In 1990 Madonna released her hit single “Vogue,” a highly stylized homage to New York’s underground ballroom scene and an accompanying music video featuring choreography by legendary voguer Willi Ninja and José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho of the House of Xtravganza. The single buoyed voguing into the mainstream, acquainting millions of Americans with modes of dance and performance innovated by LGTBQ African-American and Latino performers, while granting only minimal credit to its pioneers. The hit single also severed voguing from key cultural context including the fact that Madonna likely originally encountered ballroom at a fundraiser for AIDS research.
That same year some of the dancers who inspired Madonna, including Willi Ninja, appeared in filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a portrait of New York ballroom that focused on the houses of Xtravganza, Ninja, and LeBeija. The documentary expanded beyond the act of voguing to capture ballroom’s other categories, including “realness, and the lives of its participants.
While introducing terms like “voguing,” “throwing shade,” and “fierceness” into the popular vernacular, these depictions of ballroom culture ultimately did little to spread sustained awareness of ballroom’s extraordinarily political history and even less to redirect urgently needed social and economic resources to its participants.
Yet, despite appropriation and parody, ballroom culture has also remained a vibrant site of community-building and support. Central to this world are houses, self-made social units that function like families, share names frequently adopted from fashion and mythology, and give emotional support to their members.
While New York still remains the United States’ most well-know site of ballroom, communities have also developed throughout the country and abroad—including Minneapolis where, since 2010, the scene has been spearheaded by Fatha Jazz Bordeaux. Surveying ballroom’s past and future, Fatha Jazz reminded Crosscuts that while visually spectacular, the ball is only a fraction of what ballroom is all about—and that its most vital elements are the intensely supportive network it creates in the face of societal abandonment.
In conjunction with the Walker Art Center’s July 21 Cinema of Urgency screening of KIKI, Fatha Jazz Bordeaux sat down with Crosscuts to discuss ballroom as a historically rich site of creativity, support, camaraderie, and political dissent.
Many popular culture representations of ballroom—from Paris is Burning to recent depictions in the news and media—have drawn increased attention to ballroom, walking, and voguing. But these depictions only offer a glimpse into the ballroom and the communities that engage there. What do you wish more people knew about ballroom?
People know ballroom for the performances and actual balls that happen, but a lot of people don’t know that ballroom encompasses all of the things that make up a culture: it has its own language, its own public and community figures, its own history and ancestors. The ball itself is only about 20 percent of ballroom.
I’ve seen ballroom save lives. As someone who works in social service, I know that relationships are so important as it is to have strong connections to a community and positive role models. For me, it stopped me from feeling alone and isolated while trying to navigate my life as an LGBT person of color. I was at a point where I wanted to kill myself for being so different, for being outside of the norm. It showed me that there are people out here like me who are doing the things that I want to do and are able to do it as their true and genuine selves.
A lot of young LGBT people and LGBT people of color do not have access to positive imagery. We see statistics that say that LGBT people are flourishing, that they have higher incomes, but those statistics exclude communities of color. When you look at communities of color, especially transgender communities, the disparities are so incredibly wide—the bottom of the bottom with regards to income and access to resources—and when the mainstream appropriates our culture they always show drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and negligence. A news story about a ball in North Carolina showed a transgender woman throwing a table and people fighting. My house, the House of Bordeaux, strives to provide a different image, to show young people you can be fabulous and fierce and not engage in risky behavior.
Appropriation also often doesn’t give proper credit. It steals language, faces, and imagery from the community. One of the things I teach my house members is how to protect themselves, legally and financially. If people want your intellectual property, they should pay you for it, so you are benefiting from it just as they are benefiting from you.
Do you mind speaking about some of the history of ballroom?
Ballroom emerged in response to a history of oppression. It’s as much a response to our state of being as Black Lives Matter or the NAACP. People might shun me for saying that, but ballroom was a response to an epidemic. It was a response to people being isolated, belittled, discriminated against, not allowed to participate, not being seen as human beings, being deprived of opportunities, and having to deal with extreme neglect from our communities.
It emerged in response to youth being forced onto the streets because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and in response to communities that should embrace young people allowing them to die.
Ballroom has so many ancestors, and I am constantly learning about individuals who made huge strides. Willi Ninja. Andre Mizrahi, who revolutionized vogue after Willie Ninja. The Houses of Avant-Garde, Andromeda, and Aphrodite, the houses that helped develop ballroom in the Midwest. There are also many living legends that haven’t had the opportunity to be honored as they’ve paved the way, Jack Mizrahi, Tommy Avant-Garde, Dr. Ayana Christian, and Aisha Prodigy, to name a few.
Though balls differ depending on the city and participating houses, some characteristics frequently reoccur. How are balls usually structured?
Most Balls start at 2, 3, or 4 am, and being late is almost part of the fabulousness of it. If you show up on time you might be there before the promoter. Originally this was to ensure the safety of participants. I remember going to balls in Chicago at a community center that started at 2 am, after the straight event was cleared away. However, sometimes if you did an event at 2 am you risked crossing paths with the preceding straight event, and sometimes there were altercations and the use of homophobic slurs. Starting later also accommodated the schedules of community members and major ballroom figures who worked in clubs and as drag performers or as sex workers. It allowed people to join the ball after they got off work—to handle their livelihood and then engage with a community of peers and mentees.
Balls are typically structured like a competitive fashion event with categories. The categories are typically listed in advance in promotional materials, and some categories such as Vogue, Realness, and Runway regularly reoccur, as well as various fashion categories.
I think that Realness is the most responsive and unintentionally politically charged category. It is a category in which people compete based on their ability to “pass” in different roles: gender roles, gender-specific roles, roles in society. For a community in which people are regularly told they aren’t masculine or feminine enough it’s empowering—it’s an act of taking back.
When you think about Butch Realness or Trans-Man Realness or Femme-Queen Realness (a term that refers to women of trans experience) these categories allow people who have been discriminated against for their gender identity to come to a place where their identity is celebrated. In a society that says I can never be who I am, ballroom says you can, that you have made it, that you can compete and win as your gender identity, and provides validation. It’s still a competition, and you have to have a thick skin, but I’ve seen ballroom connect people.
Realness can also include other roles: Executive Realness is a category I particularly love. It’s not as famous outside the ballroom because it’s not one of the things that the mainstream can easily appropriate. In this category, you pass as an executive and it empowers people. It features LGBT African-American and Latino-American men who have not been accepted or represented or perceived as executives. Men who were told they were too flamboyant for that world. This category says: “Yes, these men can look and pass as an executive just like you; their identity does not disqualify them.” The category of Schoolboy Realness does the same thing: it shows that you can pass as a high school or college student.
For a long time voguing has been the most well known component of ballroom culture. What does voguing mean to you?
In a way voguing is our political campaign, it’s the thing that makes us socially acceptable and the category that’s most easily digested by the mainstream. It’s the biggest part of the ball, and that’s okay. I love voguing. It is a beautiful art form that encompasses dance, movement, and athleticism. Voguing is a sport that requires dedication and tenacity. I know people who vogue and train six to eight hours a day.
Madonna put a face on it with Willi Ninja in her music video, and now you see vogue everywhere. You see Beyoncé do fallouts and see performers from a wide array of backgrounds, including youth dancers and cheerleaders, incorporating vogue into their routines. It’s the most recognizable piece of ballroom, and even though it is sometimes appropriated or made fun of, it’s incredibly significant and is something that a lot of people take inspiration from.
Houses provide support and networks within the ballroom community, and are a central part of balls. How would you describe the structure of houses and the role that they play in ballroom?
A lot of the roles in ballroom mirror “mainstream society.” Houses are a family dynamic with a twist. They have mothers, fathers, and kids or children. The mother is usually the most revered person in the house and the nurturer of the house; they may have the most fashion sense and make sure that the wardrobe and different elements of performance are in place. The position is not gender-specific: just because you are a female-bodied person or a female-presenting person or a person with a female identity does not mean that you have to be a mother. There are many male figures who are house mothers.
The mother of my house [the House of Bordeaux] is a male figure who presents as male and identifies as male. He is the house mother. He is the one that my kids are able to talk to about deeply personal problems; he is the one they go to first for advice and nurturing. The father of the house is the disciplinarian—the one to make sure that people are governing themselves according to house rules.
Adults can be the house’s children. The children are not a specific age. Instead, the term describes your maturity and role in the house. They look to the parents for support and advice. They become like your real children, and you give them guidance as they navigate the world of LGBT and identity and connections.
You are the father of the House of Bordeaux. How would you describe your house?
The House of Bordeaux is family first. A lot of houses are centered solely around ballroom, but mine is not. I want Bordeaux to be a network that has visibility and an impact in the community that we are active in. Our pillars are education, sexual health and awareness, and leadership. I’m all about leadership development.
I run my house to focus on community building and relationship building. We have a strong commitment to education. One of my house rules is that you have to have a high school diploma (or be working towards one) or a GED. When people want to join my house but do not have these things, their brothers and sisters help them. I see the education as a requirement instead of a barrier.
I see each house member as a walking representation of Bordeaux. In my house we talk about Bordeaux Behavior as how you behave in public, how you interact with people, and your appearance. When people say they are a Bordeaux they align that with an individual who helps get jobs, helps community networks, and strengthens local businesses. We are building an enclave and purposely choose members from across professions and backgrounds. We have someone ready to go to med school. We have educators. We want to have our own businesses. We branch out of our family into industry. We want the logo to be associated with more than the social aspect of our lives. I always tell people, “I don’t want you to have spent five to 10 years as a Bordeaux and have nothing to show for it but some trophies.”
Before moving to the Twin Cities you lived in Chicago. What were your initial experiences with the ballroom scene there?
From youth until young adulthood ballroom was my life and my community. It was a safe space to come out. I came from a very religious background and grew up in a community in Chicago that often felt very homophobic. My grandfather was a minister, and I didn’t see positive images of Black LGBT people. I actually didn’t know Black people were gay until I went to high school.
I was introduced to ballroom by one of my friends, and I saw people who went to church with me and lived in my neighborhood and grew up having the same experiences I did. It was a community where we could be ourselves and connect and have camaraderie. The balls were not even the main part for me—it was the family, the community, and not feeling alone.
After moving to the Twin Cities you spearheaded a local ballroom movement. Tell me about some of the balls you planned here.
In 2010 I went to a ball for Twin Cities Black Pride. It was [the organizers’] intention to host an event that would bring the community together. I thought about the ballroom scene in Chicago and how you could learn how to vogue and do runway, but how they also had an educational component: help with homework, testing, and assistance with resumes. After beginning to navigate the youth networks in the Twin Cities, I approached Jason Jackson at the University of Minnesota. At the time he was involved with a group called Tongues Untied, and we decided to throw a ball that would connect young people to support organizations, educational resources, and agencies. He introduced me to William Grier of the Minnesota Youth & AIDS Project, who is now Mother Couture Bordeaux.
At Pride that year we hosted a pre-ball on the Power to the People stage. I found people who had done ballroom before and brought them to the stage and let other people know that anyone could do this. That is one of the things that I love about ballroom: that if you have the willingness to learn, almost anyone can do it.
When you hear there is going to be a mainstream runway show, you think of a particular body type, particular faces, and the ability to connect to high-end fashion. This is all completely disregarded in Ballroom Runway, which is the category I walked in. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall enough or slim enough; in fact, you are celebrated for being a person outside that body type. There are lots of major ballroom categories that are filled with plus-sized people. It is all about the craft of runway. That was an element of ballroom I really wanted to bring to the Twin Cities, to transform it from a spectator city to a performing city.
In July 2011 we hosted the Candyland Ball at Café Southside. Over 100 people showed up, and we had to expand to a thrift store space. All of the Bordeaux prospects helped me get the store ready for the ball. My balls are dry events (no smoking or drinking) because I want youth and teenagers to be able to come into a safe space and engage with adults and community organizations. It was a major success, so I partnered with Twin Cities Black Pride to the host Black Cinema Ball in September at the VFW on Lyndale.
In December I hosted the Safe Sex Ball for World AIDS Day at the Heart of the Beast theater and worked with the Minnesota AIDS Project, Youth & AIDS Project, African-American AIDS/HIV Task Force, and Sisters Camelot. All of the categories were related to protection and safe sex. One category was to be the face of a safer sex ad campaign.
Ballroom here was a community that was developed on the foundations built by ballroom leaders, by drag queens and houses. Teaching balls have allowed the community to grow together and learn together. Since the Twin Cities ballroom community was so young and so small it was able to begin as an inclusive ballroom. It is one of the most culturally and socioeconomically diverse ballrooms I have ever encountered and brings together so many people: professors, social workers, youth, homeless youth homeless adults. It was my vision for Twin Cities ballroom to show the best parts of ballroom to unite communities without wrongful appropriation.
One of the fights that ballroom constantly faces is the inclusion of female-bodied participants and masculine-identifying participants who are not cisgendered male, the inclusion of butch-identified, female-bodied persons, men of trans experience, women of trans experience, and cisgender women. As a cultivator of ballroom and a female-bodied, masculine-identifying person, I wanted to create a community that included me.
The House of Bordeaux has faced so much discrimination, but since Twin Cities ballroom emerged recently without the same history, we were able to create a space where more people were celebrated in the ballroom scene.
The image of ballroom has been misappropriated and misused, but I think there is still a great need for it. People are starving for it. Look at where we are now. Look at the recent events unfolding. It’s a way to engage a community that is hurting, that is angry. Ballroom brought so much joy and so many positive outlets for people. It’s pertinent for it to resurface at a time such as this.