Ball culture, the house system, the ballroom community and similar terms describe an underground LGBT subculture in the United States in which people "walk" (i.e., compete) for trophies and prizes at events known as balls. Some who walk also dance; others compete in drag categories, designed to emulate other genders and social classes. Most participants in ball culture belong to groups known as "houses".
Houses serve as alternative families, primarily consisting of black and latino gay, gender nonconforming and transgender youth, and are meant to be safe spaces. Houses are led by “mothers” and “fathers,” providing guidance and support for their house “children.” Most houses operate in the same way. Houses exist across the United States and in over 15 cities, most being in the Northeastern Coast. The major cities are New York, Newark, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., as well as Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. Houses that win a lot of trophies and gain recognition, reach a rank of "legendary." Notable houses include House of Ninja (founded by Willi Ninja), House of Aviance (founded by Mother Juan Aviance), House of Xtravaganza (founded by Hector Xtravaganza, né Hector Valle), House of Princess, House of Infiniti founded by Icon Ross Infiniti, House of Mizrahi (founded by Jack and Andre Mizrahi), House of LaBeija (founded by Crystal LaBeija), House of Dupree (founded by Paris Dupree), House of Amazon (founded by Leoimy Maldonado), House of Mugler (founded by David, Raliegh and Julian) , House Balenciaga (founded by Harold Balenciaga), House of Ebony (founded by Larry Ebony), and the House of Garcon (founded by Whitney and Shannon Garcon). Typically house members adopt the name of their house as their last name. Historically, four categories of gender exist within houses: Butch queens, femme queens, butches, and women.
Houses "walk" (compete) against one another in "balls" judged on dance skills (voguing), costumes, appearance, and attitude. Participants dress according to the category in which they are competing, and are expected to display appropriate "realness". Balls are influenced by hip hop fashion and music. The largest balls last as long as ten hours, with dozens of categories in a single evening. With fewer spectators, nearly everyone comes to compete; some trophies are 12 feet (3.7 m) tall, and a grand-prize winner can earn $1,000 or more. Although some competitive walks involve crossdressing, in other cases the goal is to accentuate a male participant's masculinity or a female participant's femininity as a parody of heterosexuality. Voguing consists of five elements: duckwalk, catwalk, hands, floorwork, and spins & dips.
- Butch Queen Vogue Fem/Female Figure Performance – Use the vogue elements of hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips
- BQ Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with male heterosexuals
- FQ Realness – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with cisgender women
- Realness With a Twist (Twister) – Judged on participants' ability to blend in with heterosexuals, then returning in vogue
- BQ/FQ/FF Runway – Judged on participants' ability to catwalk, usually with a requested outfit or color
- Bizarre – Judged on participants' creativity to design a costume based on a requested category
- Labels – Judged on how many labels a participant is wearing and their authenticity
- BQ/FQ/FF Face – Judging a participant's clean, smooth face
- BQ/FQ/FF Sex Siren – Sex appeal in underwear (thongs, briefs or bikinis)
- Commentator vs. Commentator – Allows aspiring (and current) MCs to showcase their ability to hype the crowd
- Dipology – Like Vogue Femme, with spins into dips only
- European Runway – Often a butch-queen category, featuring effects seen in a European fashion show
- American Runway – Similar to European Runway, featuring butch queens, trans men or Butches/Studs
- Butch Queen up in Pumps – Similar to Labels or Runway, featuring high heels
- FQ/BQ in Drag Female Figure Performance – Lip-synching to a female celebrity
- Hands Performance – Vogue with hands only
- Virgin/Beginners Vogue – Vogue category for participants who have been voguing for less than one year
- Virgin/Beginners Runway – Runway for participants who have been walking for less than one year
- Best Dressed
- Legendary/Iconic Categories – All-star categories for legends and Icons only
- Women's Vogue – Women Who Vogue All Around The World
- Face: The face category is about who has a classically beautiful face. Judges examine the eyes, the nose, the teeth, the lips and the structure of the face. While the category may call for an effect, ultimately the judges will only look at the face of a competitor, which should not have much makeup and should appear flawless.
- Body: This category is about health. The judges will be looking for someone who looks attractive, and healthy. Do not confuse this with sexiness, as there is a completely different category for that.
- Sex Siren: Participants will do their best to tease, and titillate the judges. Some do so by stripping all their clothes off, others do it through erotic dancing, and some combine the two in order to attempt to win.
As a countercultural phenomenon, ball culture is rooted in necessity and defiance.
According to findings by Dr. Genny Beemyn addressed in their book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, members of the underground LGBTQ+ community in large cities of the late nineteenth century began to organize masquerade balls known as "drags" in direct defiance of laws banning citizens from wearing clothes of the opposite gender.
In his essay "Spectacles of Colors", Langston Hughes describes his experience at a drag ball in the 1920s.
"Strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem spectacles in the '20s, and still the strangest and gaudiest, is the annual Hamilton Club Lodge Ball at Rockland Palace Casino. I once attended as a guest of A'Lelia Walker. 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." —Langston Hughes
In the subsequent decades, drag balls eventually developed the modern, mainstream format we know today.
The modern ballroom culture has existed for at least five decades. However, it remains largely underground and unknown for this particular community of Black and Latino queer youth. It began in Harlem more than 50 years ago, and has now expanded rapidly to other major cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Moreover, with the advancements of social media, it has migrated to other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the UK. Ball culture also known as "house ball culture," was first captured in Jennie Livingston's documentary, Paris is Burning (1990).
New York City
Cross dressing balls had existed since the thirties, consisting of primarily white men, they competed in fashion shows in bars 2 or 3 times a year. Black queens would sometimes participate but rarely won any prizes. Due to discrimination, Black queens Crystal Labeija and her friend Lottie began their own drag ball titled 'House of Labeija,' kickstarting the ballroom scene in New York. In 1989, The House of Latex was created as a call to action in the ballroom community to bridge the gap between HIV-STI prevention and ballroom culture.
This account from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area describes how ball culture and drag houses developed about 1960:
Some regular house parties became institutionalized as drag "houses" and "families." The leader, or "mother," often provided not only the opportunity for parties but also instruction and mentoring in the arts of make-up, selecting clothes, lip-synching, portraying a personality, walking, and related skills. Those taught became "drag daughters," who in turn mentored others, creating entire "drag families." Drag houses became the first social support groups in the city's gay and lesbian community. House names often came from addresses of the house 'mother', such as Mother Billy Bonhill's Belmont House at 15th and Belmont NW, or associations with the "mother's" chosen personality, as Mame Dennis's Beekman Place.
The dance styles which later characterized drag houses had not been developed; competitions between houses involved standard drag performances in which entertainers lip-synced or, rarely, sang. In contrast to the New York houses in Paris Is Burning, some of the Washington, D.C. house mothers were white. However, African-American drag queens were a prominent part of the community:
Venues for drag shows and competitions were a constant challenge in the 1960s. The Uptown Lounge sponsored monthly drag contests, an event later duplicated at Johnnie's on Capitol Hill. Chunga's drag shows at the Golden Key Club in North Beach, Maryland were a popular Sunday event. The major hotels' resistance to drag events was not broken until February 1968 when African-American drag impresario Black Pearl staged the gala Black Pearl International Awards at the Washington Hilton. It was the drag event of the year.
The Washington, D.C. ball community consists primarily of African-American and Latino participants, and has adopted many attributes seen in Paris Is Burning. Nineteen-sixties-style drag shows and competitions still exist, with their own audience. Ball patrons will find similar categories (such as "banjee thug realness" and "vogue") as an audience member.
The Washington ballroom scene was founded in 1986 by Icon Lowell Adonis-Khanh (Lowell Thomas Hickman) and Icon Eric Christian-Bazaar. During the 1990s, more houses appeared in the area due to the efforts of Twain Miyake-Mugler ("father" of the House of Miyake Mugler, D.C. Chapter), Icon Harold Balenciaga (founder of the house of Balenciaga), Icons Shannon Garcon and Whitney Garcon (founders of the House of Garcon and charter members of The Legendary House of Miyake-Mugler). The city hosts a series of annual balls, in which contestants compete for trophies and cash prizes.
The most notable influence of ball culture on mainstream society is voguing, a dance style originating in Harlem ballrooms during the first half of the 20th century and popularized by the video for Madonna's "Vogue", released in 1990 (one year before the documentary Paris Is Burning). The dance group Vogue Evolution, from America's Best Dance Crew, has again sparked interest in voguing.
Ball-culture terms are sometimes used more generally; "drag mother" may apply to any drag queen in a mentorship role, and "drag house" may refer to a group of drag performers allied personally or professionally. "Fierce" and "fierceness," "work it" and "working it," "fabulous" and "fabulousness" are heard in Paris Is Burning and appeared in the lyrics of "Supermodel (You Better Work)", a 1992 hit by drag queen RuPaul. These terms became more widely used in gay slang, fashion industry jargon and mainstream colloquial language.
- Reading: to read a person is to highlight and exaggerate all of the flaws of a person, from their ridiculous clothes, to their flawed makeup and anything else the reader can come up with. It is a battle of wit, in which the winner is one who gets the crowd to laugh the most.
- Shade: shade is an art form that developed from Reading. Rather than the aim to insult, someone works with the medium of backhanded compliments. An example is to suggest that someone's beautiful dress makes people almost forget that she has a five o'clock shadow.
- Yas: emphatic yes, the longer the "a" the greater the pleasure expressed
- Voguing: dance invented in Harlem and performed notably by Willi Ninja
- Walking: walking to acquire the admiration of ball contestants
- Mopping: shoplifting clothes to wear for a ball
- Working, or "work" for short : an exclamatory phrase used to connote admiration and content with someone's actions
- Fierce: highest possible praise
- Butch queen
- Mother: hardest worker of a house, often taking a mentoring role for members of the house
- House: alternative families
- Chanté you stay: anouncement of the winner of a lip-sync battle
Ball culture has been fertile ground for new forms of house music and other genres of electronic dance music through its DJs. The culture has also influenced a wave of queer hip hop artists such as Zebra Katz, House of Ladosha and Le1f .
Ball culture has influenced "the über-puffed-up peacock sexuality" of contemporary mainstream hip hop. A professor at New York University said about gay black culture, "Today's queer mania for ghetto fabulousness and bling masks its elemental but silent relationship to even more queer impulses toward fabulousness in the 1980s."
In 2006, Beyoncé Knowles told a reporter from The Independent "how inspired she's been by the whole drag-house circuit in the States, an unsung part of black American culture where working-class gay men channel ultra-glamour in mocked-up catwalk shows. 'I still have that in me', she says of the 'confidence and the fire you see on stage...'"
Most of the New York-based houses appeared in the 1991 documentary film Paris Is Burning. The 2016 film Kiki provided an updated portrait of the ball culture scene. In 2017, as part of a documentary series on New Zealand cultural identity, Vice Media produced an episode about New Zealand's ball culture, entitled "FAFSWAG: Auckland's Underground Vogue Scene".
In 2018, Viceland aired a docuseries, My House, following six people in the New York City ball culture.. In the spring of 2018, the television series Pose premiered. Set in New York City 1987, it follows participants in Ball Culture, as well as others in 1980s New York. The show was created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy.
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