The ballroom scene is a culture that is in the dark to the majority of society, yet has the ability to influence so much of it. Although it is part of the LGBTQ community, it has an undeniable resonance within mainstream culture today. In this Hoodstory, we explore the ballroom scene and how it has changed perceptions of what should be seen as normal.
“The ballroom scene was an underground subculture where people would fundamentally go to express their gender, race and sexuality.”
The ballroom scene was an underground subculture where people would fundamentally go to express their gender, race and sexuality freely out of the light of day. Contestants in these balls would ‘walk’ in categories ranging from vogue dancing to runway, for trophies and prizes. The roots of this underground culture can be traced back 50 years ago to Harlem where people would go to these balls as an act of defiance against laws that affected the lives of LGBTQ+ people of colour.
Even though these drag balls have existed since the 30s, they consisted mostly of white men and were only hosted 2-3 times a year. It wasn’t until 50 years ago where infamous queens such as Pepper Lebeija brought this ball scene to Harlem, kick-starting a chain reaction of defiance against anti-gay laws which cropped up in the 50s and 60s. This defiance had come to a head on June 28, 1969, with the police raid at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village of Manhattan, where the LGBTQ+ community rebelled which resorted in the Stonewall Riots, acting as the catalyst for the modern war on LGBTQ+ rights in the United States.
Since the birth of this underground culture, it has constantly cropped up in popular culture, one person hailed for bringing attention to the ballroom scene is Jenny Livingston with her documentary Paris is Burning (1991). The influential movie, directed and filmed by NYU student Jennie Livingston, spent seven years documenting the lives of African-American, Latino, Gay and Transgender people who were part of the underground ball culture during the late 1980s. The movie acted as a catalyst, spotlighting the underground ballroom scene for the first time in popular culture.
Talking to PR and Writer Michael Salac about why he thinks Paris is Burning has influenced the LGBTQ+ community, he says, “When the film was released it was at the forefront of putting LGBTQ+ issues to a wider audience. Prejudice still exists and we still have a long way to go, but at least these issues can be discussed and resolved in the public domain now”. The first way to acceptance is through visibility and this is the magic of Paris is Burning, putting LGBTQ+ issues forward which has since led to many discussions on what should be accepted.
One element of the ballroom scene that had been adopted by the mainstream was the fierce dance style known as vogue. Vogueing was a dance style that was part of the ballroom scene where contestants would strike poses as if they are in the pages of Vogue magazine. Although Malcolm McLaren had released Deep in Vogue in 1989 which featured ballroom icon Willi Ninja, it was none other than Madonna who had brought this to us all with her iconic song: Vogue (1990). This song is what gave her gay icon status, with the dancers from her Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990 featuring in the movie Strike a Pose in 2016, which chronicled the lives of Madonna’s seven dancers since the tour, exploring topics of race, AIDS and drug use.
Since the release of Vogue, a lot of music artists such as Beyoncé have paid homage to the movie in their music such as Get Me Bodied. In 2006, Beyonce told a reporter for The Independent that her alter ego Sasha Fierce is inspired by the ballroom culture in the United States. Azealia Banks song Fierce from her 2012 mixtape Fantasea explicitly references ballroom culture, with one person remixing the song with clips from the movie Paris is Burning.
One of the most obvious and most notable moments where the ballroom scene and drag culture has been adopted by the mainstream media is RuPaul’s Drag Race. Many people hail the show for what it has done for the LGBTQ+ community through visibility and it is often called the drag version of America’s Next Top Model. Although this may be true, a lot of the references actually come from the ballroom scene, such as the infamous reading challenge as well as terms like ‘sashay’, ‘category is’ and ‘shade’.
Fashion and other mainstream industries have not only accepted but adopted this culture and have made it a more acceptable form of art. Fashion publications such as Vogue, Elle, Nylon and Vanity Fair have recently featured some of the most famous drag queens of the moment such as Kim Chi, Violet Chachki and Miss Fame. One brand who had taken the vogueing element from the ballroom scene was Hood by Air for the finale of their Fall 2014 show in February 2014.
In the movie Paris is Burning, drag queen Dorian Corey states: “I always had hopes of being a big star. Everybody wants to leave something behind them, some impression, some mark upon the world”, little did he know that 25 years later his legacy would still be alive, bringing visibility to a once shunned community. There are many reasons for the change, may it be the sharing and exposing of varied identities on social media or advocates such as RuPaul and Laverne Cox gaining mainstream attention. One thing is for sure however, it all started with the bravery and the artistry of the ballroom scene, continuing to burn the house down to this day and forever more.