With the upcoming release of Wolfgang Busch’s “How Do I Look,” a new documentary that takes a look at the Ballroom scene where “Paris is Burning” (1990) left off and the annual Love is the Message Ball taking place in Los Angeles March 10, 2006, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the rich history of the Ballroom community or for people who are not aware of the Ballroom scene, to introduce you what has become one of my favorite pastimes.
I want to thank Aaron Enigma of the House of Enigma for compiling the historical information you will find in this post.
This post is by no way the complete information on the Ballroom scene, but it will provide you with some of the history and where you can go today to find out more information.
For my next post regarding the Ballroom scene I will review Wolfgang Busch’s “How Do I Look.” Look for it soon…
WHAT IS A BALL?
Several times a month, predominantly black/latino gay social groups (called houses) get together at events where they compete in a variety of categories. The house that is hosting presents the theme and categories, circulating information, well in advance, so that people can prepare. At the event, houses submit a variety of contestants to vie for recognition or defend titles earned previously. A hall is set with chairs and tables on either side, leaving a "runway" that leads up to the judges’ table in front. The deejay is in place with all the right records, old and new, to create various moods needed throughout the show. The emcee has the wit and the control to keep the program flowing, as well as keeping the audience entertained. It all begins with a Grand March (or "Legends, Statements and Stars"), to introduce the members of the hosting house, as well as the judges and other noteworthy attendees. Sometimes a new house or individual will make a debut, or even change membership for shock value. As the program progresses, winners are awarded trophies, and the evening finishes with a Grand Prize category, usually offering cash and a trophy. This is what it means to have a "Ball", a tradition that has continued to flourish and mutate since the early 1900s.
WHAT IS A HOUSE
The heads of a house are referred to as the Mother and Father, without regard to gender. In many cases, leaders have founded a particular house, but in the case of some longer running houses (such as LaBeija, at more than 30 years), leadership is passed down. Houses can be modeled after a range of organizational structures: fraternities, families, clubs, etcetera. Membership is determined by the Mother and Father, who often "shop around" for contestants, even from other houses. Sizes range from a few local enlistees to nationwide membership, with chapters springing up from coast to coast. Even so, not all members "walk" categories. Some just aid and assist with contestant or event preparations. Pride is established through longevity and/or showmanship, as everyone strives for "legendary" or "icon" status, either as groups or individuals. These events are a celebration of characteristics or talents that might otherwise go unnoticed in the mainstream: an underground network that continues to flourish, immortalizing its own "stars".
THE RICH HISTORY OF BALLS
We can trace an earlier semblance of today’s house balls to the Harlem Renaissance in the 20’s. In the midst of the flourishing black nightlife and culture, the underground gay/lesbian experience was usually celebrated at lavish and grand costume balls, where men were often dressed as women, and vice-versa. Straight and/or curious spectators would come to gawk at the spectacle, in conjunction with the phenomenon of whites coming to experience "exotic" Harlem nightlife. One of the more famous spots was the Rockland Palace on 155th Street. These events were some of the few places where many kinds of people congregated and "let their hair down" in a relatively tolerant environment, pre-Stonewall. Prizes would be awarded in a limited range of categories, usually "drag" and costume related.
Chicago also held drag balls, but like many large cities, they were limited to New Years and Halloween: the few times of the year a man could dress in womens’ clothes and not be arrested. Alfred Finnie (a black gay street hustler) is said to have thrown the first Chicago gay ball in 1935, in the basement of a bar at 38th and Michigan. This stemmed from the Chicago Ball tradition of the late 1800’s, when the aldermen team of "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (known as the "Lords of the Levee [District]"), threw the "First Ward Balls" at the Chicago Coliseum. Bathhouse John would lead a Grand March procession consisting of prostitutes, drag queens, pickpockets, pimps, madams and other colorful characters. The evening almost always ended in some type of riot. These were held annually through the turn of the century, until they were finally stopped by the mayor of Chicago in 1909. Finnie’s annual events continued even after his death in 1943. Later, the tradition was carried on into the 70’s by Chicago Legends like Jacques Cristion and Dodi Danials, at places like the Grand Ballroom at 64th and Cottage Grove.
In New York, drag balls would continue in one form or another through the 60’s, each adopting and modifying various protocols and conventions. During the 70’s, Legendary Icons Pepper Labeija and Dorian Corey would host their annual "Harlem Fantasy" Ball, while Paris Dupree would kick off the season with the annual "Paris Is Burning" Ball, and Avis Penda’vis would host her autumn event. During the late 70’s, the categories were being expanded beyond drag, for wider range and patron participation. The attendance level of certain groups would ebb and flow over time. Straight people, male and female, are now represented in smaller number, but do compete as well as spectate. The majority of house ball attendees these days are gay males (referred to as "butch queens"), but the transgender community (the "femme queens") still holds its show-stopping status on the "runway". The lesbian community has increased it’s participation, sometimes creating houses that cater to mostly women, such as the House of Moshood.
As ball celebrities were created during the 70’s, they would draw a camp of followers who wanted to be associated with legendary status. Some of these fans would be young and just coming to terms with their gayness, sometimes banished from their biological families. They would transfer the Mother/Father/Sister/Brother role to people who could better relate to them. Out of a natural succession, "Legends" became parents, role models, teachers, spiritual leaders, etcetera. Though the documentary "Paris is Burning" (taking it’s title from Paris Dupree’s yearly event) depicted many ball patrons as homeless outcasts, many actually did (and still do) have the support of their biological families, who often play a part in staging these events. Balls became a way of offering something constructive for young people to do: an arena to hone individual talents.
The ideas for categories can come from anywhere, but are usually developed around the basics: "Face", "Body", "Realness", "Runway/ Model Effect", "Bizarre" and "Vogue Performance". Themes are taken many times from present popular culture, and most of the categories will reflect this in some way. The House of Avant-Garde once threw "As The Ball Turns", with a handbill resembling a TV Guide, and categories numbered like channels. All the categories made some reference to television shows. One category was "…looking for Plain Janes and Neat Nicks that turned into TV heart-throbs by the time they reach the judges’ table", while another wanted you to endorse your choice of product or sponsor in a mock commercial.
It is important to keep category requirements concise, but often it is the clever rhymes, s(n)ide comments, footnotes, call-outs and rival-rousing that help spark the anticipation, as well as participation. Hector Xtravaganza and RR Chanel’s "ShadeFest" flyer stated for their "Male Body" category: "Be it short, tall or stocky, which one will make us lust for the cocky?" In this case, the objective was sex appeal and not just physique. The result was a runway flooded with candidates in their birthday suits, hands strategically keeping their "jewels" covered.
Categories are generally broken up as follows:
Male (Men’s or BQ) Face-
"Masculine" (allows groomed facial hair) vs "Pretty Boy" (smooth and clear complexion). Sometimes "Face" is further divided between "Light and Lovely vs Brown and Lovely vs Dark and Lovely".
Women’s (Female) or FQ Face-
"Painted" (allows makeup) vs "Unpainted" (no makeup).
Male (Men’s or BQ) Body-
"Muscular" (body builders) vs "Model’s" (not as beefy- magazine quality).
Women’s (Female) or FQ Body-
"Luscious" (full-figured, but sexy) vs "Model’s" (swimsuit quality).
role playing down to the smallest of details. For example, if the category is "FQ Realness", all traces of ones biological maleness must be virtually erased (or at least hidden). In contrast, "BQ Realness" requires complete camouflage of anything remotely perceived as "gay": you appear to be a straight man.
offers the widest range of creativity and display. From "Futuristic" to "Fantasy", the objective is to always present an elaborate costume and effect. There are specific favorites like "Foil vs. Plastic", but often the category is more general in scope.
requirements vary greatly, with contestants displaying home sewn garments ("Designer’s Delight") or high fashion ready-to-wear like Prada or Gucci ("Labels").Sometimes the contestants are judged solely on their walking ability. In these instances, you are free to choose any outfit that will make you "feel it".
stylized jazz dance created by the African American gay community, with its own separate divisions and requirements.
Grand Prize- usually requires the efforts of 3 or more people per entry. You may have to create a skit or put on some type of production in the theme of the event. Close attention must be paid to costume, music, props and overall showmanship. This is one of many categories that can bring a ballroom to its feet, when you consider the lengths that contestants will go to satisfy a frenzied crowd.
Whatever categories are offered, contestants must adhere to the requirements given, to avoid disqualification or low scoring (getting "chopped") before an eagerly cheering and jeering audience (a vicious "Gong Show", if you will). This brings about the question of "shade": who’s throwing it and how much (see glossary below). Judges can be quite finicky when it comes to exact interpretation, and its up to the emcee or a head judge to settle disputes that may erupt from time to time. Generally, everyone’s a good sport, but you do get poor losers here and there.
WHAT IS VOGUE?
With Madonna’s exposure of vogueing to the mainstream (albeit a watered-down version), everyone got the call to "…strike-a-pose, there’s nothing to it…". For such a supposedly "easy" dance, there were only two members of her troupe that actually had any vogueing background, Jose and Luis Xtravaganza. Straight from the ball/club circuit, they taught their fellow dancers a few choreographed moves, and the tour was on. Their sole delivery pushed them to the forefront, though they were hindered by the intermediacy of their supporting cast. To make it more marketable, Madonna’s song "Vogue" had to concentrate on the posing aspect, which is simple enough to teach a multitude, but does NOT a voguer make. Actually, Posing is often its own ball category, and one can be eliminated swiftly upon not knowing the difference.
Other media over the years has misrepresented the term vogueing, describing it as lip sync/drag performance or just modeling in general (such as reviews of movies like "Stonewall" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert"). While these elements can be incorporated, it is still the actual DANCE of which we speak. A true voguer SEAMLESSLY combines the disciplines of a diverse range of movement: martial arts, jazz/ modern dance, gymnastics and yoga, among others. Beyond this, there is still a particular execution that distinguishes vogueing from other dances. Structured around distinct hand and arm movements, the voguer must keep time with the beat of the music, as well as accentuate the various changes in the music. Improvisation is driven by the build-up and break-down of baselines, rhythms, sound effects and vocals.
Starting out as "Performance", the dance took on the name "Vogue" during the late 70’s, when practitioners started borrowing ideas from the more extreme photo layouts of current fashion magazines. Over the years, influence from other creative sources have been incorporated, including fan dancing and pantomime. Sometimes the use of a prop is encouraged, to show ones dexterity. The Legendary House of Dupree was known for performing with chairs, batons, swords, you name it. Therefore, the skill of the voguer is measured by how well these elements are melded into one spontaneous performance. This process is ongoing, lending to the dance’s metamorphic nature.
A wide range of styles has evolved over the years. There are two main divisions: "Old Way" (60’s, 70’s and 80’s) and "New Way" (90’s and beyond). Also, BQ technique is traditionally separate from that of the FQs, with styles loosely based at opposite ends of the masculine/feminine continuum.
Old Way Performance deals more with style and acrobats, like its younger cousin, break(danc)ing, but can still be disected even further. In the earlier days, break dancers would "clash" with the voguers at places like New York’s Central Park or Washington Square Park, and the exchanges of techniques developed an odd but respectable rapport between the two groups. The results of this exchange created "Lofting", named after the now defunct New York club "The Loft", where you could find the closeted and otherwise "banjie" boys combining vogue arm movements with their break dance floor work. This would then lead to ball categories such as Lofting vs. Pop Dip and Spin.
Pop Dip and Spin was developed as a result of BQs combining FQ technique with break dance moves. Back then, the FQs performance was characterized by freeze-frame poses and fluid hand and arm movements, but never dipping- they didn’t want to risk ruining their hair, makeup and/or gowns. But the BQs weren’t "dolled up", so they had more freedom of movement, and could take it to an extreme. The battle-like aspect was further displayed through actually locking and pinning the opponent, while still maintaining a graceful performance.
New Way involves displaying ones physical flexibility, coupled with slight-of-hand arm and wrist illusions. "Arms Control" plays a large role, as the practitioners’ limbs become kinetic sculptures or the gears and mechanisms in an amusement park ride. While Old Way encourages "in your face" action, New Way vets usually aren’t allowed to touch their opponents. The battle is rendered through exhibition. The constant evolution of the dance widens the New Way range, but the styles prior to the 80’s will always be classified as Old Way.
A new generation of BQ’s, however, has created yet another category, by taking FQ technique and exaggerating it even further: BQ Vogueing Femme. Catwalking (upright sashaying) and duck-walking (a squatting/scooting motion) dominate. Lunges, dives and other "suicide" dips are incorporated, in an attempt to accent the surprise sound effects that strike throughout certain dance tracks (i.e., Jim Carey’s dance remix of "Cuban Pete"; George Kantz’s 80’s classic, "Din Da Da"; Masters At Work’s crowd pleaser, "The Ha Dance"; and Kevin Aviance’s anthem, "Cunty"). The emphasis is on how flamboyant one can be through movement alone. These competitions are often divided between the soft/dainty performers (Angels) and the "drama" queens that incorporate BQ-based antics (Devils).
Walk4Me Wednesdays.com – #1 Website for keeping up with the Ballroom scene
Balls.HouseOfEnigma.com/index.html – History of Ballroom scene
House of Balls Yahoo Group – Yahoo group dedicated to Ballroom Scene
West Coast Ballroom Scene Yahoo Group – Yahoo group dedicated to West Coast Ballroom activities focusing primarily on Los Angeles and Oakland.
Paris is Burning (1990) – This is a documentary of balls among New York’s ballroom scene. Ballroom walkers are interviewed and observed preparing for and competing in many ‘balls’.
How Do I Look (2005) – “How Do I Look” is the follow up of the international successful movie, "Paris is Burning", distributed by Miramax Films. “How Do I Look” continues where “Paris is Burning” left off. Since 1997, they have been documenting the "Balls", where the "Old School" and the "New School Legends" are competing in a safe and artistic environment at locations such as Harlem, the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It has been that way since the 60’s, when the "Balls" started in Harlem. The "children", members of the "Houses", compete for trophy’s and cash money, representing their "House" and to become a "Legend" one day . Over the years, Legends turned individuality into an art form at the "Balls" like you cannot see it anywhere else.
New York Times – May 22, 2005