIDS epidemic. As the disease took the lives of community members, like beloved house mother Angie Xtravaganza, the support of houses and celebratory spirit of the ball grew more important.
Houses were an important structure for education about safe sex and HIV for a community that was often marginalized from traditional healthcare and education spaces.
This spirit of education and care is apparent in the GMHC Latex Ball, one of the largest in the world, which has been held annually since 1990 to celebrate the community and educate those who attend about the importance of safe sex and HIV prevention.
It was amidst raising awareness of the epidemic, 30 years ago, when the world of ballroom collided with the world at large. Suddenly, a white, male, straight, and cis dominated media were exposed to the Black and Brown, gender-bending outcasts of the ballroom. Being seen is a powerful experience, one that often fuels the culture of ball. But who is doing the seeing can be just as important as who is seen.
The critically beloved 1990 documentary Paris is Burning raised visibility of the ballroom community and exposed Black and Brown queer creativity to the masses when it was released in 1990. In the ensuing years, lawsuits were filed and settled, but the anger from the community remained. Many felt director Jennie Livingston had exploited her subjects and took advantage of people who weren’t aware of the potential scope of the documentary’s success. And that success was monumental, garnering $11 million on a shoestring $500,000 budget.
The relatively small payments doled out to some subjects in the aftermath of the controversy was cold comfort to a community ravaged by a pandemic and left looking at the fruits of their culture from the outside in. By 1993, the New York Times reported that 5 of the 9 featured subjects of Paris is Burning had died. One, Venus Xtravaganza, was murdered before the film was finished, a dark reminder of the violence against trans folx that persists to this day.
At the same time, Madonna’s video for her hit single “Vogue” brought the art of voguing to a wider audience than ever before. But Madonna was accused of leaving behind the Black and Brown queer folx who invented the form. Instead, a cis white woman took credit for and profited off of the work of one of the most marginalized communities in America. To many Americans ignorant of the history, Madonna invented voguing. As ballroom culture took the stage, it felt to many that the Black queer and trans folx who created it were being pushed aside.
30 years on from the release of Paris is Burning and “Vogue,” the media landscape’s relationship to trans folx and Black culture has changed radically. Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and America’s Best Dance Crew exposed voguing and aspects of ballroom culture to mainstream audiences once more—but this time Black and Brown queer folx like Leiomy Maldonado were directly involved.
This resurgence in interest in ballroom has coincided with the wider awareness of trans rights and queer communities that has taken hold throughout the 2010s. In 2015, trans actress Laverne Cox graced Time’s “Transgender Tipping Point” cover.
Three years later, Pose premiered on FX with the largest cast of transgender actors in television history, while employing over 100 LGBTQ+ actors and crew members. The show is a dramatization of the ballroom scene in the late 1980s, recreating the world with a wealth of diverse creatives and actors. The success and popularity of Pose and ballroom competition shows like Legendary is only one aspect of this renaissance. In 2015, the New York Times reported on the popularity of voguing classes at dance studios.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Black queer dancers is taking the art form online.
In 2021, the creative ownership of ballroom is increasingly back in the hands of the Black and Brown folx who originated it.
RuPaul not only brought ballroom and drag culture into the mainstream with his hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race, he was also one of the first black queer folx to profit from his own culture, building out a critically acclaimed and financially successful career as an actor, musician, and singular personality.
Young dancers like Dashawn Wesley, who brought voguing to America’s Best Dance Crew and recently emceed HBO’s Legendary, credit social media and platforms like Youtube with giving members of the community control over their art and narrative. Meanwhile, NYC clubs like Escuelita and events like the Latex Ball keep the live ballroom culture going.
However, ballroom’s influence and power go beyond those who are still keeping the form alive. The slang terms mentioned at the beginning of this piece, like “work” or “shade,” have become widely adopted by many who are unaware of their origin. The glamorous, high-fashion categories of the ball were originally influenced by mainstream fashion, but have gone on to exert influence on the mainstream as well. The fashion of 2019’s Met Gala, with the theme of “camp,” was a striking example of this legacy.
Much of this influence remains uncredited and unknown to the public at large. But more Black queer folx are able to share their stories directly through social media and through shows like Pose in ways that show the full spectrum of their humanity. There is a lot of work to do to make the world a safer more accepting place for Black queer folx. And ballroom’s ability to humanize and lift up the community is an integral part of making that happen. This Black History Month, let’s celebrate the history and culture of the ballroom, while never forgetting those we’ve lost and the importance of Black queer creativity to the LGBTQ+ community and the world at large.
Kira Lingala (She/Hers/Her) is the Peer Navigator of The LOFT's PROUDWST ME Program. She can be reached at [email protected]