WORDS: NICK GORDON BROWN
The flamboyant ballroom scene, born in New York but now an international phenomenon, has been hugely influential in clubland’s development, but its story has often flown below the radar. The dance with which it is inextricably linked, voguing, briefly hit the spotlight thanks to Madonna, and more recently has heavily influenced the likes of Beyoncé and FKA Twigs, but again its cultural importance has frequently been overlooked. Conceived, lived and breathed almost exclusively by black and Latin members of the LGBTQ community, it has literally proved a lifeline for some of society’s most marginalised individuals.
“Ballroom life is not about what you could be in real life, but how you transcend what you couldn’t be in real life” (Kiddy Smile in Madison Moore’s ‘Fabulous’, 2018).
Central to the scene – the balls themselves, extravagant affairs that are a direct response to the marginalisation of their attendees, an MC and DJ create a space in which competitors take centre stage, “a beautiful escape, a way to dance away the pain and oppression” (Kevin Omni Burris in Huffington Post, 2017).
“Balls are part of a broader history of black queer performance and spectacle that stretches back at least to the early days of the 20th century,” Madison Moore, authority on gender and sexuality, told the Guardian in April 2019. “The Hamilton Lodge Ball, the so-called Faggots Ball of the early 1900s where up to 1,500 spectators came to see the best black queer performers, drag queens, female and male impersonators.” However, it would still be decades until the scene was to build on these foundations and create a distinct community. As Tommy LaBeija, iconic member of the long running House of LaBeija, told Chantal Regnault in April 2011, for her seminal book documenting the scene, ‘Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92’ (Soul Jazz books)*, “you had a certain amount of gay liberation in the 1960s, but for the femme queens, it felt like they were left in their own world. The ball culture brought that out, for them to be more accepted... once you come into the ballroom scene you build up a confidence that no one can penetrate.”
“Many of those who pioneered the scene came into prominence during (the 80s)”, explained fellow LaBeija member and ‘house mother’ Kia, speaking to the Guardian in June 2018. “Voguing really begins to start its journey into the limelight in a very visceral way at the end of the 80s, but there was also an eminent sense of loss, as our community was heavily impacted by the Aids crisis.” This only helped add to the feeling of “beautiful escape” that Kevin Omni referred to. As Dominique Jackson, the trans actor who plays the indomitable Elektra Abundance in Pose, told the Guardian in April 2019: “The first time I went to a ball was phenomenal, I was like a kid at an amusement park. I saw people just like me. I saw joy. I just kept winning, until February of 2016 they named me ‘iconic’.”
Music #1 – the original classics
“’Love Is The Message’ by MFSB was the theme song. The jazz breaks fluctuated so much that you could find a lot of moves to do off that song. Other voguing anthems included ‘Ooh I Love It (Love Break)’ by the Salsoul Orchestra,” says voguer Muhammad Omni (House of Omni). *
“In 1985, the categories were pretty much basic. You had realness for the boys, looking very muscular in that way… and then you had realness for the femme queens,” adds Robbie Saint Laurent, father of House of Saint Laurent*. Cheryl Lynn’s ‘Got To Be Real’ inevitably became the song of choice for dancers.
Xtravaganza, Omni, Ninja, LaBeija were amongst the exotic names of the ‘houses’ fronting the community’s efforts to help many LGBTQ youths deal with rejection by their biological parents. The houses acted as surrogate families, each with a ‘house mother’ presiding over proceedings.
“When someone has rejection from their family, when they get out in the world, they search for someone to fill that void, I know this from experience because I’ve had kids come to me and latch hold to me like I’m their mother or father because they can talk to me,” Pepper LaBeija told 1991 film documentary Paris Is Burning. Over 20 years later, her thoughts were echoed by ballroom commentator Precious Ebony, in Viceland TV’s ‘My House’. “Some people are lost. People who feel like they don’t have a place in the regular world, they come to ballroom. Besides the culture of voguing, ballroom is a place that is actually a family. Balls happen, people come just to get a hot meal, to get tested for free, to know that they’re not alone.”
Exactly how and when voguing began is the subject of much debate. David DePino, DJ at Paradise Garage and Tracks, and member of House of Xtravaganza, told Mixmag (October 2018), “Paris (Dupree) had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat. Then another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose. This was all shade… and it soon caught on at the balls.” Tommy LaBeija, meanwhile, claims: “Voguing came out of Peppa (LaBeija)’s involvement in haute couture. You had to be more like a model to walk, so Peppa used to do a lot of runway poses… the kids used to mimic this and it kind of turned into a dance. The younger kids turned that into dipping and flipping and other stuff.”* Few would dispute that Madonna latching onto the dance placed it firmly in the public consciousness, but as Hector Xtravaganza points out, other mainstream artists had dipped a toe into it, only to leave Madonna a clear run. “The first time voguing was shown in a video was for a Jody Watley video with Tyrone Proctor. Then Janet Jackson also featured voguing. But she didn’t run with it, and that’s when Madonna decided to run with it after she saw House Of Xtravaganza voguing at the Paradise Garage.”*
Music #2 – from underground to the top of the charts in 3 tracks
Conceived by downtown DJs and ballroom associates David DePino and Johnny Dynell, with vocals from David Ian Xtravaganza, ‘Elements of Vogue’ is the first vogue record.
“In 1989 I went to Paris to vogue with Willie Ninja for a show for the fashion designer Thierry Mugler… that was also how I met Malcolm McLaren and performed in the first vogue pop video, ‘Deep In Vogue’,” says voguer and designer Adrian Magnifique.*
If McLaren was very much a cultural tourist, vogue following on from his forays into both punk and hip hop, his dance chart hit was mostly seen as an uplift to the scene. When, in 1990, the biggest pop star on the planet took voguing to number one in 30 countries, opinion would be more divided, as it was when director Jennie Livingston put cameras on the ballroom scene for her documentary Paris Is Burning.
Cultural Appreciation vs Cultural Appropriation
“Most people associate Madonna with voguing faster than they do ball culture... this illustrates the heart of the issue with appropriation: it occurs on an uneven playing field where white, cisgender, heterosexual people are more likely to receive credit for something they didn’t create. That, in sum, is the definition of appropriation… the first step in avoiding it is to be mindful of sharing the language or the customs of a group whose work you appreciate. Do your research. Become an ethical, conscious consumer of culture, aware of how stealing what marginalised people created can hurt them”(John Paul Brammer, oprahmag.com, 2018).
“When the whole culture of the ball came downtown, and the film Paris Is Burning happened, then the whole Madonna thing, the House of Xtravaganza got the most media exposure. It was one of the bravest things Xtravaganza did,”* says Hector Xtravaganza, a House of Xtravaganza mainstay for some four decades and consultant on Pose prior to his untimely death in December 2018. Fellow house member Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza takes up the Madonna story (Mixmag Oct 18): “I was introduced to her by a mutual friend, Debi Mazar, at the Sound Factory… she asked me and Luis [Camacho] to vogue for her on the spot, so we did. She loved it and asked us to sit with her to advise her who else in the club was good. She said she was doing this video that she wanted us to be in and maybe a tour as well, so invited us to the auditions, where seven of us were chosen from five thousand. Then she asked us to choreograph the video and to teach her how to vogue.” The debate as to whether Madonna helped or hindered the ballroom community still rages - Angelica Ross, Candy Ferocity in Pose, summed up the contrasting feelings: "With 'Vogue,' Madonna showed us appreciation but I don’t think she understood how we could take the next step for the community. She included people from the community like the Xtravaganzas, and she did change lives. But I feel like there were maybe missed opportunities and that Madonna could have done more. It was a fleeting moment in pop culture and I wish she had worked with the ballroom community to make it last longer" (Hollywood Reporter, June 2019).
Paris Is Burning was the first widely publicised project to document the ballroom scene. Director Jennie Livingstone, though gay herself, was seen by some as an educated white woman exploiting this self-governing community. This feeling heightened when the film became a surprise success, with many of the participants feeling they didn’t reap enough of the attendant rewards. Livingstone defended herself against the charge when speaking with the Guardian in June 2015: “I didn’t go to film school, I don’t have a film education, and I never suggested that I did. I took one summer class, and I shot that one ball which is not in the finished film. I never said ‘Babe, I’m gonna make you a star.’ I went in and said, ‘I’m interested, will you talk to me?’ I honestly, to this day, do not believe that anybody who signed those release forms was incapable of understanding what it meant.” Contemporary ballroom performer Jamel Prodigy (AKA Derek Auguste), speaking in the same feature, takes issue less with the accusations of appropriation, but more with what he sees as the film’s underlying mood: “Jennie’s film ended with a sad undertone, and I think our message is much more powerful than the impression that she left. We are an inspirational, creative and resilient community… it’s time to show that we have prevailed. It’s time to show that it’s not a sad story.”
Music #3 – tailor made for ballroom
The 1990s saw house records tailor made for the ballroom scene, extending its reach into clubland. Key players included Sound Factory DJ Junior Vasquez (including under his pseudonym Ellis D); and Robbie Tronco.
Perhaps more surprisingly, but most influentially, when Masters At Work revealed their rare left field style with ‘The Ha Dance’, it became an enduring ballroom anthem, even spawning myriad new voguing moves and cover versions / spin offs.
‘The Ha Dance’ has definite echoes of 1980s alternative dance hit ‘Din Daa Daa’ by George Kranz, a ballroom staple.
Ballroom in the 21st Century
“Before it was contained, New York was the mecca, there were a maximum of five balls each year. Now every house has a chapter in every state and every chapter has a mother and a father… and then the overall mother of the whole house. It’s hard to control. It’s now three cultures in one. Old school kids – legends and icons – the new school kids who are trying to break through in the mainstream, and then the Kikis, who are having their own little ballroom thing and running it much better than the houses in the major ballroom community” (Tommy LaBeija).*
Ballroom-specific tunes are still made, but as arguably the scene’s leading contemporary DJ and producer MikeQ states, many miss the target, and reflect wider issues which are commonplace when those with limited knowledge of ballroom history attempt to replicate its magic: “A lot of producers who don’t know anything about the scene are starting to make the ‘ballroom sound’ – they’re completely not making ballroom music, but you can tell that’s what they’re going for. You have all of these people who are starting their own balls in different countries and states – which is cool – but they don’t know anybody who is a long-time scene presence… I saw a clip of a ball in Russia. They were voguing but the music was wrong, the MC-ing was wrong, and everybody was sitting around watching quietly. That’s not how ballroom is” (The Guardian, June 2015). However, there are many positives in the ongoing globalisation of ballroom, as DJ, producer and Defected artist Kiddy Smile (House of Mizrahi) told the BBC in August 2018: “In London, there’s a growing ballroom culture, and in Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid… Paris is definitely one of the most vibrant areas – mostly because it started at the heart of the community, as a place where LGBT people of colour could unite”.
Music #4 – house gets fierce
Increasingly, ballroom tracks eulogise the culture in an ever more upfront way. The celebrated video for Kiddy Smile’s ‘Let A B!tch Know’ was filmed in the heart of the Parisian ‘banlieu’ where Kiddy grew up. “During the filming, we got attacked, people threw stuff at us. Even afterwards there were threats and harassment towards people from the filming crew” (Mixmag, January 2020).
‘Cunty’ is used as a term of praise amongst vogue femme queens, indicating a fierce femininity. Ballroom legend Kevin Aviance caught the mood on vinyl.
Arguably the most prolific, dedicated producer of ballroom-specific tracks is New Jersey’s MikeQ – here he teams up with scene face Kevin JZ Prodigy. Definite ‘Ha Dance’ / ‘Din Daa Daa’ influences.
Infiltrating the mainstream – and still fighting appropriation
With the ‘Kiki’ documentary film (2016), often dubbed the unofficial follow up to Paris Is Burning, and TV shows such as Viceland TV’s reality series ‘My House’ (2018), and perhaps most notably, FX’s glossy Ryan Murphy produced drama ‘Pose’ (2018-19), the spotlight has been firmly back on the ballroom scene - the appreciation vs appropriation debate remains both relevant and ever more nuanced. HBO has just hit the headlines regarding its forthcoming ballroom show Legendary, where ‘made for TV’ houses will compete in voguing competitions. In MikeQ, Leiomy Maldonado and Dashaun Wesley, the show has three leads with roots deep in the ballroom community. However, the choice of Jameela Jamil has plunged the show into controversy months before it hits the air. In the backlash, Jamil came out as queer – but as high profile house mother Trace Lysette (who had auditioned for the show) responded: “Being queer does not make you ballroom. Being any number of marginalised identities does not make you ballroom. The only thing that makes you ballroom is if you are actually from it. And most of us who are from it, sought it out when we had no one else” (Daily Beast, February 2020).
Madison Moore, in his fascinating book ‘Fabulous’ (Yale University Press, 2018), is blunt in his assessment of the mainstream’s occasional dabbling with ballroom: “Media outlets, always on the hunt for the latest trend, regularly suggest that voguing is “back”... the irony being, in fact, that voguing has not gone anywhere or been out of vogue since it was originally created in the 1980s in New York by a group of disenfranchised black and Latino queer youths. The only thing that changes, actually, is the singer, artist, journalist or media outlet choosing to pay attention to it at the time.” LGBTQ reporter Mary Emily O’Hara, writing for dailydot.com, takes a similar view when pointing out how ballroom terminology has slipped into widespread everyday use: “If you’ve ever used words like ‘fierce’ or ‘shady’ or commented ‘yassss queen’ or ‘work’ on a cute Instagram pic, you’ve been speaking the language of the ball scene – likely, without ever realising where it came from.”
Elyssa Goodman, writing for them.us in April 2018, found both positives and negatives when analysing the appropriation controversy: “‘Wonder Woman of Vogue’ Leiomy Maldonado… began appearing in music videos like Icona Pop’s ‘All Night’ and Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair’ doing her signature ‘Leiomy Lolly’ hair flip. It’s a move that later inspired Beyoncé and Britney Spears, despite the lack of credit given to Maldonado for the move. Last year, Nike chose to highlight Maldonado in their #BeTrue campaign, acknowledging her own athleticism and talent, as well as that required for voguing.”
The ballroom community fully expect their scene to drop out of the limelight once again, but they are prepared for that eventuality, and as Madison Moore opined: “Pose is a phenomenal breakthrough, but once the media stops paying attention, ballroom culture will still be popping. It’s not about Madonna, it’s about Kiddy Smile, the French pop star and runway diva. Voguing is about Sinia, the Icon Jack Mizrahi, Vjuan Allure and Mike Q, Lasseindra Ninja and Leiomy, the DJ and vocalist Shaun J Wright, Mother Steffie Mizrahi, Jay Jay Revlon and all the queer and trans people who push the culture forward” (The Guardian, April 2019).
In Our House We Are All Equal
“I’m still gagged every time I think about the fact that this story is being told…Visibility is essential for growth and understanding and love because you can’t love something you don’t understand. And the only way this world is going to get fixed is if we figure out how to love each other through our differences” (Billy Porter in The Guardian, 2019).
“The voguing and femme queens revived the club scene. Before it was gay clubs and straight clubs. Now we all party together. I think the ballroom community shaped the mainstream today” (Tommy LaBeija in ‘VHB-NYC 1989-92’, 2011).
“The fact that beauty and greatness comes from suffering. The fact that a community can be rejected, oppressed but you can never stop them to be. The fact that the definition of family goes beyond bloodline. The confidence. And how out of nothing they made magic and influenced generations… Glitterbox and voguing are really strong on their own and carry a very positive message. Glitterbox got introduced to voguing by Kiddy Smile and also through some of our male dancers. Slowly but surely Glitterbox is getting inspired and is celebrating this culture. I see it as a collaboration. Two movements who collide” (Glitterbox performer The Mx Fit, on the inspiration for Glitterbox’s ballroom collaboration at Printworks on 7th March).
Check out a ballroom mix from MikeQ here: https://soundcloud.com/search?q=djmikeq
*All asterisked quotes taken from Chantal Regnault’s essential book, ‘Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92’ (Soul Jazz books)