The Colonization of Ballroom Culture

I remember going on Twitter one day looking for the perfect “vogue” gif to pair up with a tweet. I was shocked and appalled by the first clips coming up being those of various white people. There was Madonna, Channing Tatum, and the little white boy, Brendan Jordan, who kinda vogued on that infamous news clip, followed with tons of press and appearances that surely led to somefinancial gain.

Madonna did not invent vogueing. Madonna is not the founder of ballroom culture.

Madonna, like most other culture vultures, used a community for their style, dance, and passion until it she couldn’t and placed it back on the shelf, leaving the members of that community and their oppression behind her as she moved on to her next big hit.

Many people’s first reference to the word “vogue” and dance style known as voguing comes from her 1990 number 1 hit, “Vogue.” Stiff arms, and striking poses, adorned with queer people dancing around her as ornaments has been ingrained into the lexicon of music history as a revolutionary moment in pop culture. But the actual culture from which this creativity and greatness was being stripped continues to suppressed and marginalized. Those in the voguing community Madonna borrowed fromdon’t get to take off their Blackness and queerness and move on to the next thing.

Black queer culture is often stolen.We witness constant erasure withothers capitalizing off our legacy while taking no investment in our oppression.

According to Dr. Genny Beemyn’sTrans bodies, Trans Selves, ballroom culture dates as far back as the late 19th century, when members of the underground LGBTQ culture began having masquerade balls known as drag balls. The balls were in direct defiance of laws banning citizens from wearing clothes of the opposite gender.

Langston Hughes also spoke of the ballroom culture in his essay Spectacles of Color. “I once attended as a guest of A’Lelia Walker,” Hughes wrote. “It is the ball where men dress as women and women dress as men. During the height go the New Negro era and the tourist invasion of Harlem, it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor, males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses and females in tuxedoes and box-back suits.”

This culture was co-opted during the ’30s by white LGBTQ people in the New York scene, where Black participants were discriminated against. However, Black ballroom wouldn’t be dismayed, as it continued to grow as an underground movement with chapters, leaders, and houses named after some of the most famous designers.

Decades later, this underground culture of primarily Black and Brown people continues to thrive in major cities throughout the United States, with expansion as far as Japan and UK.

A watershed moment for the community was the award-winning documentary Paris is Burning. Following the lives of ballroom legends Pepper La Beija, Willie Ninja (House of Ninja), Angie Xtravaganza, and Dorian Core. The documentary chronicled the ballroom life while displaying the struggles with racism, homophobia, AIDS, and poverty. It was a first-hand look at a culture fight to sustain humanity in a rich white world. Unfortunately, even this production was seen through the lens of a cis white woman(director Jennie Livingston), playing up on Black trauma as most do when selling us to the highest bidder.

The “House” became the home that many black and brown queer people could come to when society stood against them. They created what many call a “chosen” familythe adopting of friends as family. This family unit is one based on having house mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, etc. With those coming in under them becoming siblings, with all changing their last name to their house surname.

They hold “balls” where houses compete in multiple categories to win cash prizes, trophies, and work their way up the rankings (stars, statements, legends, icon). These lavish events are held all over the world and have shaped “inspiration” in everything from TV, music, to fashion.

Fortunately, the last 10 years have seen much growth in the public eye as the subculture has taken the reigns on telling their story from their own eyes.

Since 2009, Ballroom Throwback Television has filmed the underground community at balls across the world, amassing over 100,000 subscribers and over 105 million views collectively. In 2010, history was made when dance group Vogue Evolution became the first ever “vogue” dance team from the ballroom community to be on America’s Best Dance Crew, placing 5th but never being forgotten as an important moment in TV history.

2016 would bring what many called the unofficial sequel to Paris is Burning, Kiki. Written by Sara Jordeno and house legend Twiggy Pucci Garcon. It takes place in New York City, New York, and focuses on the “drag and voguing scene and surveys the lives of LGBTQ youth of color at a time when Black Lives Matter and trans rights are making front-page headlines.” The movie won numerous awards and showcased the community for all of the world the to see.

And now we have Viceland’s docu-series My House, produced by an all queer, Black team and focusing on the real starts of modernballroom. Next month brings the premiere ofPOSE, the first show on a major television network (FX) that will show actual people from the ballroom in their own environment. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the show features Black and Brown LGBTQ people like Angelica Ross (Claws), Domonique Jackson, Indya Moore, and Billy Portermaking history as the largest transgender cast ever.

Many feared what could come of the culture with Murphya white cis gay maleat the helm but he did what any good ally should. He not only brought consultants like Twiggy Garcon and Janet Mock in the room, but made sure that the table seated those from the actual community being represented. Those with actual authentic lived experience who could tell the narrative because they are the narrative.

Black culture has always been quite literally in vogue,and ballroom is nothing different. The co-opting of ballroom is very similar to blackness being used as a trend by those who turn a blind eye to our oppression. Ballroom has been used as a way for many in the hetero community to express their “creativity” or “carefree” nature without ever having to tear down cishet norms that don’t allow the actual community to thrive within society.

The fashion community is also not a stranger to the theft of creativity and ideas from this culture. It has long been rumored that many fashion houses have workers attend these balls for ideas on their newest fashion linesas ballroom has often inspired some of the most avant-garde looks on the runways every season. I’ve often heard “If you see at white person at a ball, there are not there for entertainment. They are there for inspiration and we will see these ‘looks’ across the world.”

The Black music industry has also played a role in the co-opting of this community, without much regard for those who are actually living it. In a 2015 essay, Red Fag writes: “Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Lil Mama, and FKA Twigs have as much to do with our exploitation as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennie Livingston. For philosophy aside, our cultural cameos in these (corporate) artists’ work have done nothingdo nothingto illuminate our histories of struggle, nor to combat the structures that generate our need for resistance in the first place. Cis people, straight people, wealthy people, even those who share some of our other oppressed identities, still desecrate our art and our community when they objectify our aesthetic, without taking on accountability for the ways they benefit from the violence we face at the hands of the systems that are cutting their checks.”

It is even more important that those who are blessed enough to share in the culture also take responsibility for supporting the people who own it. Taking an investment in their integration in society and providing the resources necessary for them to sustain a livelihood that is on their own terms. We don’t get to perform Blackness and queerness without the fear of our safety being threatened, and it is on those who take value in the culture to fight for us to have this space.

Ballroom culture has come a long way in this world and is finally getting its chance to take center stage with the owners of the culture taking a front seat. The reclaiming of the culture is one that is necessary to the survival of its inhabitants and this time the revolution will most definitely be televised.


George M. Johnson

George M. Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist located in the Nyc area. He has written for TheRoot, ET, HIVequal, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications.

twitterinstagramfacebook

in case you missed it