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[Perspective]

In My House

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Read ’em and weep: how ballroom went from the underground to the mainstream

Voguing, and the house ballroom community that cultivated it, have been in the spotlight this summer. Most obviously, two new cable television shows were centered on ball culture: Elegance Bratton’s My House, a ten-episode docuseries exploring the scene through today’s New York performers, on Viceland, and Ryan Murphy’s Pose, a big-budget drama set against the backdrop of the ballroom houses of the 1980s, on FX. But the culture has been turning up elsewhere as well.

Take the month of June alone: Teyana Taylor released her song “WTP,” which sampled from a 1991 track in rotation at present-day balls; commercials for the high fashion e-tailer MyTheresa.com and Blink Fitness gyms featuring ballroom talent surfaced; internationally, at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Madrid, Spanish designer Ana Locking found inspiration in the culture and invited voguers to be a part of her show; and even Kim Kardashian West posted a clip featuring an animated version of herself voguing to “WTP” to promote her latest KKW Fragrances. When looked at collectively, the occurrences removed all doubt that this formerly fringe subculture is now part of the mainstream.

Meanwhile, though, ballroom community continues on, business as usual, as it has for almost a century.

On June 30, Gay Men’s Health Crisis put on the 28th Annual Latex Ball in New York City, one of the most covered and attended events of New York’s circuit. More than two thousand people—including ballroom community members from around the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia—came to watch and compete in almost six hours of competitions, with prizes totaling over $11,000. As with most balls, there were a variety of competitive categories: Performance, which includes different styles of voguing; Fashion, where contestants show off their style whether purchased or created; Looks, in which performers show off either their bodies or their faces; and Runway, where they compete with stylized walks.

The cast of Pose made a much celebrated appearance, with Dominique Jackson— known as Elektra Abundance on the show, and Tyra to this community (before making it onto Pose, Jackson was well-known in the ballroom scene for walking the runway and face categories)—sitting on the judging panel. Some My House cast members were also in attendance, with Jelani Mizrahi competing in and winning the “realness with a twist” performance category.

“Did you not see him snatch the scarf?” a woman asked as the crowds began to let out from Terminal 5, the Midtown venue where the event was held, referring to a moment during a runway battle when Gillette Mizrahi snatched a scarf in mid-air that Jal Milan had thrown up to obscure his view. Her companion shook his head. “Don’t worry about it; it’ll be on Ballroom Throwbacks tomorrow.”

A few hours later, the clip was live, along with 74 other videos that had been uploaded to YouTube by Ballroom Throwbacks Television (BRTB TV), ranging from thirty seconds to nearly twenty minutes, all featuring footage from the Latex Ball. The clips added to an archive of this community and its artistry that BRTB TV has been building for nearly a decade as it chronicles ballroom culture, discovers talent, and shapes perceptions for a now-global audience (its YouTube channel has more than a hundred thousand subscribers). Without this channel and others like it, the subculture would not likely be experiencing the mainstream resurgence it’s having today.

Pose

The origins of the ballroom community can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance: in the wake of black folks from around America descending on Harlem, black queer people were made to feel unwelcome.

“In this space of Harlem becoming the new black mecca, black queers became homeless in the new home,” Michael Roberson, an adjunct professor at The New School and a community organizer within the ballroom scene, told Harper’s in an interview over the phone. “Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who was the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, created a three-decade campaign to get rid of black queers, responding to the politics of respectability.” The pointed exclusion helped give rise to the Harlem drag balls, which became an underground refuge for queer black people beginning in the 1920s. (Other Manhattan drag balls were run by and for white queers.) At these balls, drag queens would dress up to dance and also compete in small contests.

After World War II, the balls spread to secondary cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Some of the most popular queens would also compete in the white-run ball and pageant circuit and its affiliated pageants. This inclusion did not come without complications: In the documentary The Queen (1968), which premiered during the International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival, Crystal LaBeija accused Miss Flawless Sabrina of rigging the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant in favor of a younger, white queen. In a clip known to most in the ballroom community, and sampled on singer Frank Ocean’s album Endless in 2016, she dresses down the entire production and storms out.

LaBeija, along with black queens like Phil Black, who was a popular female impersonator, would go on to start new Harlem drag balls, events now put on by “houses.” At first only drag queens, many of whom would today be known as transgender women, competed in a limited amount of competitions. Over time, the categories grew, others began to compete, and it was in this competitive environment that voguing matured into the art form it is today.

“There was Stonewall in 1969, and New York had the very first Pride in 1970; it is not accidental to me that the first house [The House of LaBeija] was also created in 1970,” Roberson said.

It wouldn’t be until two decades later that The House of LaBeija, and others that followed it—Ninja (1982), Pendavis (1979), Xtravaganza (1982)—would break into mainstream entertainment. To this day, Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning (1991)—both projects by white, cisgender women—remain ballroom’s most referenced historical touchstones. (Not long before, the dancer Willi Ninja was featured in Malcolm McClaren’s 1989 song and music video “Deep in Vogue,” having been discovered by McClaren in a rough cut of Paris is Burning.) Around the time of “Vogue,” Madonna integrated ballroom members like José Gutiérrez and Luis Xtravaganza into her entourage, with the performers famously helping to choreograph and dance on the star’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour and appearing in her 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. It was the beginning of an ongoing process of cultural exchange between people inside the community and people outside it, with ball-culture figures lending new flair to existing celebrities, and in some cases, over time, emerging as celebrities in their own right.

In March 2009, five months before MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew would welcome five members from the ballroom scene to its fourth season in the form of a team known as Vogue Evolution, Ceasar Williams began uploading videos to a new YouTube channel called Ballroom Throwbacks Television.

“I’ve been documenting balls on and off since 1997,” Ceasar explained, sitting on a park bench in Harlem this summer. For the channel’s launch, he posted twenty-three videos in one day, featuring footage from various balls all in 2003. The channel “was actually just to showcase stuff that people had probably never seen and people thought was lost,” he said. “I did it for the newer generation back in 2009, to show why some things happened and so they could see who started certain things and certain trends.” Over the next five months, he continued to add clips from the early ’90s through 2004, including clips of some of the Vogue Evolution members who were set to break into the mainstream, helping to build out a library of footage for anyone searching.

Ceasar was certainly not the first person to upload ballroom content to YouTube. After the platform was launched in 2005, poor-quality ballroom clips were making the rounds on multiple accounts. Sailey Williams, a co-founder of Tenz Magazine, which covers the community, remembers seeing his first video on an account titled tinyevisu in the fall of 2006.

Amongst those early uploaders an account called Jayon922, run by a member of the House of Chanel, made a powerful impression on many both in and outside the scene.

“[Jayon’s] videos had become so popular within the community that people would think it was shade sometimes if he didn’t post a video of them,” Twiggy Garçon, the overall overseer of the House of Commes des Garçon and co-writer of the 2017 film Kiki, which explores a youth-led subset of the ballroom community, said in a phone interview in June. (At the time that Jayon was posting, Twiggy was also in The House of Chanel.) “But he couldn’t get everyone all the time, so people started to request that he record them. I think that’s why we started to see the big shift in names popping up.” That shift toward naming (many early videos did not identify performers and some still don’t to this day), and toward consistent, timely video updates, would leave a legacy for BRTB TV to pick up on after Jayon922 disappeared from YouTube. Inside the community, these channels became the historical record, allowing for voguers to quickly and easily reference the past, in lieu of the VHS tapes and DVDs that had been previously used. The channels also provided something else: a window for outsiders into a growing world.

“As far as we were concerned, we were just sharing these clips with one another,” explained Dashaun Lanvin, who started voguing in 1999. “For us, it was just us watching our clips to see how we did for the night.” But there was also a growing legion of outsiders watching, some of whom, like Sailey, would eventually go from being avid fans to walking a ball and joining houses.

As BRTB TV’s audience grew, so did its purview: a channel that had started as just a home for archival footage began to feature current balls. Eventually, even that expanded: Along with footage of performance categories there were ball recaps, post-ball interviews, and in-the-moment analyses by attendees. The channel became a community media outlet as well as an archive.

“Down on the [Chelsea] Piers, having a clip on Ballroom Throwbacks is like being on the news,” Bratton said in an interview. This reportage aspect allows community members to keep up with what’s going on when they can’t attend a ball, which is particularly important for commentators—the hosts and freestyle-rapping MCs at balls.

“Me, being a commentator, you definitely have to keep up on houses, positions, who’s in the spotlight right now, who’s been missing in action or may be returning; all of that,” said Precious Ebony, who has been involved with the scene since 2008 but has recently become a ballroom staple, working with the well-known fashion designer Rick Owens as well as Blink Fitness and participating in balls around the world. “I definitely use YouTube to keep up.” This sometimes requires toggling between different channels like Virginia ballroom, Ballrooms Billboard and Paris Ballroom TV, which may have content BRTB TV doesn’t. KiKi VIDz, another option, publishes videos surrounding the kiki scene, a subsection of ballroom that broke off in 2002 to serve the specific needs of some of the community’s youngest participants. That community has also grown, with its own balls and houses and a sprawling international infrastructure.

But for performers, it’s more than just news: these videos provide ideal sources of inspiration for their own work. “Talking about clips is so much a part of the culture,” Relish Milan, who was featured in My House, said. “We sit around and talk about these people and we try to glorify these people. In ballroom, everyone wants you to remember the past and realize that we are all standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us; we aren’t in the era of voguing anymore where it was just created and you just do it for fun. You have to get in touch with what’s happening by watching these clips.”

While preparing to compete in categories, performers now have an easily accessible reference in these channels as well as others like sugarchampagne, which also includes archival footage that they are expected to know. “You’re really able to see what came before and what’s happening now, and so you’re able to choose whether or not to let that influence how you show up for your performance,” Twiggy expanded. “It’s helpful for the precision and the progress of any category.”

Voguers like Leiomy Amazon and Kassandra Ebony have had a large impact on today’s style of voguing. While many came before them, Leiomy has been one of the most visible vogue femme performers in the world, particularly on YouTube. Her trademark hair whips and emphasis on athleticism (like doing a 360-degree spin while in a dip) have left an indelible impression on the scene, particularly for dramatic performers. Even her body type, which differs from the popular femme queen aesthetic of the time—typically surgically enhanced breasts and butt paired with a slimmer waist—shifted the focus of ballroom conversation from the body to the performance. At the Latex Ball, commentator Jack Mizrahi spoke to this sort of YouTube lineage.

“Kassandra, you have been the prototype of so many girls,” Jack said on the mic, calling out the performer, who has been a part of the community since 2003 but has had a presence on YouTube since Jayon’s uploads. Kassandra became known early in his ballroom career for his spins, which he perfected while taking ice skating lessons for six to seven years as a child. “Because of your clips, so many girls became [great]. It started with Mystery but it took girls like you to take it to another level.

“Kassandra from America,” Jack continued, pointing to a popular member of the House of Mugler from Paris. “I want you to make this man great.”

But there is also a sensationalist effect that comes with balls being broadcast worldwide. “In the ‘90s, it would have been a much smaller circuit. How many people were actually going to get the VHS tape of the ball?” Sailey said. “If you got chopped or you got served, not that many people knew and it might take some time for them to find out. Today it’s instant and it’s global. Every single thing, whether it’s good or bad, is going to be visible to everyone, and if it’s a major moment, you might even have a celebrity repost it.” The filming and the accessibility of the film makes an easily viewable set of “stats” that have in some ways raised the stakes of voguing. For some, that’s caused the culture of ballroom and voguing to become caught up in the wrong thing, to prize records over true creativity. But for some, it just comes with the territory of mainstreaming.

In part because of the accessibility YouTube brought, ballroom never fully went back underground after 2006. Unlike when Paris is Burning debuted, now when outsiders watched Leiomy Amazon, Dashaun Lanvin, or Pony Zion on America’s Best Dance Crew, they could go to YouTube and keep up with their favorite performers. The same waves of new ballroom fans were possible when Leiomy choreographed for and starred in Willow Smith’s video for her song “Whip My Hair” in 2010. Leiomy, the “Wonder Woman of Vogue,” as she has branded herself, was now a celebrity in her own right in the mainstream, so much so that she became the face of a Nike campaign. As has Dashaun, “The King of Vogue,” after appearing on The Wiz Live! and performing with Rihanna for her Anti tour.

But more than just allowing people outside the community to follow along, YouTube allowed them to appropriate the culture and the moves. In a trend story from Dance Spirit leading up to the 2008 House Dance International competition, the publication wrote: “[T]hanks to YouTube, anyone can have access to vogue’s ballroom subculture, a chance to see a vibrant dance form in its element.” In 2018, though YouTube certainly opened the door, access is even more readily available through the Instagram accounts of celebrities. June Ambrose, a stylist who famously has worked with Jay-Z and Missy Elliott, occasionally posts particularly popular ballroom clips onto her own feed, broadcasting the culture to her following.

“The hypervisibility of ballroom through YouTube in some ways allows for a salacious relationship to not only Europe, but for straight black folks and white folks to misappropriate ballroom,” Roberson explains.

Those relationships have been routinely criticized, from the adoption by mainstream entertainers of dance moves that looked similar to Leiomy’s, to the cottage industry that started around members of the ballroom community going to Europe to teach skills to classes of mostly financially privileged, non-black students. These students would then go on to incorporate the moves into their own choreography, profiting from them in a way that was completely divorced from their origins. An extreme example is Juliet Murrell, who trademarked The House of Voga, a boutique workout that combines voguing and yoga, which promises to burn between 650 and 850 calories per session.

Elsewhere, with arguably better intentions, communities around the world use YouTube as a way to learn how a ball operates, or how to vogue. Koppi Mizrahi, a powerhouse in the Japan ballroom scene, learned how to vogue through YouTube, messaging voguers like Andre Mizrahi through the platform to ask questions and eventually traveling to and around the United States in 2009 to learn more. She then was an instrumental figure in helping to kickstart the community in her native Japan, outside of just a dance form. But this exchange happens elsewhere as well: In a Vice documentary, Pacific Islander performers in New Zealand discuss how they essentially mimic what they see. It’s also clear when viewing: crowd reactions, chants and commentator patter at balls around the world are essentially lifted from videos, generally filmed in New York.

“I take it as a compliment,” Precious said. His chants, including one called “I Suck Too Much Dick,” have routinely been used at balls around the world and mimicked by other performers.

But this chronicling has not just cultivated an audience, and assisted in spreading ballroom internationally. It has also provided source and research material for other endeavors. “I can’t say [watching Ballroom Throwbacks] went explicitly to research Pier Kids, but I definitely came out after that first six months of watching knowing I would make Pier Kids,” Bratton said of his first film, which follows a group of people he met on the piers. Channels like BRTB TV inspired all of his work around ball in an “atmospheric way.” “I used to really piggyback between Ballroom Throwbacks and [The Luna Show].” The latter was founded by Luna Ortiz and features in-depth interviews of people from the community telling their own stories in full, including their lives outside of ballroom.

According to Ceasar, people sourcing performers through YouTube is routine. He said he’s regularly forwarding contact information for voguers featured on his channel.

A more interesting aspect of this global feedback loop is when videos of non-American ballroom performers are critiqued through the lens of American ballroom. Shortly before this year’s Latex Ball, footage pulled from a 2017 ball in Yekaterinburg, Russia began making the rounds on Twitter, with many (not of the ballroom community) asking why performers were being given 10s—a sign of achievement in the scene. Others accused the participants of “colonizing” the art form. But in reality, this was a real extension of the ballroom scene—the participants were at a ball put on by the House of Ferre, the clip itself pulled from a channel dedicated to Russia’s scene.

As the art form continues to become more integrated with the mainstream, the lines will blur even further. Who owns voguing in a day and age where, thanks to YouTube, anyone can learn the skills at home, as well as the history and the important players? Who has a right to throw balls when they have become a part of mainstream culture, shown on television and talked about in magazines? The community is still trying to answer such questions, with some discussing how “inclusive” ballroom has become over the last few years.

“When I first started, it was all black and brown people; there would be one or two white people who sort of wandered in,” Relish explained, having walked his first ball in 2012. “Over time more came [from Europe] and everyone was treated fairly, but there was this shift. It became this situation of, people started going up for these European girls but not the people who made this,” Relish said, pointing out that sometimes he feels that the quality level is expected to be higher for black and Latin performers.

“You have to judge the country by who is in the country, even if their community may have a genuine interest in the ballroom scene,” Sailey said of how the optics of race might play at a ball. “You shouldn’t expect black people to be running a ball in Japan, that’s just not the makeup of the country. But I also get perplexed with some of the participants who are outspoken against Americans who proclaim that they have done performance better or they get picked to represent the culture over Americans on campaigns.” The conversation is really ongoing, but in the meantime, Pose has been renewed for a second season, ensuring that this moment in the mainstream’s spotlight, and the conversation that this position has spurred, will last for far longer than a summer.

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