Why you should care
Because this subculture fueled the LGBT movement for people of color.
The beat pounds. A woman steps onto the catwalk, knifing the air with her hands. The crowd screams and roars. This is voguing: raw, aggressive … and queer.
If you think this is just a fashion show, think again. Ball culture roared out of the Harlem dance scene from the 1960s onward. In the first half of the 20th century, the Manhattan neighborhood led the evolution of mainstream Black dance from ragtime to swing. But the ballroom scene — built by people looking for home amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement — quickly took on its own, exclusive life for transgender women, gay men and drag queens.
If you’ve ever thrown shade with underhanded compliments, verbally destroyed someone by reading them or screamed yas queen!, you have ballroom to thank.
Forget what you think you know about drag for a minute. Unlike the incarnations on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the ballroom scene wasn’t made for straight, white audiences. First and foremost, this was about choosing one’s family. In the 1970s and ’80s, at ballrooms tucked around New York, young Black and Latinx (gender-neutral for “Latino” and “Latina”) LGBT people gathered to walk down catwalks and vogue their way into a new life. People dressed in drag or as themselves in ways they couldn’t get away with outside the hall. Balls themselves were all about looking and being the embodiment of fierce, with performers facing off to out-vogue, out-insult and generally outdo one another.
Dedicated performers became part of the house system — a strict, carefully structured family run by “mothers” and “fathers” who enforced the rules, took care of their “children” and kept everyone looking fabulous. Houses were their own closely guarded tribes, named after choreographers, designers and models.
The 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning was the first glimpse many outsiders had into the world of underground ball culture. One famous house mother, Peppa LaBeija, of the House of LaBeija, turned briefly philosophical for the camera about her “children”: “When someone has rejection from their mother and father, their family, when they get out in the world, they search,” she explained in the film. “Because their real parents gave them such a hard way to go, they look up to me to fill that void.”
That same year, voguing went mainstream — or, more accurately, white. Madonna jumped into the scene with her hit “Vogue,” bringing the dance into the public eye. Ballroom style and language quickly followed voguing into the vernacular. If you’ve ever thrown shade with underhanded compliments, verbally destroyed someone by reading them or screamed yas queen!, you have ballroom to thank.
Even as the world turned ballroom inside out, the scene continued to thrive underground. The 2005 documentary The Aggressives follows six butch New Yorkers around vibrant ballrooms that have very little to do with white Manhattan. In present-day, white-defined LGBT terms, these people might be called “genderqueer,” “genderfluid” or “trans men,” but in the predominantly Black New York ballroom scene, they used in-house language to describe their experience — butch, stud, AG. Ball culture also filtered into international LGBT communities, popping up from Paris to Tokyo.
Miley can twerk, and Gaga may vogue, but the ballroom scene has never really been for white people. Many queer artists of color have good reasons for keeping it that way — because being Black or brown and LGBT still isn’t safe. “It’s very much to do with visibility,” explains Frey Kwa Hawking, a U.K.-based trans writer of color. “If we catch your straight, white, cisgender eye, even while we’re focused on entertaining and fortifying ourselves, our existence has to be acknowledged.”
This year, especially, being acknowledged is more important than ever. Beyoncé, who has cited ball culture as a major influence, deliberately included queer-ball-inspired performers like Big Freedia in her Black Lives Matter–inspired hit “Formation.” When cops showed up at a protest against North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom laws, Black trans activist Micky Bradford fought back the most effective way she knew — by voguing defiantly in front of police.
For the living embodiment of ball culture’s revolutionary roots, Kwa Hawking says, look no further than Vaginal Davis. Since the 1970s, Davis has been an iconic drag ball performer whose stage persona is a sexualized version of communist activist and Black Panther Angela Davis. In her retirement years, Davis has taken her act from New York to Berlin, where the drag scene is less mainstream and more LGBT exclusive.
For Kwa Hawking, Davis is also a reminder of the lasting power of queer racial politics. “Ball culture and drag will always be attractive to theater-makers, musicians and performers of every kind, but sanitize it of its ethnic history and the power is lost,” he says.
For many, it’s worth staying true to ball culture’s radical history. At the end of the day, in the words of the House of LaBeija’s mother, it’s about filling the void.