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Ball culture, drag ball culture, the house-ballroom community, and similar terms describe a young African-American and Latin American underground LGBTQ+ subculture that originated in New York City, in which people "walk" (i.e., compete) for trophies, prizes, and glory at events known as balls. Ball culture consists of events that mix performance, dance, lip-syncing, and modeling. Events are divided into various categories, and participants "walk" for prizes and trophies. As a countercultural phenomenon, ball culture is rooted in necessity and defiance. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, members of the underground LGBTQ+ community in large cities began to organize masquerade balls known as "drags" in defiance of laws which banned individuals from wearing clothes associated with the opposite gender.
Participants were and are mainly young African-American and Latin American members of the LGBTQ community. Although some balls were integrated, the judges were always white, and African-American participants were often excluded from prizes or judged unfairly. In the early 20th century, African Americans and Latinos started their own balls. Ball culture then grew to include primarily gay, lesbian, and trans Black people and Latinos.
Attendees dance, vogue, walk, pose, and support one another in one or more of the numerous drag and performance competition categories. Categories are designed to simultaneously epitomize and satirize various genders and social classes, while also offering an escape from reality. The culture extends beyond the extravagant events as many participants in ball culture also belong to groups known as "houses", a longstanding tradition in LGBT communities, and racial minorities, where chosen families of friends live in households together, forming relationships and community to replace families of origin from which they may be estranged.
Houses serve as alternative families, primarily consisting of Black and Latino gay, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer and transgender individuals, and are meant to provide shelter, solace and safety for those who have often been kicked out of their original homes due to being LGBT. Houses are led by "mothers" and "fathers" who are usually older members of the ballroom scene, who are typically drag queens, gay men or transgender women, who provide guidance and support for their house "children". The children of a House are each other's "siblings". Houses exist in more than 15 U.S. cities, mostly in the Northeast. These include New York City, Newark, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California. Houses that win a lot of trophies and gain recognition reach the rank of legendary. Notable houses include the House of Ebony (founded by Richard and Larry Ebony), the House of Ninja (founded by Willi Ninja), the House of Aviance (founded by Mother Juan Aviance), the House of Xtravaganza (founded by Hector Valle, and chiefly run by Hector Xtravaganza and Angie Xtravaganza in the 1980s), the House of Princess, the House of Infiniti, the House of Mizrahi (founded by Andre, Jack, and Heidi Mizrahi), the House of Gucci (Founded by Father Dr. Will Gucci and Mother Meechie (Demetrius) Gucci (1995) the House of LaBeija (founded by Crystal LaBeija, and chiefly run by Pepper LaBeija in the 1980s and 1990s), the House of Dupree (founded by Paris Dupree), the House of Amazon (founded by Leoimy Maldonado), the House of Mugler (founded by David, Raleigh and Julian), the House of Balenciaga (founded by Harold Balenciaga), The Iconic House of Khan (founded by Lowell Khan), the House of Lanvin (founded by Kenny Evisu and Meechie Lacroix), the House of Garcon (founded by Whitney and Shannon Garcon), The Iconic House of Allure (founded by Al Allure & Okio Allure) and The Iconic House of St. Laurent (Founded by Robbie, Chris & Terry St. Laurent). Typically, house members adopt the name of their house as their last name. Historically, four categories of gender have existed within houses: butch queens, femme queens, butches and women.
To compete against each other, Houses "walk" in "balls" judged on vogue skills, 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 and dips.
Some categories include:
- Butch Queen Vogue Fem/Female Figure Performance – Use the vogue elements of hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips.
- Butch Queen (BQ) Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with male heterosexuals.
- Femme Queen (FQ) Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with cisgender women.
- Realness With a Twist (Twister/RWT) – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with heterosexuals, then returning to vogue like a femme queen.
- Runway – Judged on participants' ability to walk like a supermodel. Broken up into different categories: All-American, Women, Butch Queen in Drags (BQID), European and FQ. All -American runway is usually Male Figures (MF) walking as men. BQID, FQ, and Ero are MF's walking as women.
- Bizarre – Judged on participants' creativity to design a costume based on a requested category.
- Labels – Judged on the labels a participant is wearing, their authenticity and the overall look.
- BQ/FQ/FF Face – Judging a participant's facial structure, skin, and teeth.
- BQ/FQ/FF Sex Siren – Judge on participant's sex appeal and how they are able to persuade, tease, and titillate the judges.
- Commentator vs. Commentator – Allows aspiring (and current) emcees to showcase their ability to rap and rhyme over a beat.
- Butch Queen up in Pumps – Similar to Labels or Runway, featuring high heels.
- Hands Performance – Using the hands to tell a story.
- Virgin Vogue – Vogue category for participants who have been voguing for less than one year.
- Beginner's Vogue – Vogue category for participants who have been voguing for less than two years.
- Virgin Runway – Runway for participants who have been walking for less than one year.
- Beginner's Runway – Runway for participants who have been walking for less than two years.
- Best Dressed - Judged on a participant's ostentatious clothing.
- Legendary/Iconic Categories – All-star categories for legends and icons only.
- Women's Vogue – Women who vogue.
- 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 body structure. The judges will be looking for someone who has a well defined body. Not to be confused 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. According to findings by Dr. Genny Beemyn addressed in their book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, members of the underground LGBTQ+ community in large cities of the late nineteenth century began to organize masquerade balls known as "drags" in direct defiance of laws banning citizens from wearing clothes of the opposite gender.
"Strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the '20s, and still the strangest and gaudiest, is the annual Hamilton Club Lodge Ball at Rockland Palace Casino. I once attended as a guest of A'Lelia Walker. It is the ball where men dress as women and women dress as men. During the height of the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes and box-back suits." —Langston Hughes
Although balls now feature mainly Black and Latino participants, the first known ball at the Hamilton Lodge was integrated. This was uncommon because at the time, racial segregation was nearly universal. Although the ball was integrated, racism was still very present, which prevented many Black performers from receiving prizes. There were no Black judges and many believe that the balls were rigged so that only Whites could win. This racial discrimination prompted Black and Latino attendees to form their own balls. In the subsequent decades, drag balls eventually developed the modern, mainstream format we know today.
The modern ballroom culture has existed for at least five decades. 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. In New Orleans in the 1950s, they appeared at Mardi Gras celebrations and were originally called "krewes". In 2010, a documentary by Tim Wolff, called The Sons of Tennessee Williams, follows their history.
Moreover, with the advancements of social media, it has migrated to other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the UK. Ball culture was first captured and shown to a mainstream audience in Jennie Livingston's documentary, Paris is Burning (1990).
Cities with prominent ball culture
New York City
New York City is the epicenter of the world's drag ball culture. Cross dressing balls had existed in the city since the 1920s, consisting of primarily white men. This began a period called the Harlem Renaissance 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 current ballroom scene in New York. Crystal and Lottie are credited with founding the first House in ballroom. 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.
This account from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area describes how ball culture and drag houses developed about 1960:
Some regular house parties became institutionalized as drag "houses" and "families." The leader, or "mother," often provided not only the opportunity for parties but also instruction and mentoring in the arts of make-up, selecting clothes, lip-synching, portraying a personality, walking, and related skills. Those taught became "drag daughters," who in turn mentored others, creating entire "drag families." Drag houses became the first social support groups in the city's gay and lesbian community. House names often came from addresses of the house 'mother', such as Mother Billy Bonhill's Belmont House at 15th and Belmont NW, or associations with the "mother's" chosen personality, as Mame Dennis's Beekman Place.
The dance styles which later characterized drag houses had not been developed; competitions between houses involved standard drag performances in which entertainers lip-synced or, rarely, sang. In contrast to the New York houses in Paris Is Burning, some of the Washington, D.C. house mothers were white.African-American drag queens were a prominent part of the community:
Venues for drag shows and competitions were a constant challenge in the 1960s. The Uptown Lounge sponsored monthly drag contests, an event later duplicated at Johnnie's on Capitol Hill. Chunga's drag shows at the Golden Key Club in North Beach, Maryland were a popular Sunday event. The major hotels' resistance to drag events was not broken until February 1968 when African-American drag impresario Black Pearl staged the gala Black Pearl International Awards at the Washington Hilton. It was the drag event of the year.
The Washington, D.C. ball community consists primarily of African-American and Latino participants, and has adopted many attributes seen in Paris Is Burning. Nineteen-sixties-style drag shows and competitions still exist, with their own audience. Ball patrons will find similar categories (such as "banjee thug realness" and "vogue") as an audience member.
The Washington ballroom scene was created in the mid to late 1980s by Icon Lowell Adonis Khanh (Lowell Thomas Hickman, (1986)); Icon Eric Christian-Bazaar; and Icon Mother Juan Aviance, founder and Mother of House of Aviance (1989—present). During the 1990s, more houses appeared in the area due to the efforts of Twain Miyake-Mugler ("father" of the House of Miyake Mugler, D.C. Chapter), Icon Harold Balenciaga (founder of the house of Balenciaga), Icons Shannon Garcon and Whitney Garcon (founders of the House of Garcon and charter members of The Legendary House of Miyake-Mugler). The city hosts a series of annual balls, in which contestants compete for trophies and cash prizes.
In 1931, the newspaper Baltimore Afro-American covered a local drag ball. The article detailed the "coming out of new debutantes into gay society." By the 1930s, the drag ball culture was starting to emerge in the Black communities in major cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. The Afro reported that "The coming out of new debutantes into homosexual society was the outstanding feature of Baltimore's eighth annual frolic of the pansies when the art club was host to the neuter gender at the Elks' Hall."
The ball culture documentary How Do I Look partially focused on the ball community in Philadelphia.
The ball community was, and continues to be, impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic since transgender people of color and men who have sex with men (MSM) are at one of the highest risks for contracting the virus in the U.S. Out of all estimated HIV diagnoses in men who are 13 years old and up, MSM make up 78%. Additionally, in the United States, MSM represent 61% of all diagnosis of HIV. Young black men are especially at risk for contracting the virus and in 2009 alone, the percentage of black MSM, aged 13–29, who were diagnosed with HIV increased by 48%. Many health care providers and medical service professionals have since reached out to the community to perform research, teach sex education, offer free testing, and host balls to promote safe sex. Notably is the Latex Ball that is hosted by the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York. Researchers with ProjectVOGUE also reached out to the ball community for assistance with vaccine trials and testing because minority participation is generally very low. This stems from a historical distrust that African-Americans and Latinos have had of the government, that results from government-sponsored projects such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. ProjectVOGUE is led by researchers and professionals from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Florida International University, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the MOCHA (Men of Color Health Association) Center. They aimed to create a partnership with the Western New York ball community and held monthly meetings where safe sex methods were taught along with information about the HIV trial vaccine. Community members were initially incentivized to attend with $25 gift cards and transportation vouchers. These joint meeting sessions also branched out to cover topics such as substance abuse, STI prevention, violence within the ball community, and more. ProjectVOGUE researchers utilized the House "family" structure by taking 15 "mothers", "fathers", founders, and more on a retreat to gauge the community's knowledge of HIV, while encouraging them to teach their "children" about HIV prevention. At the end of the study, participants had an increased knowledge about HIV, HIV vaccine research, and were more likely to participate in a study. This is just one of the many partnerships that have formed across the country between the health care industry and the ball community to encourage HIV prevention. Overall, HIV/AIDS took, and continues to take, the lives of many ball participants, but that trauma has caused the community to grow tighter as members mourned, grieved, and celebrated the lives of their friends together.
New York's ballroom culture has had a highly significant cultural impact from the 1980s to the present day.
The most notable influence of ball culture on mainstream society is voguing, a dance style originating in Harlem ballrooms during the latter half of the 20th century and appropriated in the video for Madonna's "Vogue", released in 1990 (one year before the documentary Paris Is Burning). The dance group Vogue Evolution, from America's Best Dance Crew, has again sparked interest in voguing.
Voguing started in Drag Balls held by the queer community of color. The competitions were divided up into Houses that then competed in different categories, in which one of the categories was voguing. Named after Vogue magazine, voguing required dancers to mirror the poses held by models, with emphasis placed on arm and hand movements. Dancers would play out elaborate scenes such as applying makeup or taking phone calls while dancing down the catwalk.[page needed] Dancer and choreographer Willi Ninja has been recognized as the "Grandfather of Vogue" and the dance, as well as Ninja himself, were covered in the documentary Paris is Burning.[page needed]
The legacy of ball culture on current drag is extensive. Language that grew out of it is common among the LGBTQ+ community as a whole (such as terms "reading" and "shade" meaning insults used in battles of wit, and "spilling tea" meaning gossiping). The use of categories and judging can be seen on popular reality TV programs such as RuPaul's Drag Race. The structure of Houses is widely used among drag queens today, as well as associated notions of community and family. Attitudes of defiance and subversion, that were necessary for black, Latino, queer, and trans participants, as they navigated discrimination, exclusion, and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, form an essential part of drag culture as a whole.
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.
- Voguing: dance invented in 1970s Harlem and performed notably by Willi Ninja
- Walking: walking to acquire the admiration of ball contestants
- Mopping: shoplifting, usually clothes to walk in at a ball
- Werk: an exclamatory phrase used to connote admiration and content with someone's actions
- Fierce: similar to "work" meaning something to admire and celebrate
- Butch queen: a queer male
- Mother: the matriarch of a house, often taking a mentoring role for members of the house. typically a "Legend" in the ballroom scene
- House: a group of individuals that compete in balls under the same name. Often, they are your chosen family.
- Dip: iconic drop done by vogue dancers, often called a deathdrop or shawam – which is incorrect – in pop culture
- Chop: when the person competing is disqualified by one of the judges
- Legendary, or "Legend": a title added before an individual's name meaning years of hard work
- Iconic, or "Icon": similar to "Legend", this is the highest achievement in ballroom. It means countless trophies have been won and memorable moments have been made by this individual
- 007: a person who is not a member of a House
A key element of balls is also the music, which is typically characterized by distinct, up tempo beats that are overlaid with the "raps" of commentators or emcees. Lyrics are just as stylized as the beats and often praise queerness and femininity through typically vulgar language and usage of words like "cunt" and "pussy". Historically, the music featured at balls has been whatever is popular within the black LGBT community at the time, ranging from disco, to club music, to house, and now even rap and R&B. House music, the primary sound of the balls, is always upwards of 120 beats per minute and has African roots, which is reflected in the rhythm. Today, it is common for older house classics like "Work This Pussy" by Ellis D and "Cunty" by Kevin Aviance to be remixed into new hits by the current wave of DJs and producers. Overall, 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 1980s."
In September 2006, Beyoncé 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...'"
In the media
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".
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 ball culture, as well as others in 1980s Manhattan. The show was created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy.
On April 18, 2019, it was announced that 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, will premiere and compete in the Un Certain Regard competition at the prestigious 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It was backed and produced by Martin Scorsese and RT Features. Leyna Bloom's debut in Port Authority will be the first time in the festival's history that a trans woman of color is featured in a leading role. The film is credited with authentic casting and representation. Port Authority features scenes at balls, as well as during rehearsals and of queer youth's chosen family. Almost every actor that plays a role of significance in the ballroom scenes in the film including competitors, judges, and house members, are active members of the ballroom scene today. Prior to being cast, Leyna Bloom caught internationally 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.
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