By now many of us are familiar with the television series “Pose,” based on the New York Ballroom House community and the lives of numerous Trans women of color. For those who aren’t as well acquainted, know this: though the show has been cited for problematic instances and historical inaccuracies that seem to reinforce colorism within the Black community, “Pose” is also pretty accurate in telling the story of what life for a Trans woman of color can be like and the LGBT community’s handling of the AIDS crisis. Equally relevant is how the creativity of Ballroom has influenced everything from dance (nope, neither Malcolm McClaren nor Madonna created Voguing, it was co-opted it from Ballroom) to language. It’s true, both confirmed that themselves, so we’re not spilling any new tea or throwing anyone shade.
Ballroom Houses were created out of a community’s dire need for safety, support and housing. When many LGBT (mostly gay men and Drag Queens) found themselves homeless and often dependent on sex work for survival, it was the Houses that graced Balls that literally took them in and provided safe havens when biological families turned their backs on supposed loved ones they pitched into the streets. In Houses, members found new family and familial structure that closely immolated birth families. Houses were headed by affirming Mothers who led families of LGBT sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles. More simply, think of it this way; Houses are families and Balls are the party where family proudly performs.
The LGBT community has lived a long sad history of oppression, discrimination and abandonment from communities and biological families that didn’t understand or support journeys of self-discovery and expression, which seemed to go against mainstream culture. In the 20th Century, New York’s Black and Latinx LGBTQ subculture has been credited with creating and continuing the Ballroom Scene.
However, a closer look at the origins of Ballroom reveal that it actually began in the 1920s. At that time, the Ballroom scene was dominated by white gay male Drag performers and Drag fashion shows. That all changed in the ‘60s during America’s Black Power movement when the Black [and Latinx] LGBT community tired of the racist and non-inclusive ball culture and started their own Ballroom scene.
By the 1970s, Ballroom culture had begun to explode and Balls contained many more performance categories than they had previously. Today, Ball culture and the creativity it exudes can be experienced and felt in most major cities and some smaller ones, too.
In the Carolinas, Houses and Ball culture is thriving.
In the Carolinas, self-identified Butch Queen Sodahpop [aka Armani Khan Chanel Prodigy] was the first Mother of the Carolina’s “Armani” House and one of the first area Ball performers to be inducted into the Carolina’s Ballroom Hall of Fame.
Performing since 1996 in Atlanta, Sodahpop has been immersed in Ball culture for more than a 25 years. Representing many different Houses while most often performing in the category of “Realness with a twist” – males who are passable as straight vogue as ultra femme men – Sodahpop had quite a bit to add regarding the creativity of Ballroom culture. According to the iconic performer, what’s creative about Ballroom is “everything.”
Sodahpop aims to make readers aware the many aspects that make up Ballroom.
“You have to realize that Voguing in itself is nothing more than a check mark on the list of what is creative about Ballroom. Other aspects include how you actually get to see a lot of young (primarily African Americans) who are creating trend setting [clothing] designs.
“A lot of mainstream designers are actually influenced by Ballroom. From the Carolinas you have Giovani West, a designer in Ballroom, who is also the personal designer for [singer] Fantasia,” Sodahpop continues. “And there’s Mimi West. She’s also an amazing designer. Mimi is from New York City and is actually a boy, but in Ballroom a she could be a him or a her.
“There are lots of folks who started in Ballroom, because Ballroom gave them space to do the things that they love to do behind closed doors and were naturally gifted at. Things like hair. We have many who came from Ballroom but are now doing hair for stars.
One person, Tokyo, who actually makes lace fronts has made wigs for the Kardashians. Ballroom has set many creative folks in a direction [to realize] what they had was something great.”
On Saturday, August 27, the something great Sodahpop speaks of could be witnessed coming to life at a well-attended local venue in Charlotte. Enthusiastic spectators, community organizations and participants came together for the School’s N Session Delux Ball.
Commentary was delivered by the rhythmic and rousing voices of Boom Balenciaga and Big Mama Luxe who kept an anticipatory crowd well engaged. Community members joined in with sponsorship and in person support. Organizations like Rain, the Mecklenburg County Health Department and Quality Comprehensive Health Center’s PowerHouse Project 2.0 were on site providing free HIV testing, safe sex supplies, monkey pox vaccines and health awareness information.
In customary Ballroom fashion, the School’s N Session Ball was filled with energy. In front of a lengthy buffet table an ample group of judges stoically sat as numerous Houses sashayed, dropped, posed and flaunted their creative movements and style in categories like Schoolgirl Realness and Realness with Twist. Participants were well received, with Houses like Trel Del Core (an Atlanta-based house that was founded in Charlotte) delighting viewers with an eye-popping fierce sense of style that garnered them a win in the Best Dressed category.
Trel Del Core House members Frecklez and Richy Rich were proud to display elaborately embellished formal wear styled by their House’s own Icon Jovan. Christopher “Richy Rich” Freeman, offered a widely accepted fashion ideal when asked how he felt about the win: “It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” The dapper twosome were eager to share info on Trel Del Core’s fast track to success: they’re a relatively new fashion House that just started in 2021 with a membership of 25 and grew to over 100 in less than six months.
The creativity of Ballroom culture seems to creep into many aspects of mainstream culture. Many of the looks of Ballroom can be seen outside of the event spaces. Sometimes Ballroom’s influence is as obvious and tangible as dance, clothing design and wigs. During other times the connections might not seem as noticeable.
In 2006 Legendary Dr. Darrin (aka “Hypnotic” Blahnik), was a Project Coordinator for the program d-up! – a Charlotte HIV intervention and Prevention program for Black men who are gay, bisexual or have sex with other men. A year later, Dr. Darrin Co-Coordinated and developed the d-up! Ball. It was attended by over 1500 people and offered participants $6000 in prize money.
Dr. Darrin enjoys participating and mastering the category of Butch Queen All American Runway, a performance reminiscent of a male modeling runway show. Clearly he knows how the creativity of Ballroom has impacted many differing scenes. He was also able to shed some light on other creative connections to Ballroom that many might miss.
“In some ways I think Ballroom provides opportunities to increase confidence in many people. When I started walking my category, I was projecting a different persona. You have to really own your category, the look, the energy and be willing to be judged because it’s an extremely judgmental group of people allowing you to continue or not. So, for me, if I could get 10s in my category I could then exude [that level of] confidence in my professional life as well. Creativity is a large part of it too. Once you start in Ballroom, you’re not going to have it all together. You’re new, don’t know how you’ll be perceived and so you look at anything you can for inspiration from Ballroom to pop culture.”
For those who want to start participating in Ballroom before they’re old enough for professional competition outside of Ballroom, there’s KiKi. Kiki house balls are less competitive versions of the Ballroom scene. They are also geared towards younger audiences who may not have the access or money required for extravagant outfits and competition fees.
Erik Jamison (aka E.J. “Pierre” LaVeau) is founding father of the newly formed Charlotte-based “The Iconic Haus of Marie LaVeau.” Along with co-founders Alyson and La’Rose Sainte, Jamison is focused on creating a KiKi house that centers community service and youth development. The KiKi House’s name is a nod to Marie LaVeau, a Vodoo queen of New Orleans who holistically healed the infirmed, granted gifts to the poor and underprivileged and oversaw spiritual rites ceremonies.
Cultivating youth and young adults (7-30 years old) to take on leadership roles is something Jamison looks forward to being part of. “Our youngest current member is an eight-year-old girl whose father is also involved in the house. He walks the best dressed category,” says Jamison.
“All of your members have talents and everyday members are discovering new talents within themselves as a result of interacting with other house members,” Jamison offers, as he reflects on the creativity of Ball culture. “[They are] talents beyond fashion and design like, cooking, creative writing, poetry and dance.”
When asked what makes “The Iconic Haus of Marie LaVeau” different from others, Jamison explains: “The fact that we operate as an actual family. Our house kids call us day and night for advice, career development or just a place to crash.” He also emphasized that any young person wanting to join is welcome to reach out for an interview with the House founders. Jamison can be reached through Haus Marie LaVeau on the social media platform Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hausmarielav/
Those showing the level of interest and commitment to community service embraced by the House can look forward to being welcomed into the family.
In the meantime, Ballroom culture will continue to bolster the self-esteem of participants while inspiring creativity with a level of fierceness that can only be birthed by the LGBTQ community.