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|Passing as male|
|Passing as female|
Ball culture, the house system, the ballroom community and similar terms describe an underground LGBT subculture in the United States in which people "walk" (i.e., compete) for trophies and prizes at events known as balls. Some who walk also dance; others compete in drag genres, trying to pass as a gender and social class. Most participants in ball culture belong to groups known as "houses".
Houses serve as alternative families, primarily consisting of Black and Latino queer youth, and are meant to be safe spaces. Houses are led by “mothers” and “fathers,” providing guidance and support for their house “children.” Most houses operate in the same way. Houses exist across the United States and in over 15 cities, most being in the Northeastern Coast. Major Cities are New York, Newark, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Houses that win a lot of trophies and gain recognition, reach a rank of "legendary." Notable houses include House of Ninja (founded by Willi Ninja), House of Aviance (founded by Mother Juan Aviance), House of Xtravaganza (founded by Hector Xtravaganza, né Hector Valle), House of Princess, House of Infiniti, House of Mizrahi, House of LaBeija (founded by Crystal LaBeija), House of Dupree (founded by Paris Dupree), House of Amazon (founded by Leoimy Maldonado), and House of Mugler (founded by David, Raliegh, Julia and Eric Mugler) . Typically house members adopt the name of their house as their last name. Four categories of gender exist within houses: Butch queens, femme queens, butches, and women.
Houses "walk" (compete) against one another in "balls" judged on dance skills (voguing), costumes, appearance, and attitude. Participants dress according to the category in which they are competing, and are expected to display appropriate "realness". Balls are influenced by hip hop fashion and music. The largest balls last as long as ten hours, with dozens of categories in a single evening. With fewer spectators, nearly everyone comes to compete; some trophies are 12 feet (3.7 m) tall, and a grand-prize winner can earn $1,000 or more. Although some competitive walks involve crossdressing, in other cases the goal is to accentuate a male participant's masculinity or a female participant's femininity as a parody of heterosexuality. Voguing consists of five elements: duckwalk, catwalk, hands, floorwork, and spins & dips.
Some categories include:
- Butch Queen Vogue Fem/Female Figure Performance – Use the vogue elements of hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips
- BQ Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with male heterosexuals
- FQ Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with females
- Realness With a Twist (Twister) – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with heterosexuals, then returning in vogue
- BQ/FQ/FF Runway – Judged on participants' ability to catwalk, usually with a requested outfit or color
- Bizarre – Judged on participants' creativity to design a costume based on a requested category
- Labels – Judged on how many labels a participant is wearing and their authenticity
- BQ/FQ/FF Face – Judging a participant's clean, smooth face
- BQ/FQ/FF Sex Siren – Sex appeal in underwear (thongs, briefs or bikinis)
- Commentator vs. Commentator – Allows aspiring (and current) MCs to showcase their ability to hype the crowd
- Dipology – Like Vogue Femme, with spins into dips only
- European Runway – Often a butch-queen category, featuring effects seen in a European fashion show
- American Runway – Similar to European Runway, featuring butch queen, TransMen or Butches/Studs
- Butch Queen up in Pumps – Similar to Labels or Runway, featuring high heels
- FQ/BQ in Drag Female Figure Performance – Lip-synching to a female celebrity
- Hands Performance – Vogue with hands only
- Virgin/Beginners Vogue – Vogue category for participants who have been voguing for less than one year
- Virgin/Beginners Runway – Runway for participants who have been walking for less than one year
- Best Dressed
- Legendary/Iconic Categories – All-star categories for legends and Icons only
- Women's Vogue – Women Who Vogue All Around The World[clarification needed]
- Face: The face category is about who has a classically beautiful face. Judges examine the eyes, the nose, the teeth, the lips and the structure of the face. While the category may call for an effect, ultimately the judges will only look at the face of a competitor, which should not have much makeup and should appear flawless.
- Body: This category is about health. The judges will be looking for someone who looks attractive, and healthy. Do not confuse this with sexiness, as there is a completely different category for that.
- Sex Siren: Participants will do their best to tease, and titillate the judges. Some do so by stripping all their clothes off, others do it through erotic dancing, and some combine the two in order to attempt to win.
As a countercultural phenomenon, ball culture is rooted in necessity and defiance. The ballroom culture has existed for at least five decades. However, it remains largely underground and unknown for this particular community of Black and Latino queer youth. It began in Harlem more than 50 years ago, and has now expanded rapidly to other major cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Moreover, with the advancements of social media, it has migrated to other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the UK. Ball culture also known as "house ball culture," was first captured in Jennie Livingston's documentary, Paris is Burning (1990).
New York City
Drag balls had existed since the thirties, consisting of primarily white men, they competed in fashion shows in bars 2 or 3 times a year. Black queens would sometimes participate but rarely won any prizes. Due to discrimination, Black queens Crystal Labeija and her friend Lottie began their own drag ball titled 'House of Labeija,' kickstarting the ballroom scene in New York. In 1989, The House of Latex was created as a call to action in the ballroom community to bridge the gap between HIV-STI prevention and ballroom culture.
New York's legendary Ballroom Culture has been a huge culture impact since the 1980s, all the way up until today.
The most notable influence of ball culture on mainstream society is voguing, a dance style originating in Harlem ballrooms during the first half of the 20th century and popularized by the video for Madonna's "Vogue", released in 1990 (one year before Paris Is Burning). According to one source, "Many people only know of underground ballroom culture from Madonna's 'Vogue' or the film 'Paris Is Burning'." The dance group Vogue Evolution, from America's Best Dance Crew, has again sparked interest in voguing.
Ball-culture terms are sometimes used more generally; "drag mother" may apply to any drag queen in a mentorship role, and "drag house" may refer to a group of drag performers allied personally or professionally. "Fierce" and "fierceness," "work it" and "working it," "fabulous" and "fabulousness" are heard in Paris Is Burning and appeared in the lyrics of "Supermodel (You Better Work)", a 1992 hit by drag queen RuPaul. These terms became more widely used in gay slang, fashion industry jargon and mainstream colloquial language.
- Reading: to read a person is to highlight and exaggerate all of the flaws of a person, from their ridiculous clothes, to their flawed makeup and anything else the reader can come up with. It is a battle of wit, in which the winner is one who gets the crowd to laugh the most.
- Shade: shade is an art form that developed from Reading. Rather than the aim to insult, someone works with the medium of backhanded compliments. An example is to suggest that someone's beautiful dress makes people almost forget that she has a five o'clock shadow.
Ball culture has been fertile ground for new forms of house music and other genres of electronic dance music through its DJs. The culture has also influenced a wave of queer hip hop artists such as Zebra Katz, House of Ladosha and Le1f .
Ball culture has influenced "the über-puffed-up peacock sexuality" of contemporary mainstream hip hop. A professor at New York University said about gay black culture, "Today's queer mania for ghetto fabulousness and bling masks its elemental but silent relationship to even more queer impulses toward fabulousness in the 1960s and 1970s."
In 2006, Beyoncé Knowles told a reporter from The Independent "how inspired she's been by the whole drag-house circuit in the States, an unsung part of black American culture where working-class gay men channel ultra-glamour in mocked-up catwalk shows. 'I still have that in me', she says of the 'confidence and the fire you see on stage ... '"
Most of the New York-based houses appeared in the 1991 documentary film, Paris Is Burning. The 2016 film Kiki provided an updated portrait of the ball culture scene. In 2017, as part of a documentary series on New Zealand cultural identity, Vice Media produced an episode about New Zealand's ball culture, entitled "FAFSWAG: Auckland's Underground Vogue Scene".
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