A 3AM conversation over drinks and loud music in Chasmar Well’s living room and of course the subject of Ballroom will come up. Peachez and Chasmar are Ballroom girls and enough of the rest of us have participated in the scene over the course of decades for the conversation to turn into a debate. There will inevitably be talk of some over the top moment that has become legend over the years. It will get loud and extra, as all of us are, and end in someone acting out some scene from some Ball somewhere and end in ruckus laughter. At some point the conversation always turns serious, everyone starts complaining that the younger generation that is running the world right now doesn’t respect Ballroom, they don’t pour into the culture like we used you. Another voice will say, no, they simply don’t know about it and that someone has to put in the work to bring what was once a thriving Western NY scene back to life. I step in and remind them that the people we once had as part of the scene that did that for us are no longer around. If it’s going to be anyone, its us.
That very conversation or variations of it happened countless times until finally in mid 2018 the “if not us-who?” mentality took root and a handful of us decided to try and revive the once beloved WNY Ballroom scene in Rochester. Slowly, the movement has grown and our KiKi Ball Series has begun to build momentum. As deeply ingrained as Ballroom is in LBGTQ+ of color culture, and even with the overwhelming popularity of the FX series, Pose, the scene, history, and dynamics of Ballroom are still a mystery to many. Sitting behind my desk at the Alliance I take calls daily asking what KiKi Lounge is. Is it Ballroom dancing classes? No. Is it only for boys and Butch Queens? Not at all. So what IS Ballroom? Ballroom is all at once an escape into an alternative reality filled with shine and glittery effects, an art, a fashion statement and it has always been a subculture where the those who didn’t fit the cookie cutter image of proper society could come and be royalty. So come along as the Empty Closet takes you on a tour of Ballroom.
Although many believe that (this) Ballroom culture was born in the NYC sexual revolution of the 1960’s, it in fact dates back to 1920’s New York when drag fashion featured elegantly dressed men with very little representation of people of color. When their participation was allowed, they were expected to lighten their skin to participate. Frustrated with the complexities of prejudice, an underground black ballroom culture emerged and took on a life of its own. By the 70’s ballroom expanded in participation and categories to be more inclusive even still. In a time when many queer youth were unable to be their authentic self among biological family or were kicked out of their homes for choosing to express their sexuality, youth on the street found both home and family in ballroom. In the relationships they formed on the street mother and father figures emerged and “houses” were created. Truly existing as family, each took a last name of the ‘house” and showed up at balls to compete for cash prizes that would sustain the house as well as the bragging rights that came with it. In this world of lights and pounding house beats, the disenfranchised found a place to belong and the cast-aways could be stars. Being a Mizrahi, Balenciaga or Xtravaganza meant something and some of the houses born nearly 50 years ago still exist to this day. Ceasar Miyake Mugler of the Iconic House of Miyake Mugler has participated in ballroom life for years. “I participate because it allows me to be free in a world that isn’t free for my community. Allowing me to be as creative as I want and also it accepts me for being me.”
Ballroom is judged upon five solid factors. The mastery of cat walk, duck walking, hand performance, floor performance, spins and dips but it is the categories that define each ball. A mainstream ball could stretch all night with endless categories that range from vogue, to realness and incorporate certain styles of catwalk and elaborate couture costume “effects”. Each Ball begins as Houses and competitors flood whatever club, ballroom, basement, community room or hall that hosts the event and the commentator takes the mic. Some cross between old school hip-hop, house club beat and a southern auctioneer- the commentator truly defines every ball with glowing accolades or ruthless shade. They will call every category, establish the beat and guide the panel of judges as they hand out tens and chops in a lyrical symphony of words over specialized DJ beats. However underground, the categories are wildly elaborate and rules established and understood. The competition is all in fun but it is definitely not a game, there’s money on the table. The lighter scene features mini or Ki-Ki balls which are shorter, with less than 20 categories and competitors may compete with houses or on their own. Big cities worldwide have adopted ballroom culture, but Ki-Ki balls, like the series that was started in mid-2018 here in Rochester, have popped up frequently throughout the midwest and east coast.
There is nothing quite like seeing a ball live. Words never seem to do it justice. How do you describe what is all at once a cultural phenomenon, social gathering, human service agency, civil rights demonstration, fashion show, dance battle and commentary on both sexuality and race relations? How do you give commentary to a thing as pretty as it is vital and as raw as it is refined? This is our Ballroom and all of life is our stage.