Late on a Wednesday night, glittery socialites and cutting-edge club kids crowd the ultra-hip dance floor at Le Bain, the Standard Hotel’s rooftop nightclub in New York. Beats thumping and disco ball spinning, a beautiful young black woman dressed in flowing pink chiffon takes the microphone, proceeding to hype the crowd and introduce the slew of performers for the evening: a voguing duo, a young poetess, a soul-singing drag queen – the list goes on. This young woman finds herself at the center of it all, eliciting cries of “Mother!” every time she takes center stage. It just so happens she is the newly anointed Mother of the House of LaBeija, NY Chapter, and with the news of her ascent, citywide LaBeijas flocked to her party to congratulate, support, and show strength as one of the ballroom world’s first and most legendary houses.
The origins of the House of LaBeija can be traced to the late 1970s, when Crystal LaBeija, known for her breakout appearance in the 1968 documentary The Queen, announced her house would be hosting a grand and opulent ball. Though competitive balls date back to the mid-19th century, this was the first time the concept of the “House” as a distinct queer organization emerged. “Houses got started because kids got kicked out of their homes,” explains Kimberly Smallz LaBeija, a New York drag queen known for her high fashion looks and slaying face categories at balls around the city. “Their families rejected them. We didn’t have the infrastructure that we have in NYC today, and kids banded together and formed groups or houses, and when the houses got together, they competed at balls over different categories. Some competed at dancing where vogue became popular through Old Way Vogue [characterized by the formation of lines, symmetry, and precision in the execution of formations], or sometimes it was about who looked the most ‘real’, and competition and categories born out of their experiences.”
Though most would argue ballroom culture remains a fringe aspect of the LGBTQ community, especially for white queers, cultural phenomena like 1990’s Paris is Burning and the success of reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race have brought ballroom and vogue to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. Ballroom is best described as a part of urban folklore where only oral histories can truly convey the antics, grandeur, and passion of this proud underground community. “Ballroom functions as a living document,” adds Kim. “Houses make ballroom. The categories, vogue, and realness make ballroom. Competition and community make ballroom. I think that tension helps keep it interesting. Those are the origins of ballroom.”
“Ballroom functions as a living document.”
The spirit of ballroom is a unique unifying thread for queers of color, and Kimberly Smallz LaBeija’s story is sure to sound familiar. “I grew up a little Latin gay boy in Spanish Harlem and didn’t know any gay people, and when I started asking around I was told to go to the pier on Christopher Street. I went all through middle school and high school, and I would see all these other black and brown little gay boys vogue and duck walk, and I couldn’t talk to them because I was too shy and they were so confident. But I knew that was my culture. I knew that being black or brown and gay in New York City – that was it.” Queers from around the world have found refuge in ballroom, with House chapters popping up in Asia and Europe, and now rapidly growing Latin American scenes.
Mexico City’s young ballroom scene traces its origins to 2013, when Any Funk, dance instructor, choreographer, and professional voguer, started the House of Machos, Mexico’s first House of voguing and waacking, another dance form created in LGBTQ nightclubs. A scene born from dance classes and rising nightlife trends in the city’s historical district, Mexico City ballroom has had time to steep and flourish vibrantly. “It all came about quite deliberately,” recounts Franka Polari, Co-Madrota of the House of Apocalipstick. “I knew Any [Funk] and the House of Machos, and together we decided to push this new idea into nightclubs, particularly in a part of the city known for harboring new scenes. República De Cuba Street has seen many new gay establishments pop up, known for featuring marginalized people, performance artists, drag queens, writers, etc. From there came the new drag scene with La Carrera Drag del Marrakech [a local club], and then vogue found a home at La Purísima, a very popular bar where we were able to properly showcase the culture, movement, and beats.”
Polari provides a detailed chronology of events, with CDMX’s first major ballroom event held at Hazme El Milagrito gallery in January 2015, and the official birth of The House of Apocalipstick in March 2015. The House debuted at a series of kiki balls called Noches Transitadas, where he was approached by NAAFI producer LAO, leading to the massive NAAFI Ballroom event held in August 2015. “From that point on we started pushing to give exposure to voguing and the ballroom aesthetic, but also to house ethics. CDMX needs this structure to have support and care systems that don’t yet exist. The music, MCing, and dancing are all important, but our priority is to set up spaces and networks where we can recognize and care for each other.”
Notable examples of these expanding networks are the House of Drag, stemming from the House of Machos and looking to bring a drag perspective to local balls, as well as the House of Tepeyollotl, formed by previous members of the House of Apocolipstick seeking to combine vogue with Mexican folklore. “We don’t want to appropriate,” adds Polari. “We want to participate,” citing guest collaborations with ballroom gatekeeper Twiggy Pucci Garçon and his own push to MC in Spanish. “We’re making María Daniela [y Su Sonido Lasser] mash-ups, and playing pre-hispánico vogue beat and triballroom. We have a song with Bufi named ‘AΦOKΔLIPSTIK’ that debuted this Pride. It’s exciting and new; the scene is still a blank canvas and we have lots of colors at our disposal.”
Questions of exploitation and co-optation remain as the influence of ballroom has seeped into nearly all aspects of popular culture. Contributions to the everyday lexicon, like “kiki” and “shade,” as well as the undeniable impact vogue has had on Madonna’s career is a prime example of this cultural strip-mining. “As long as people with training in the ball scene are doing their thing and getting paid to do so, I don’t think ballroom is being compromised,” reflects Kimberly Smallz LaBeija. “A bad dip will always look like a bad dip, so I don’t care who’s doing it. If it looks good, it looks good, and that means you’ve done your training, you’ve read your manuals, you’ve watched the right videos. Maybe you’ve even studied under people who are really iconic in the scene. I think the great thing about ballroom and the vogue scene is it doesn’t matter who does it, it just matters what you do and what you bring. It’s a meritocracy in that way; there are some politics involved as well, but you pay your dues just like any other artistic scene.”
Where Mexican ballroom is determined to follow the ideological footsteps of its predecessors, a much looser scene has emerged in Brazil. Dudx Babaloo, a São Paulo-based club kid and drag queen, describes it all as one giant melting pot. “Vogue and waack had an opening here through workshops and meetings, but began taking the form of fiercer dances like passinho, which started in São Paulo but spread around the country by mixing with baile funk. There is more of an alliance of funk, vogue, house, disco, drag, clubbers, etc. Our ballroom scene has no real consistency to it, but it’s more a teaching that blacks, gays, Latinxs who are at the margins of society need to unite. ‘Manas’ is a way to refer to each other; it’s like sisters.”
“Vogue taught me to resist.”
Vitor Inácio, Father of the House of Kinisi, and Diego Cazul, Father of the House of Cazul, have embraced voguing for the political statements they can make through movement. Inácio, who’s been teaching dance for 11 years, was attracted to vogue because “this dance came from a place of social oppression of minorities, and it’s something that as a gay man I can relate to.” Cazul, also a teacher and New Way Vogue champion [a style characterized by rigid movements coupled with limb contortions and hand and wrist illusions], adds, “After watching Paris is Burning, I saw how important it is to live this culture, being gay, black, and poor. Vogue taught me to resist.”
There is visible urgency in Brazil’s desire to develop an authentic identity within the ballroom community. “My house vogues to funk carioca,” says Diego Cazul, who is based in Rio de Janeiro. “It has a very unique beat, and I love dancing to Valesca Popozuda, Inês Brasil, MC Delano, Tati Zaqui, and many others.” Dudx Babaloo, however, believes different motivation is at play. “We use vogue as a form of cultural colonization. Brazilians are not taught to like what is created here, only what is imported. We have dances like candomblé and umbanda that were demonized by the Catholic church, and bumba-meu-boi and boi-bumba, which were left aside because they were considered tacky. This is a historical issue, a rescue that Brazil needs to learn. Brazilian folklore has been removed from the educational grid and this is just one example of many.”
Open dialogue between local dancers and members of international houses has proven key to growing the Brazilian scene, which has recently begun hosting large-scale balls, with events like Conferênica Das Bruxas in Rio, and Brasilia Vogue Ball taking place in 2016 alone. Inácio describes a 2013 visit to New York as a turning point for his career as a voguer. “When we went to New York, we had the opportunity to learn from masters like Benny Ninja, Javier Ninja, Danielle Polanco, Archie Burnett, and Cesar Valentino. Here in Brazil, we have dancers that belong to international houses like Ninja and Ebony. We have a Facebook group and a WhatsApp group where we can communicate with about 200 voguers spread all over the country, where we exchange information, knowledge, and life experiences every day.” Parties like V de Viadão and Groove Party in Rio, and Festa Estranha and Extúrdia in São Paulo, are keeping spaces open to experimentation for a community eager to learn and make their own contributions on the international stage.
The Internet and the popularity of queer culture as a mainstream commodity have taken ballroom to the farthest corners of the world. Mati Keller, founder of Chile’s first house of ballroom, the House of Keller, took home the top prize for runway when he competed in Bello Horizonte Voguing Fever last year. The 25-year-old Santiago scene pioneer was studying dance in 2013 when a meeting with famed dancer Angel Ceja sent him hurtling towards what has become his calling card, Vogue Femme, which is characterized by extreme fluidity and exaggerated feminine movements. Since starting the House of Keller in 2015, Mati has integrated various new members, all flowing freely from dancing to choreography, makeup, and drag.
Ballroom is now everywhere; be it Kia LaBeija voguing through the streets of Bogotá, music videos for Alex Anwandter’s “Como Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?” and “Siempre es Viernes en mi Corazón,” or in films like Mala Mala and Kiki, which document underground queer scenes in Puerto Rico and New York City respectively. The proliferation of ballroom seems inevitable, and all roads lead back to New York, with each of the dancers I interviewed expressing an aspiration to someday perform at the world famous Latex Ball, held in the city every summer.
Kimberly Smallz LaBeija sees this reverence as a good thing. “In some regard, we can’t control every aspect of ballroom. It has become popular and mainstream, and now there are houses in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. It would be hard to say we’re limiting who can be part of the culture. I think a lot of places where vogue is developing are trying to legitimize their vogue scene by inviting legends and icons from the U.S. to judge and teach, and that reemphasizes the community. It all started in New York in Harlem, but we’re an international community now, which is incredible. I think that’s how we keep the tradition alive and rooted in authenticity.”