Strike a Pose – The Ballroom Culture

Voguing pops up in our social media feed on a regular basis. Everyone and their mother is now “throwing shade ” and “spilling tea” at social gatherings and in social media alike. Fashion icons glam it up with striking ‘poses’- celebrities spilling the hottest snippets and tips on ‘keeping it real’ . We, however, remain completely unaware of the origin of these colloquial terms that have so surreptitiously crept into our ordinary language.

The Harlem Renaissance is largely discounted in popular cultural discourse in lieu of its marginalized origin and the uncomfortable American truth of glossing over black creations. A counter socio-cultural phenomenon to raging white supremacy of the 1920s and a search for black identity formation free from the burden of double consciousness (viewing the self through the lens of others), the ball culture was undeniably its most exorbitant affair. The drag ball culture or simply put- the ballroom culture- provided a safe haven for the Latino, African-American, homosexual, transgender and non-binary community during the 1960s. In the most comprehensive sense, the ballroom culture usually denotes the 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. The plethora of criterion ranges from costumes, originality, voguing or walking, appropriate ‘realness’ indicating ingenuity and originality of thought and personality.

The ball as a movement has its roots in anarchistic and defiant stances – the Masquerade law of 1845 in New York and subsequent associated fallacious half laws became the vehicles of extraneous police persecution and harassment. Initially meant to prosecute individuals using face paint to camouflage as native Americans to evade taxes – the law was later used to impose the “ Three Law Rule”( have three clothing items on self at all times congruent to sex assigned at birth) and draconian retribution on non binaries, transgenders and homosexuals and non cisgender people. In December 1890, Oscar Johnson, a transgender man who preferred the alias of Bettie Portal, was the first arrest in a long succession marking blatant homophobia, primordial mindset and perverted police tyranny.

The underground LGBTQ+ communities in the metropolitan cities such as New York, Washington DC, Baltimore, Atlanta and so on retaliated to abject miscarriage of justice and police brutality by organising masquearade balls christened “drags”. William Dorsey Swann, the first recorded drag queen of the 1880s, organised a series of such balls in New York with secrecy being the most valued code of the congregations. Swann’s gathering had former slaves as primary attendees garbed in silks and satins in an identity not coloured by societal identities plastered to their existence. Swann himself was arrested during several police raids prosecuting the community. The laws smacked of sexism towards cisgendered individuals too as it was seen as licentious conduct for a woman to be clothed in 2-piece men’s suits.

The Hamilton Ball Lodge remains the most widely renowned site as the origin of the modern ball phenomenon and is deeply permeated with the task of reclaiming the stories of the widely marginalized African American LGBTQ+ sections. Derogatorily termed as “faggot balls” and later termed as drag balls, were coloured in varying degrees of moral censure- ranging from morbid curiosity to deep rooted homophobia and othering of their fellow citizens as acts of monstrosity. Indeed, some of the major news papers of the time floated headlines such as “Third sex plague floats anew”, “Pansies Cavort In That Most Delovely Manner At That Annual Hamilton Lodge Bawl”. A verbatim of one of the observers indeed flows along a similar strain, “effeminate men, sissies , wolves, farries, … a grand jamboree of dancing, love making, display, rivalry, drinking, and advertisement.” They were viewed as abominations, distasteful to the sensibilities of the classicists with white collar jobs passing moral commentaries from a prejudiced high ground. In reality, these spaces have always been a safe space, sanctuary from the supposed high minded speculations of the people around them and seamlessly woven into their very lives.

With the advent of the competitive space of the ball, the attractively gaudy stage became the talk of the town, something so vivaciously full of character that survived while enduring hate, slander and insensitivity. The competitors were in essence, individuals competing as representatives of their Houses. A House means a space where the members of this community found refuge from persecution, alienation and ridicule from society and very often, their own homes. It is, in its essential sense, a family of choice presided over by a house Mother or a Father, a figure head of the House, usually Black or Latino, who kept the family together and ensured participation in the Balls. The house “mother” or “father” would usually be a well seasoned performer taking young members off the streets and under their wings. A House and its head was the transfigurative pivot ensuring a young mind’s peace, safety and protection form alienation outside and within themselves. A remarkably collectivistic familial structure emerged marked by the head of the houses and the house members linked in a sibling bonding. Grooming for the balls thrusted confidence and resilience to celebrate themselves in the throng of life. Some of the major Houses were the House of Aviance, Xtravaganza, LaBeija, Amazon and so on.

The impacts of the ball culture are dispersed far and wide beyond conscious comprehension. Especially the arenas of language, dance, music and fashion bear unmistakable reflections of drag influence. Voguing, inspired from the Egyptian hieroglyphical positions, emerged as a popular dance form with rigid postures and movements as if emulating a photoshoot. Voguing enjoyed mainstream interest after Madonna featured the style in her music video of the single, Vogue. Catwalk, characterised by the exaggerated and aggressive swaying of the hips while walking the ramp became all the rage. Throwing shade (taking subtle digs at other contestants to impress the judges and gain points for originality ) has now become a vehicle of satire in social media platforms. Terms like “realness”, “working it” and so on were mirrored in the black rap scene too as a tool of claiming individual identities. The freestyle raps of the emcees played over various R&B, hip-hop, and various deep house music tracks which remain popular in balls and beyond till date.

The concerns plaguing the community went beyond the psychosocial – AIDS reared its ugly head among the marginalised away from the reach of formal education. It came down upon the house heads to educate their often vulnerable family in ways of protection and defense against sexual assault. . Black youngsters and MSMs ( men who have sex with men) are the sections with the highest risks of exposure to AIDS. Several non government endeavour and research teams joined hands to combat this situation and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York organised balls such as the Latex Ball to promote safe sex pratises. Project VOGUE contributed immensely to this cause and its conscious, trained bevy of researchers, doctors, and health workers enlisted the House structure to disseminate awareness and outreach through the house mothers and fathers- imparting training to them which in turn they were asked to proliferate to their house members.

Popular media representation, to our great dismay, does not document this phenomenon as widely as one hopes for an extravaganza as unique and deeply rooted in selfhood as this. Jennie Livingstoon’s Paris Is Burning chronicles the ‘Golden Age’ of the New York ball culture (1980s to 1990s) and its footage from several key names in the balls such as Pepper LeBeija, Angie Xtravaganza and others makes for a mindful and deep exploration of search for individuality, self hood and mocks the very heteronormative archetypes that force them into invisibility through an exaggerated satire in their walk with themes ranging from Sailor, Soldiers, Hoodlums and other such categories. The FX musical series titled Pose offers an unapologetic, straight from the heart experience of the drag ball culture without trying to preach about gender politics, and the show breaks many of the privileges of the dominant players of the casting couch that plagues Hollywood- the show presents the largest set of trans actors playing trans characters. In one of the most poignant scenes of the show, the apparently heterosexual Stan asks transgender sex worker Angel about what she wants out of life and her answer is deeply rooted in the humanity that has been denied to her all along- her one wish is to have a family, to have people to love and be loved in return. The so called chism has thus been bridged in humane notes and the arousal of universal human empathy.

“The colour problem is a drag on the whole world, not just on Negro poetry”- this statement by Langston Hughes still rings true even after a century of its conception. As we struggle to word marginalised narratives in their truest sense without trivialising the long history of struggle, the drag ball culture remains, undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating stories of human triumph and unequivocally resplendent in celebrating the human in all of us.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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