The Ballroom Scene
Issy Murray breaks down the ballroom scene of the 1970s.
When asked to think about modern LGBTQ+ culture, it’s fair to assume many people would conjure up images of Pride events or imagine shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race. However, much of what is now considered as ‘mainstream’ LGBTQ+ influence has a common history, stemming from an underground subculture that undoubtedly constitutes a cornerstone of queer culture: the ballroom scene.
Originating as far back as the 1920s but becoming heightened around the late-1970s, the ballroom scene in New York City, and particularly Harlem, was founded by the African American and Latin American queer community. What ballroom aimed to create was a safe space for all manners of self-expression. This accepting atmosphere was severely lacking in the heteronormative attitudes held by contemporary society; notably the height of ballroom coincided with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was particularly threatening within LGBTQ+ spheres and used as a source of shaming the community. Unfortunately, as you might expect LGBTQ+ rights were seriously substandard in comparison to those of the straight man, and this lack of empathy and understanding translated in many families disowning members who came out as queer. As a result, many LGBTQ+ identifying people were left not only marginalised and feeling isolated, but physically homeless.
opportunity given to win awards and recognition for this art returned to LGBTQ+ creatives some of what everyday life had confiscated from them
Ballroom culture was a form of queer resistance, offering a place of solace and acceptance, where queer individuals across the spectrum could come together. Nonconformity was the norm in these pockets of inclusivity. In essence, ballroom consisted of a competition, whereby participants ‘walk’ to different categories and a panel of judges score you out of ten based on how much you creatively encapsulate the category. You would have to get creative to make outfits, makeup looks and performances that most excited the crowds and impressed the judges. Categories covered a vast range of themes such as ‘executive realness’, and walking in these, while sometimes mistaken for mimicry of heteronormative values, was instead a powerful subversion.
The opportunity given to win awards and recognition for this art returned to LGBTQ+ creatives some of what everyday life had confiscated from them. Walking could be done individually, but often people chose to join (or in some cases started their own) ‘houses’, which to name just a few include the House of LaBeija and the House of Xtravaganza. If you impressed a house, they would take you under their wing, not unlike the enduring concept of having a ‘drag mother’. These were collectives that represented a sort of chosen family, an especial comfort if your biological family had rejected you. Houses would work as a unit, in competition with rivals, to win as many categories as possible and gain respect amongst their peers, becoming legendary.
In 1990, one distinct aspect of ballroom culture blew up in the mainstream thanks to Madonna, a long-term ally of the LGBTQ+ community and who frequently took inspiration from them. Her song “Vogue” drew massive attention to the iconic form of dance it’s named after. In the grand tradition of Paris is Burning (a film released that same year), voguing is an instantly recognisable dance that emerged during the ballroom scene and involves stylised, sharp movements between powerful poses often particularly engaging the hands in exaggerated gesticulation. One of the key figures in perfecting the art of voguing, and featured in Paris is Burning, was Willi Ninja, who was from the same house (House of Ninja) as Drag Race judge Michelle Visage and actually taught her how to vogue.
Voguing, along with other dances emblematic of the ballroom scene like the duckwalk, has remained iconic through the ages (Vanessa Hudgens’s comment on Drag Race that she is ‘so into voguing right now’ goes to somewhat show how it’s become increasingly envisioned in mainstream terms). The music that dominated the ballroom scene, therefore, had to match the fierce struts and dances that accompanied the ballroom’s scenes and message of self-confidence but was used to accentuate performance rather than overbear it. DJs were not the primary focus but had a vital role in knowing which tracks to play at which times to compliment categories. Certain tracks that had accents corresponding to moments of posing, splitting and dipping became calls to start voguing. Tracks associated with this period include Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to be Real” and Basement Jaxx’s “Fly Life”.
While it’s great to see how much society has progressed in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, with elements of queer culture becoming assimilated into the mainstream, it’s crucial that the histories behind these pieces of culture aren’t forgotten or misremembered. This is particularly prominent during LGBTQ+ history month, which is currently under commencement, as too often the efforts of queer, African American and Latin, gender non-conforming people are erased. The LGBTQ+ community owe a lot to these figures, and they deserve to be celebrated.