By Trey Trey
In 2021, LGBTQ+ representation has reached groundbreaking heights (post-colonially speaking at least) but it would be ludicrous to say we are where we need to be. Violence towards transgender women occurs at an alarming rate; trans and gender non-conforming people face housing, job, and social discrimination issues daily, with little support from the cis powers that be. In an unfairly dark world, the Ballroom community makes their own light. They create their own magic. Recently, Ballroom has received widespread attention with Vice’s My House, HBO’s Legendary and, of course, hit TV show Pose. However, those in Ballroom have not been waiting for the world to catch up with them. They have been pioneers in LGBTQ+ activism, representation and artistry for decades - long before it became the norm. With an impact felt around the globe, I caught up with some familiar faces of London Ballroom to discover what makes a House a home.
"Ballroom teaches me unconditional love. It teaches everybody within the community to have unconditional love," Ayo Taboo, the U.K Father of the Kiki House of Bodega, professes to me over Zoom on a sunny Friday afternoon. "At the end of the day, we're all going through similar things, you know? Just having that community love and unity gives you so much strength, especially when you're going through homophobia and transphobia in the streets.”
"Ballroom teaches me unconditional love. It teaches everybody within the community to have unconditional love,..."
Ballroom as we know it began as an underground subculture in 1980s New York City. Based on family resistance, unapologetic self-love and unparalleled creativity, Ballroom was a space founded by Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people within which to champion themselves and build chosen-family support systems in a world where they were persecuted, shunned and often disowned by their biological families. Balls allowed them to truly express themselves, be their own celebrities and, years later, still provides an arena for people to live out their fantasies. What the outside world may not appreciate in you, the Ballroom scene will tell you to not only embrace, but to flaunt and honour.
"What the outside world may not appreciate in you, the Ballroom scene will tell you to not only embrace, but to flaunt and honour."
"Before becoming a part of Ballroom, I was so lost and hurt due to the conditions I was raised in, in the church," says Diva Miyake-Mugler. "What I was so used to being ridiculed and insulted [for], the community celebrated and nurtured. This helped me in understanding and realising my gender identity as a trans woman and as a valued person.”
Diva Miyake-Mugler found Voguing - an intricate and dynamic form of dance originating from Harlem’s Ballroom community - around 2009. "I finally found a style, an art, a movement that was calling me to express myself freely and unapologetically." Growing up in a restrictive Christian community, Diva’s only opportunity to dance was in church, closely monitored by her mother to protect the family’s image. By her late teens, she was ready to break free and dance on her own terms. Mugler is a self-proclaimed performance girl who walks Oldway, Female Figure Performance and Hands Performance! After starting out with New Way, and later Vogue Fem Dramatics, Mugler stumbled across a clip “FEM QUEEN PERFORMANCE EBONY BALL 1993” and was enamored with icon Alyssa LaPerla Ebony’s performance. It all clicked. “I had finally found my language of performance and it helped me understand so much of myself and my womanhood.”
"I finally found a style, an art, a movement that was calling me to express myself freely and unapologetically."
Harlem's Hamilton Lodge 710 began hosting drag balls in 1869, reaching their crescendo during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Despite being integrated, Balls were still highly prejudiced. Judges often chose winners with eurocentric features, and Black and Brown contestants had to whiten their complexions to stand a chance; a Black contestant didn't win until 1936. The discrimination of these balls is best exemplified in the 1968 documentary The Queen. In the film, Crystal LaBejia, a trans woman and well known drag queen in New York, gave her legendary “read”, a cutting critique aimed towards the judges of the All American Camp Beauty pageant for their blatant racial bias in unfairly crowning Rachel Harlow the winner of Miss Philadelphia - a historical reminder that "safe spaces" for the LGBTQ+ community often aren't all that safe for the inner community of colour.
Lottie LaBeija convinced Crystal to promote a Ball specifically for Black queens, thus forming the first ever Ballroom House - The House of LaBeija - and hosting the first annual House of Labeija Ball in 1977 at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th & 5th in Harlem, NY. The Ball was the first of its kind in its celebration of Black & Brown bodies. The House of LaBeija was radical in providing a haven for Black and Latinx queer and trans people, especially for the youth who had been kicked out of their biological homes. It led to the creation of more houses structured with a "mother", a "father", or both, and these houses were true families and support systems, establishing Ballroom culture as we know it today. At Balls houses would compete in categories including Realness, Butch Queen Vogue Femme, and Face, receiving prestige, trophies and cash prizes.
Jenny Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning was the first glimpse for many into the underground world of Ballroom culture. The now cult classic documentary, rightfully criticised for Livingston’s outward gaze and underpaying of the film's participants, introduced pioneers like Octavia Saint Laurent, Willi Ninja and Pepper LaBeija to the masses.
The co-option of Black queer spaces and language is a tale as old as time. Ballroom has impacted and inspired fashion, music, hair, beauty, modern vernacular and pop culture - very easily noticed but very often uncredited. For those who want to be a part of the Ballroom scene, the overarching message is clear: earn your place, take your time and learn your history. Voguing without the history is sacrilege - coined 'noguing' by trans activist and the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado.
"...earn your place, take your time and learn your history."
"For many of us, this is more than just an event: it's our lives," explains Munyaradzi Muvami. "In a world where LGBTQ+ Black and Brown individuals are oppressed in so many ways, [Ballroom] gives us the safe space to be our most authentic selves. It keeps us going through difficult times and provides us with a sense of belonging and community. Furthermore, our history is Black history because the structures our Black and Brown trans founders left in place continue to support multiple generations today."
Pose pushed boundaries when it premiered on FX in June of 2018, chronicling New York’s Ballroom scene from 1987-1994 and centering the stories of the Black and Latinx trans women of colour who were instrumental in its establishment. Today, Ballroom has a global impact. It is beautiful to see Pose actors Indya Moore and Lenya Bloom race through the door that Tracey Africa Norman opened. Ballroom legends Amiyah Scott and Trace Lysette are breaking new ground on television. Houses have chapters all over Europe and Asia, and London has a passionate, bustling Ballroom scene.
"Being a part of Ballroom has changed me for the better," Alize emphasises. "Before Ballroom, I was very angry, I wouldn't think before I spoke. But Ballroom has taught me patience. Instead of fighting or resorting to violence, I bring it on the floor in a battle. Ballroom has allowed me to be a mother of seven kids that I inspire and love daily. It's given [me] opportunities I never thought I could [have]. Ballroom has made my dreams come true. I performed at Glastonbury with Years & Years — on the same stage as Beyoncé!!! Never in a million years would I have ever thought I would be able to do something like this. Ballroom has made me realise anything is possible."