On my better mornings, my mirror mantra will digress from a quotidian “you got this,” — to an emphatic “I am a woman”. A declaration, if anything. I imagine Kevin Jz Prodigy’s prodigious track “I’m A Woman” syncopating my Gua Sha strokes. My determined first step into the new day imprints my porch. It’s a mantra to rile up any woman’s daily confidence reserve. An instantaneous altitude tilt of her head. The clack of her heels no longer echo doubt in her walk.
Lest we underestimate the infectious ferocity of being a part of the Ballroom community!
A Brief History
Ballroom entered my life at the end of 2018. Wanting to begin dancing as a means of killing time and/or staying fit, I was all over the place, enrolling in too many types of classes.
In my first vogue femme class taught by Wasavi Milan, the word “c***,” was used no less than 10 times in the first 10 minutes. Early 2019, a workshop held by pioneer and overall Australian mother Bhenji Ra in preparation for Sissy Ball shook my existence further.
I was entranced.
Where did Ballroom come from?
First most, ballroom is not tipsy waltzing across posh marble floors.
At its core, Ballroom and voguing culture is Black culture. More specifically, it embodies the essence of the Black and Latinx trans community originating in New York City.
Its origins date all the way back to post-Civil War times in the late 1800s, where venues such as Hamilton Lodge №710 in Harlem (NYC) held regular drag balls. Over the following decades, these balls would grow in popularity, but also in notoriety. By the early 20th-Century, balls were ruled as taboo.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s saw a flourishing in the drag ball scene, Black culture and progressive explorations in the realms of sexuality, gender and more.
After the controversial results of the 1967 Miss All-America Camp beauty pagent, Crystal LaBeija spoke out against the discriminatory nature of these events, and was pushed to host her own balls. Here, the very first ballroom house of ‘LaBeija’ was born.
Ballroom houses are matriarchal units designed to emulate the ideal kinship so as to expand the horizons on what a ‘family’ can entail. Each with its unique culture, houses provide security and guidance to its children.
Balls are the highlights of the ballroom year. Houses compete at ‘balls’ to win trophies in categories. These ‘categories’ range from non-performance (face, body etc.) to performance (vogue).
“Pop, Dip and Spin” (Old Way) was the first form of Voguing as a form of performance. Characterized by lines, symmetry and smooth transitions, the ‘Old Way’ saw many roots in breakdancing.
When more acrobatic folks began to put their flair on the form in the 1980s, ‘New Way’ came about. Think precise arm control, contortion and stretching.
From the same stem, the branch of ‘Vogue Femme’ was formed, inspired by the femininity and fluid movements of Trans women. We now have the five elements of hand performance, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, and spins and dips.
Whichever form it sports, nor stylistic nuances it has, Voguing is ultimately synonymous to storytelling.
Where is Ballroom today?
Ballroom always has been, always will be and always must be a sanctuary for LGBTQI+ and BIPOC folks from the oppression of societal marginalisation.
As with most subcultures staying afloat in the cultural fabric of the globalised world, the colours of ballroom have seeped into the thread of the mainstream. In the 1980s, Madonna dedicated an entire song to it (‘Vogue’), and recently shows like HBO Max’s ‘Pose’ and Legendary have further exposed its inner workings.
Naturally, these forces endorsing visibility came with a strong resistance from the community’s gatekeepers.
The irony of visibility is its tendency to perpetuate appropriation.
I will note, however, that recent popularisations of ballroom in the media have done a commendable job of portraying its nature, mores, and nuances.
So it remains that Ballroom still finds those who need it. Its gravitational pull is undeniable and immune to sensationalism.
On a personal note
I went into ballroom with deep-rooted familial turmoil, an unresolved relationship with femininity that was screaming for liberation, and an uncontrollable (I suspect, biological) tendency to move whenever music is present.
The house system proved to be the perfect gauze for my maternal wounds. The overarching theme of feminine empowerment in ballroom culture helped clear up the many question marks I had from growing up in a conservative family structure. Lastly, voguing as a physical art form quenched my movement needs.
But alas, all that glitters is not gold. Understanding and assimilating into a complete new world did not come without its difficult moments.
Reconciling imposter syndrome was the ultimate hurdle. On one part caused by fears of occupying a sacred BIPOC space as a non-queer POC, and the other trying to make sense of my performance.
I was a straight, cis-woman, suffering from major privilege guilt. Occupying any space at all felt like a cultural felony. Sooner or later, I recognised this as merely a toxic thought-pattern. One thing that helped unpack this was to reframe the notion of ‘space’ as not something finite, but expansive and reflective of the abundance of the community present. It is here where I cannot stress the importance of finding your people within the larger community.
Performance wise, it became difficult to go beyond intellectualising vogue as not a ‘dance form’, but a statement and story. Vogue is the art form it is today because it’s a personal way of storytelling. Whether or not you have a long history of dance (professional or not) does not at all affect the quality of your performance. Yet, my inner perfectionist was yearning for perfect pirouettes and lines — those which I was not yet capable of, and would require many more years of practice. At the end of the day, you need to let go of what’s out of your control. ‘Looking nice’ and taking home a trophy are not realistic benchmarks of your journey. Instead anchor yourself internally. Focus how you feel when you’re out on the floor.
Here are a couple of ideas that might help any member of ballroom- not just cis-women — to develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with ballroom.
The beauty of the community is its diversity, and fierce resistance to homogeneity. Ballroom is a place where people come to be whoever they want.
Everyone who is in the room, is there for a different reason to you. Accept it, embrace it and celebrate it.
Everyone has a place — but it comes with a responsibility.
Choosing to be a part of ballroom is not a decision to be taken lightly. But as with anything worth it, the beauty of ballroom is that once you’ve done your due diligence i.e. put in the hours of education, training and reflection — it gives back so much more. Community, femininity, artistic freedom…the list goes on.
Respect the space. Know the protocols. Periodt.