LGBTQ History Month: The rise of the ballroom scene through the ages

  • by by Laura Smythe
  • Wednesday October 23, 2019
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A 1995 photo shows a group at the Christmas Ball in Philadelphia at the YMCA on Broad Street and Master Street. Photo: Courtesy Reach LA Photography by Iggy
A 1995 photo shows a group at the Christmas Ball in Philadelphia at the YMCA on Broad Street and Master Street. Photo: Courtesy Reach LA Photography by Iggy

The first time Jacen Bowman attended a house meeting, he had no idea what LGBTQ ballroom culture was.

Going into his final year in high school, Bowman was approached to join a "modeling company" by a man at the former Gallery mall in Center City, Philadelphia. After some persistence on behalf of the stranger, Bowman decided to attend an informational session.

When he arrived, a group of fellow LGBTQ folks welcomed him to what he learned was a "house meeting" at the House of Prestige, founded in 1990 by the stranger who had approached Bowman in the shopping center: Alvernian Davis, known in the scene as Alvernian Prestige.

The house was one of the first in the City of Brotherly Love's ballroom scene — "a space where your femininity and you being unique and different was celebrated," said Bowman, now 36 and a celebrity makeup artist.

Ballroom is an underground LGBTQ subculture in which participants, who are largely black or Latinx trans people and gay men, compete for prizes, trophies, titles — think "legend" and "icon" — or cash at events known as balls. Judges evaluate those who "walk" in a ball in various categories, including voguing, pretty boy realness, butch queen, face, body, Wall Street, best dressed, pop fashion and sex siren. Winners can take home earnings totaling hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

People in the ballroom scene are also part of house culture, meaning each participant is a member of a specific "house," or ballroom unit, that has its own leadership and rules. Each house is governed by a house mother and/or father, as well as board members, a treasurer, and various other hierarchical couples that can include prince and princess or duke and duchess.

"Just seeing ... the joy and excitement of people when they hit the back of that runway, their talents come to life. It's overjoying for me," said Davis, the original house mother of Philadelphia's House of Prestige who currently serves as house father.

How the ballroom scene spread across the nation

The ballroom scene in its form today, � la the 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning" and the FX drama series "Pose," originated in New York City in the early 1970s, when legendary drag queen of color Crystal LaBeija founded the first-ever house: House of LaBeija.

The culture rippled across the East Coast into New Jersey and Philadelphia and caught on nationally in localities including Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. Today, a ball exists in almost every state, Davis said, and many international chapters operate in destinations like Paris, Berlin, London, and Amsterdam.

Some members of the ballroom scene, like 61-year-old New York City ball pioneer Kevin Omni Burrus, who founded the House of Omni in his living room in 1979, trace the culture's earliest roots back to the French Masquerade balls of the 18th century. The traditional event was followed by the Harlem Renaissance Balls beginning in the 1920s and spanning through the 1940s, he said, when the gatherings gave way to the popular drag balls of the 1950s and 1960s before ultimately reaching their pinnacle in today's house-structured ball scene.

The House of Omni became the House of Ultra Omni in 1990.

The ballroom scene caught fire in Los Angeles in the 1990s, said Sean Milan, 48, who started voguing in the City of Angels in 1992. Milan was the original founding mother — along with house father Jeffrey Bryant and grand mother Ja Ja Mizrahi — of the House of Rodeo, which opened in 1997 as one of the city's first official houses, along with the House of Ferragamo. Before that, the Hoopla Divas operated, though not as an official house. As time passed, more people started houses or established chapters of East Coast houses that originated in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York City.

As many Los Angeles ballroom participants started with the House of Rodeo or House of Ferragamo, Milan told Philadelphia Gay News, the city's scene has a smaller, community-focused feel compared to East Coast locales.

"There's ... this certain sense of family and togetherness that everyone has because we don't have as many functions as other states may have, especially like New York," said Milan, now known as Legendary Sean Milan Garcon, member of the House of Garcon, which was established in Los Angeles about a decade ago when the unit made its way west from Washington, D.C.

At the turn of the 21st century, younger ball participants "developed their own scene," known as "Kiki balls," Omni Burrus said. These next-generation, mini-balls give youth a safe space to practice and gain exposure.

Ballroom star Tommy "Dee" Murphy is credited with engineering a color-coded, timeline-based system for chronicling the decades of house-structured balls, Omni Burrus said. It kicks off with the inaugural White Era that spanned the 1970s and first half of the 1980s. Next came the Red Era, running 1985-90, and the Black Era of the early 1990s.

"You never knew what you were going to get," Omni Burrus, who entered the ballroom scene at 16, said of early ball performers. "They gave you magical acts."

Creating safe spaces

When Bowman entered ballroom, he said he found a lot of people who looked and talked like him.

"It was just a safe space of where my femininity or my different way of thinking or way of talking, my body gestures, my movements, were celebrated," Bowman said. "It definitely created that safe space because it's true that you can be who you want to be. You can be whatever it is that you want to be."

As a world "built on the backs of African American trans women," Davis said the ballroom world has historically created a haven for trans people and folks of color, especially those experiencing hardships like homelessness or being cast out by biological families because of their LGBTQ identities.

"It is imperative that we form a unified fellowship of brothers and sisters, especially our trans sisters, battling the true enemies of our oppressed communities, which also include racism, HIV, homophobia, discrimination and other social misfortunes," Davis added. "It's always been a safe space."

Bowman introduced Richard LaBoy, an Afro-Latino gay man, to the ballroom scene when LaBoy was in 10th grade at Philadelphia's Central High School. At the time, LaBoy was in and out of youth shelters.

"Ballroom is definitely a community, it's definitely a family. ... Ballroom started in the early 1970s because a lot of people of color, specifically from communities and cities, were kicked out of their homes, like me, for being gay," said LaBoy, now 35. "I came out and didn't have a lot of places to go. Ballroom actually is one of the places that accepted me, and it accepted a lot of people since its founding."

The AIDS epidemic and beyond

Omni Burrus estimates he's lost more than 600 friends in the ballroom scene to AIDS.

"There was a period of my life where I just continuously had to go to funerals," Omni Burrus said.

In 2012, he launched the Kevin Omni Burrus Funeral/Burial Fund to offset funeral costs of those in the community. From 1989-91, he helped organize the Love Ball, a fundraiser event for the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, a nonprofit that provides preventive education and advocacy for people impacted by HIV or AIDS.

Many of Davis' ballroom friends who he came out with during the 1980s also died from AIDS, "a scary thing" that was "just taking people out of here," he said.

"I remember a friend telling me he was positive and two months later, he was dead," Davis added. "It was a scary feeling, especially when a lot of people became close within ballroom and ... these people became family. To see all your family disappearing and dying, or people [who] couldn't handle the HIV epidemic and were committing suicide."

Davis also serves on a community advisory board at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Center for AIDS Research, acting as a liaison between the college and ballroom community about research, trials, and workshops.

LaBoy, an executive member of the House of Miyake-Mugler, is a clinical research assistant in the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Adolescent Medicine Department, where he works on the POSSE Project. The health intervention service aims to reduce risky behaviors among LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia's house and ballroom communities.

"Ballroom has not only been extracurricular for me, but where I get my passion and my drive from doing HIV prevention work," LaBoy said, "because at the end of the day, this community is, unfortunately, still being affected."

Data indicates that young members of the ballroom community are poised to be some of the most impacted by new cases of HIV. In 2017, youth ages 13-24 accounted for 21% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same year, black people and African Americans made up 13% of the nation's population, but 43% of new diagnoses. Within this, 73% of new cases in the black community occurred in men.

Many ballroom houses collaborate with LGBTQ organizations to provide HIV testing at the competitions, which Davis said is especially important for young participants who may disproportionately experience homelessness.

On top of the ongoing fight to thwart HIV and AIDS, Davis said two other issues impact the ball community: the murders of trans women across the country and an increase in crystal meth use.

"We need more people getting involved in mental health," Davis said. "If people are depressed and stressed ... they're not going to take their HIV medicine; they're not thinking about that. When people are on crystal meth, they'll be high for three or four days, so that's three or four days that they're off their medications."

Promoting health and wellness for the next generation

Rooted in a decades-long tradition of promoting health and wellness in the queer community, the Kiki ball offshoot largely grew out of social gatherings hosted by LGBTQ organizations that connected young ball community members to health services.

Milan works as the social engagement and arts program manager at REACH LA, a youth organization founded in 1992 in response to a lack of HIV/AIDS prevention education for young people of color. In 2006, to better address the health disparities in underserved communities of color, Milan worked with the group to found the Ovahness Ball, now the longest-running and largest ball on the West Coast, he said.

LGBTQ young adults have a 120% higher chance of experiencing homelessness than their straight, cis peers, according to a 2017 University of Chicago report. Twenty percent of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point, the National Center for Transgender Equality indicates.

To address such issues, house parents split their time between preparing their "children" for balls and helping them grow personally and professionally.

"We have a golden rule that you've got to work, go to school, do some type of volunteering, because that's what our house is about," Davis said of House of Prestige. "We don't only just walk balls, we try to be a community activist house also."

As house mother to about 125 people at Philadelphia's House of Prodigy, which was founded in 2002, Bowman said he aims to show them that ballroom extends beyond the runway. His goal is to "nurture and help develop" the kids to "make them be the best that they can be." Having once been incarcerated for 10 months, he draws on his experiences to exemplify how to get through difficult times.

"As young people that ... go through different things, they may experience homelessness or they may experience losing their job or losing a friend or losing a family member, they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Bowman said. "My primary job is just to make sure they see that light and help them get to that light."

Ballroom is "a great teaching tool" that prepares participants for other life experiences, Milan told PGN.

"You prepare for the ball, you walk your category in front of judges and whatnot and it's the same thing as you would do if you go to a job interview," he added. "You have to prepare for the job interview, you may have four or five different interviews, you don't know any of the people really who are judging you at the interview. So there are a lot of life skills that young people are actually able to learn in the ballroom scene, and they're able to learn them as who they are, as opposed to what society says they should be."

Entering the mainstream

A new wave of visibility has washed over ballroom culture in the era of social media.

Whereas "Paris is Burning" and Madonna's song "Vogue" may have introduced ballroom to larger audiences, the culture has garnered mainstream attention in recent years with TV shows like "Pose" and "RuPaul's Drag Race."

"[Before], you had to go to another ball to find out when the next one was, that's how underground it was," Davis said. "If you didn't know somebody in ballroom, you might've seen people at the clubs voguing back in the day and didn't know they were part of a house."

In LaBoy's eyes, "it's about time" for the spotlight to shine on the ballroom scene, and not just within it.

"A lot of folks in ballroom are the ones doing your makeup, styling you, behind the camera. We've always been a part of mainstream pop culture, to say the least," he said. "It's been great to see it being presented in pop culture, but also honored as art."

For Bowman, the recognition comes with drawbacks in the form of "culture vultures" preying on what has always been a "hidden jewel of talent."

"During my 20 years of experience in ballroom, I've watched people come into our culture and steal from us and then take it and do it mainstream," he said. "Then they get all the credit for it when they really got it from us."

Milan echoed that some mainstream depictions "don't really get the real essence" of ballroom, and present a "more appropriated version" that misrepresents terminology and how the scene operates. Having people from the ball community collaborate on the shows is important, he said.

"Pose" made history by casting the largest number of trans actors — Indya Moore, Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross — to ever appear as series regulars on a scripted show. Billy Porter also became the first out gay black man to win an Emmy in the outstanding lead actor in a drama series category for his role in the show.

Davis said he's primarily happy to see mainstream representations like "Pose" provide LGBTQ people with outlets for their acting, dancing or showcasing their lighting and choreography skills.

"It has opened up a lot of doors and opportunities for people," he added, "especially trans women of color."

Laura Smythe (mailto:[email protected]) is a reporter at the Philadelphia Gay News.