Modern ballroom culture, or ball culture emerged in the 1920s in and around New York City. In the beginning, performers consisted mainly of white men putting on drag fashion shows. Black queens rarely participated, and when they did, they were expected to lighten their faces. This was quite different from the origins of ball culture elsewhere.
Modern History of Ballroom
Fed up with the restrictive and racist ball culture, in the 1960s, Black queens Crystal LaBeija and her friend Lottie began their own drag ball titled ‘House of LaBeija’. This kickstarted the current ballroom scene in New York.
The queer black ballroom community then established their own underground ball culture from then on. The drag ball scene from there illuminated themes of race, gender, and sexual orientation within society.
Ball culture in the 1960s contained very few categories, with predominantly queens portraying Las Vegas showgirls. However, New York’s Stonewall Riots of the late 1960s, when queer people of colour stood up to police, changed perceptions within the subculture: from feeling guilty and apologetic to feelings of self-acceptance and pride.
The 1970s saw an expansion of ballroom participation as balls increased their numbers and types of categories to allow inclusivity and involvement of everyone. Balls became a safe space for queer youth of color, mainly Blacks and Latinos / Latinas, to express themselves freely.
With this new realm of ballroom culture came the development of competition. The competitions consist of an entire language of concepts, categories, dances, and slang that are unique to the subculture.
Participants “walk” or “compete” on a stage or runway for prizes, displaying their outfit along with their persona for different categories. The performances consist of strutting, dancing, and spoken word. Performances are judged by a contestant’s fashion, appearance, and dancing. One common category is “Realness,” where participants in drag are judged on their ability to “pass” as heterosexual males or females. Other common categories include “business executive”, best dressed, and “butch queens in pumps”. Not all performances consist of cross-dressing; a few common categories include females highlighting their femininity and males highlighting their masculinity.
Voguing, the dance made famous by Madonna’s hit song Vogue in 1990, actually originated from ballroom culture in the 1980s. Voguing categories quickly became popular in the ball community. The dance utilises stylised arm movements, sharp poses, and fast, low to the ground foot movements. Overall, the spectrum of identities performed on the floor, and the craft and spectacle of the performances themselves, changed self-perception for the better for many in the community.
Ballroom participants use their performances to communicate specific information about themselves to others. The balls create a welcoming, non-critical space for the queer community to construct their sense of self in their own hidden world free of the constraints that mainstream society puts on gender and sexual expression.
Houses and Families
Ballroom culture consists of unique values, and social structures. In the 1960s, with the revitalisation of ball culture, many of the participants felt that they could not openly express their sexuality and gender identity within their biological families. To fill this void, groups called “houses” or “families” emerged. Houses serve as many ball participants’ only source of family.
Many queer youth join balls at a young age, and sometimes live with their houses if they cannot safely live with their biological family. These alternative families are led by “mothers,” who are mostly butch queens (gay men) or femme queens (transgender women) or “fathers,” who are mostly butch queens or butches (transgender men).
Houseparents serve as the heads of the houses and are role models and mentors for their “children”. House children often take the surname of the house parent; for example Pepper LaBeija, a previous housemother of the House of LaBeija, changed her last name to match the house when she joined the family. The houses compete in balls together, developing a style of their own.
Hierarchies both within houses and competitive realms exist; certain drag queens and houseparents are legacies and idols within the community. Pepper LaBeija says that ballroom fame “is as close to reality that [they] will get to fame and fortune.” Becoming a legacy within the ball community is their ultimate fantasy.
Culture and Values
Drag ballroom culture actively resists the dominating cultural norms of society. Participants in the community create a new space to directly challenge traditional gender roles and heteronormative identities. They use balls to express these restrictive categories and to reveal their abuse as transgender, gay, and minority groups. Houses provide a space for queer youth to feel supported. The balls resist these norms by gender-bending through both the outfits and the mannerisms of the queens and kings.
For many, drag ball culture both resists and conforms to gender and sexuality norms. The realness category shows how the participants work to perform certain roles, for example a straight business executive, so as to stay safe on the streets. They can be “real” with their queer identities within their community. However, they also practice “passing” as straight individuals during their performances. The realness category provides a space for queer individuals to practice conforming to traditional gender norms – for some, their ability to “pass” within society could be a matter of life and death.
The African-American working class more openly accepted and showcased homosexual behavior compared to the black middle class. Black homosexuals came to represent all the elements of African American working-class culture that civil rights leaders identified as obstacles to the attainment of citizenship. At the height of the movement for integration, black queerness was replaced in public discourse and popular culture by black heteronormativity. The polarity of the black community in regards to the civil rights movement and queerness created a persistent struggle for queer black Americans to fight for their rights as both black and queer individuals.
Underground ball culture, while still prominent as a subculture, has also come into the mainstream eye through TV shows and drag clubs. The process of underground balls seeping into mainstream culture has been helped by drag queen RuPaul. The Afro-American drag queen RuPaul is known for his award winning show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, where queens walk the runway in various categories during each episode.
Likewise, ballroom culture has spread all across the USA; currently, there is a ballroom scene in almost every major city in North America and there are over 100 active houses. While ball culture has become more popular throughout the world, it still primarily consists of disadvantaged groups and represents non-mainstream values.
In 2018, Viceland aired a docuseries, My House, following six people in the New York City ball culture. In the spring of 2018, the television series Pose premiered, set in New York and following participants in ballroom culture, as well as others in 1980s Manhattan.
On 18th April 2019, the feature film Port Authority, a New York love story between a black trans woman from the ballroom scene and a cisgender man from the Midwest was announced. Leyna Bloom’s debut in Port Authority was the first time in the festival’s history that a trans woman of colour was featured in a leading role. Prior to being cast, Leyna Bloom caught international attention as a model and dancer and is active in the mainstream ballroom scene as New York City mother of the house of Miyake-Mugler. She is known in ball culture as the “Polynesian Princess,” having made an international name for herself walking the category of face.
In 2020, the voguing reality competition Legendary premiered on the HBO Max. The series follows members of eight prominent houses as they navigate their way through nine balls (dancing, voguing, etc.), with a $100,000 prize awarded to the winner.
So that is the brief explanation of the ballroom scene, darling, which is still very prominent today!
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