Ballroom Culture Explained
This week on The Slut Show Ellen Moore is joined by showstopping non-binary trans feminine ballroom bombshell: Monika Vineyard (she / her). They talk about Monika’s experiences performing in the Dutch ballroom scene. From joining a ball-house to transitioning and coming out - and from her poIyamorous adventures to her self-acceptance journey. This week’s Slutty Science discusses the history & roots of ballroom culture.
Please note: this article contains information about transphobia, homophobia and racism, which may be triggering for some readers.
‘Work it’, ‘Fierce’, ‘Legend’, ‘Icon’ and ‘Queen’ - all terms originating from the ballroom scene, but if not fox trots and waltzes, what is ballroom?
Although the ballroom scene and drag have heavily influenced one another, ballroom is a subculture of its own. Defined by its houses, its history, its language, its rules and its contest categories, ballroom is way more than a bunch of outcasts dancing in clothes of the opposing sex.
In order to fully understand the socio-cultural importance of ballroom culture, we need to take a trip down memory lane. Let's revisit black history, starting in New York City during the early 1900s - in the midst of The Harlem Renaissance.
Although theoretically the adoption of the 13th amendment, in 1865, marked the abolishment of slavery in the United States, it was the 14th amendment adopted three years later - in 1868 - which ‘granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States — including formerly enslaved people — and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”’
Another two years would pass before the 15th amendment was adopted, in 1870. This amendment was brought to life to protect the voting rights of black men. However, discriminatory practices and the heavily segregated nature of America hindered these laws from working effectively and it wasn’t until The Harlem Renaissance that blackness began to be celebrated and black culture could begin to flourish. Slowly, but surely, Harlem became the Black cultural mecca allowing for an explosion of black talent, as a result.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance is a period in history which took place in the early 1900s - after the end of World War I - in the New York City neighborhood Harlem. This district was the place where people of color could express their talents and let their art flourish. From writers, to photographers and from poets, to artists, to scholars. Harlem became the heart and soul of black culture and the so-called ‘Renaissance’ that followed would irreversibly redefine the way America viewed African-Americans.
The emergence of ballroom culture occurred simultaneously to - and perhaps partly as a result of - The Harlem Renaissance. In its infancy however, ball culture was dominated by ‘white men putting on drag fashion shows. Black queens rarely participated, and when they did, they were expected to lighten their faces (Cunningham 1995). Fed up with the restrictive and racist ball culture, the queer black ball community established their own underground ball culture in the 1960s.’
Stonewall Riots & the emergence of ballroom culture
It were New York’s infamous Stonewall Riots which marked a pivotal moment in queer history. When they occurred, in 1969, homosexual acts were still illegal across all 49 of the 50 states America consisted of. Even though gay rights movements didn’t begin as a result of the Stonewall Riots, these protests did mark a turning point in LGBTQIA+ history, characterized by an unusually large up-rise in resistance against police action. Prior to the Stonewall Riots, resistance of such nature - at this scale - had not ever been seen before in history. This uprising allowed for ‘changed self-perceptions within the subculture: from feeling guilty and apologetic to feelings of self-acceptance and pride.’
However, in the 1960s both diverging from the heterosexual norm, as well as diverging from societal expectations regarding gender: ‘to be a man or a woman and be the sex that corresponds to the genitals in your pants’, was dangerous. Not only were legal repercussions probable, the chances of not being accepted by your family were - arguably - higher than the odds of being accepted. This left a lot of queer people ostracized from their families.
In response to that, ballroom “houses” emerged, offering a chosen family to society's outcast. Filling a painful void - left by those to whom they were once bound by blood - these ball “houses” offered a sense of home, to those who had none.
Just like a biological family, ball “houses” also have a parent running the house and children carrying their last name. Oftentimes ball “houses” were literal houses, offering ostracized queer people not only a warm and loving welcome, but also an actual roof.
Categories of ballroom
Ballroom competitions are divided by categories. The two, arguably, most important categories of the ballroom scene are voguing and realness.
- Voguing is a category of ballroom inspired by the poses of (cover) models in Vogue magazine.
- The ‘Old Way’ of voguing revolves around symmetry, sharp angles, solid lines and static poses.
- Whereas the ‘New Way’ of voguing is characterized by its emphasis on fluidity and flexibility, borrowing a variety of elements like catwalk and hand movements, but also including the infamous duckwalk and floor work like spins and dips.
- Realness is a category of ballroom which emerged as a result of the need to conform to societal standards regarding masculinity and femininity.
- Butch Queen Realness is the category of realness which measures its contestants upon their ability to blend in with cis-gender men.
- Femme Queen Realness is the category of realness which measures its contestants upon their ability to blend in with cis-gender women.
Other major categories are:
- Face is a category of ballroom which revolves around participants' faces;
- Body is a category which - as you guessed - revolves around participants' bodies and more particularly the structure thereof;
- Hand is a category of ballroom which revolves around the hands and using them as a means of storytelling;
- Runway is a category which revolves around the ability to walk like a supermodel;
- Sex Siren is a category of ball which revolves around sex appeal and participants' abilities to captivate and even bewitch the judges, the way a sex siren would;
- Heels is a category of ballroom that revolves around the ability to walk in heels;
- Best Dressed is a category which - as the name suggests - revolves around the best dressed participant;
- Bizarre is a category which revolves around participants' abilities to design costumes as a means of storytelling.
- Commentator is a category which revolves around participants' abilities to rap, rhyme and sign on beat.
Resistance & conformity
Ball culture as a whole essentially revolves around resistance and conformity. On one hand the ballroom scene rejects societal expectations which urge people to fit into a box of either male or female. It offers resistance to these expectations, by choosing not to conform to them.
On the other hand the ballroom scene plays with conformity, through categories like realness. Such categories emerged from the need to conform to societal expectations, in order to be able to maintain a job and provide for the house and those in it who are unable to do so themselves.
Fostered by people of color, the ballroom scene has offered countless individuals a sense of belonging, a community and most importantly a home to those who had none. It was one of the first spaces to not only accept both queerness and melanin, but to celebrate it.
Ball created a place where the oppressed were allowed to take up space - instead of having to hide, allowing them to resist whatever expectations the outside world holds, to not conform and have that be okay. The ballroom scene centers the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, the way white straight people are centered in society. Challenging the established order, the ballroom scene turned into a safespace for the outcast, in which they get to take the stage, not to be ridiculed, but to shine, to grow and to flourish.
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Lots of love,
The slut show is about way more than sex. It is about breaking taboos, asking questions and fucking the patriarchy, by having real, raw, uncensored and heartfelt conversations about topics that matter. In a safe space we aim to make room for the voices of marginalized folks, creating a place to listen to the pain, sorrow, hopes and dreams of those who came before us. Found in & by intersectional feminism, we believe that everybody should have the same opportunities and get treated equally - regardless of the color of their skin, the size of their body, the gender they identify with or the people they choose to love. Let it be known that the feminism we know today rests upon the foundation black, indigenous, people of color & the queer community built for us. May the battles they fought and the struggles they overcame keep the raging fire in our hearts alive, to make sure that they - nor their legacy - will ever be forgotten.
- “An Archive for Virtual Harlem: Harlem Renaissance Summary.” n.d. An Archive for Virtual Harlem. Accessed May 14, 2023. https://scalar.usc.edu/works/harlem-renaissance/harlem-renaissance-summary.
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