Prizm News / February 1, 2018 / By D.A. Steward
The house ball scene’s journey from underground to the mainstream hasn’t dimmed its spirit.
By D.A. Steward
In the 2015 documentary, “Strike a Pose,” an update on the lives of the dancers featured 24 years earlier in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” concert film, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez explain how the Queen of Pop learned of the underground vogue scene.
“We already had this vogue thing going on,” Camacho says. It’s a quick but poignant affirmation that much like Christopher Columbus to America, the artistic form of dance known as voguing never belonged to Madonna.
Both part of the historic House of Xtravaganza, Camacho and Gutierez were plucked by Madonna’s team out of New York’s ballroom scene during its golden era and were hired to choreograph her “Vogue” video and the following tour.
And so began a history of appropriation that exists to this day. The year Madonna began her Blonde Ambition tour, the house ball scene was immortalized in the cult classic, “Paris Is Burning.” If you look closely, you’ll see a teenage Gutierez performing at his first ball in the mid 1980s.
Today, the story of ballroom could take up an entire academic series in a class on black queer theory from the Harlem Renaissance to modernity. And it practically has. Terrance Dean, famed author of the groundbreaking tell-all “Hiding in Hip Hop,” is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University and currently a visiting professor at Ohio State University teaching “Topics in Black Masculinity,” which deconstructs black sexuality and queer masculinity throughout history.
Dean also became the impetus for a screening of “Paris Is Burning” scheduled this month as part of the Wexner Center for the Arts’ classic film series. Dean hopes to create a space where black queer students and their allies can learn from a history that stars their intersectional identities.
“There’s a huge gap in the generations of people that have missed this film and are not aware of it,” Dean says. “The ballroom scene is where black queer artistic persons create their own communities despite the marginalization and oppression they receive from society.”
Dean plans to take a cue from his course and host a panel discussion after the film on “The Fierceness of Black Sexuality, Black Gay Identity and Black Sexual Freedom.” Fellow OSU faculty Townsand Price-Spratlen, associate professor of sociology, and Shannon Winnubst, chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, will join the conversation.
“[The ballroom scene] has always allowed space and visibility for our community,” Dean says. “It allows access and progress and opportunity to see the fullness of who we are as a black community.”
The ballroom scene is another example of activists responding to the disenfranchisement of black and Latino lives. “The scene,” as it’s mostly referred, started during the Harlem Renaissance, when people of color were shunned from drag queen balls.
They started their own.
Just last year, Frank Ocean conjured up the ghost of Crystal LaBeija in “Ambience 001” on his visual album, “Endless,” released in conjunction with his highly anticipated second studio album, “blond.” LaBeija is known for publicly calling out the racist New York drag ball circuit in the 1968 documentary, “The Queen,” after which she and another drag queen named Lottie started the first house (House of LaBeija).
The scene quickly grew and acted as a chosen family structure with designated “fathers” and “mothers” who took in discarded LGBTQ youth of color, empowering them to channel life’s frustrations into the pomp and circumstance the scene provided.
Houses soon began forming throughout the country, and the underground vogue, runway and pose battles cultivated an entirely new form of dance and artistic expression well before they hit the mainstream.
The ballroom scene has evolved far from its early days, and it’s thriving again on the national stage.
Model and choreographer Leiomy Maldonado (of Vogue Evolution fame) has infused Beyoncé, Rihanna and Tamar Braxton music videos with New Way Vogue. This summer, FX will begin airing “Pose,” a drama set in 1980s New York; the Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock series is set to have the largest transgender cast ever assembled for a scripted series.
The critically acclaimed IFC Films documentary, “Kiki,” is a modern update highlighting the newest ballroom craze. Vogue battles, kiki balls and the mainstream scene are being recreated all over the world, in Paris, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Ballroom speak swirls around us every day. Folklore claims that every time you hear a Bravo Housewife appropriate “Yas queen!” or “Slay girl, slay!” a new house mother gets her bedazzled, runway-ready wings—but never the copyright credit.
The scene is certainly in an era of revitalization. But like many grassroots movements that explode beyond their borders, there are still plenty of black and Latino queer activists and ballroom leaders who embody the original essence of community mobilization portrayed in “Paris Is Burning” nearly 30 years ago.
“Ballroom allows you to create what you want to create. There are no rules,” says Ronald Murray, 42, a social worker in Columbus who’s a 20-year ballroom veteran and a founder of the OKI Ballroom Region, covering Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
He and Richard Sankey—known as Sirr Richard Evisu before he passed in 2016 at the age of 49—hosted Columbus’ first ball in 2004.
Sankey was known as the Midwest Godfather of Ballroom, and he was Overall Grandfather of the House of Evisu in the OKI Region before Evisu folded, merged with the House of Lacroix and became the House of Xclusive Lanvin in 2014.
Murray recalls plans to award Sankey Legendary Status—a major designation in house ball culture—on the day he died of an aneurism.
I interviewed Sankey for an article in 2012. He told me then that “Paris Is Burning” still held fond memories.
“I remember when ‘Paris Is Burning’ came out,” he said. “I was friends with Sheldon, who is in the film, and he came down to Columbus to take us to the see the movie at the Drexel Theatre, the only place it was showing.”
Sankey’s legacy is in the hundreds of youth in Ohio and surrounding states who now have the opportunity to participate in a community in their own backyards, as opposed to miles away in New York, Atlanta or Chicago.
That spirit of activism that the scene became famous for is as prominent as ever.
“Twenty years ago I was just a little fat boy growing up in Ohio who just knew how to dress. Cut to now, ballroom can literally make your career,” Murray says.
A few years ago he founded PEACE of Mind Consulting (Personal/Professional Development. Empowerment. Advocacy. Community Education.) as an homage to his and Sankey’s achievements in the scene. He conducts trainings on the scene with community organizations and hosts career development workshops with participants.
Martez Smith, 26, a Columbus vogue scene-stealer since he a teenager, took the same mantra with him when he left Ohio for New York in 2013 to pursue his master’s degree in social work. In 2015 he founded the Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network, originally a day-long symposium dedicated to fostering the “development of a politically and socially conscious house and ball community.”
“We have many other talents,” Smith says. “The symposium is all about celebrating those talents.”
Now, in addition to having hosted two KBCAN ballroom symposia, with a third in the works for 2018, the network recently started the Crystal LaBeija Organizing Fellowship for transgender and gender-nonconforming members of the ballroom community to continue the social justice work of KBCAN.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Smith says. “At the end of the day [the ballroom scene] is a subculture, the mainstream fame happens in waves and now it’s resurging. But there will always be a core community that holds what is the essence of ballroom.”