A quick look at NYC’s gay ballroom dance scene…
“My dad said you have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, that you are black and you are male. But you are black, you are male and you are gay – you are going to have a hard fucking time. He said if you are going to do this, you are going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”
These are the opening words of Jennie Livingston‘s Paris Is Burning. Spoken by one of the many subjects that pop up through out it, firing off blistering insights into the structures of their daily lives. It charts the New York ballroom culture of a predominantly poor African-american and Hispanic LGBTQ scene of the mid to late 80’s in a New York city that had yet to face Rudy Giuliani’s “clean up.”
If you are curious about what happened to some of participants, then read The Slap Of Love. It’s a profile by Micheal Cunningham of Angel Segarra, a Puerto Rican kid from the South Bronx who became Angie Xtravaganza, and features in Paris Is Burning. It’s quite tragic.
“She died of complications from AIDS, but she also had chronic liver trouble, probably brought on by the hormones she’d been taking since the age of 15 to soften her skin and give her breasts and hips. She’d lived for over ten years as her own creation, a ferocious maternal force who turned tricks in hotel rooms over a bar called the Cock Ring and who made chicken soup for the gaggle of friends she called her kids after they came home from a long night on the town.”
The Ballrooms were something of world within a world, with their own rituals of community solidarity, taking the form of the various houses that competed against each other on the floor. As two very articulate 15 year old hangers on put it:
“The religious community they want to pray together a lot, this gay community might want to be together.”
From watching this documentary, there was nothing hugely glamorous about the venues. They look like a mixture of basketball courts, and weirdly enough, masonic lodges. At least one of the scenes has a moose head on the wall, like something from that famous Stonecutters episode in The Simpsons. The costumes and fashions are a different beast entirely. And sure, as time went on, elements of the underground ballroom scene popped up on MTV, in the fashion magazines and uptown clubs.
The scene hugely fed into the dance underground of the city, with it being referenced through samples or terms used in track titles. Junior Vasquez’s classic MDMA celebration X, takes its main vocal sample from an MC announcing a participant from the House of Xtravaganza hitting the catwalk (if you could call it that…).
Soul Jazz brought out a double release looking at some of the music to come from the scene some years ago too. Go lust after it here. It’s an ideal soundtrack for your next post club drunken schmooze down. Here’s what they had to say about it.
“As voguing entered into the mainstream, the ‘house ball’ scene came downtown mixing with the fashion crowd of Manhattan. With this shift, Voguing was first seen outside the ball scene at legendary dance clubs such as Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage and Junior Vasquez’s Sound Factory. Here the music evolved from the pertinent classic disco tracks of the 1970s into a harder house sound as artists such as Masters at Work, Armand Van Helden and Junior Vazquez.”
The documentary has also inspired the likes of The Rapture with Gabriel Andruzzi saying:
“There are so many amazing tunes in the movie. I don’t think there is one that makes me mad. I’m not sure how many of these songs where actually ‘underground’ at the time. I assume that they were are all hits on the radio or in the clubs. ‘Sweet Dreams,’ ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ ‘Got To Be Real,’ and ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ were all pretty big R&B or pop hits. To me, it’s interesting to see how these songs have meaning across different contexts and that they weren’t necessarily ‘owned’ exclusively by any singular context or culture.”
And yes, there is of course Madonna too. With her 1990 hit Vogue. Inspired by her visits to the Sound Factory nightclub where she met Jose and Luis Xtravaganza. You can get a flavor of the ballroom influenced Sound Factory in this video here.
She of course had a rather public falling out with Junior Vazquez, after he released this number sampling an answering machine message from her. She didn’t feel very Twink about it.
There’s not much point me adding more on the scene, it’s a deeply documented phenomena online. I did notice one thing that was overlooked though, some of the deeper history. Lately I’d been reading a piece of social history by George Chauncey called Gay New York: The Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890 – 1940.
A wee review article online has this to say about the book:
“George Chauncey’s innovative and prodigiously researched Gay New York belies the myth of the pre-Stonewall closet and unearths a thriving gay culture in Gotham in the half-decade before World War II, before “the decline of the fairy and the rise of the closet.” Contrary to Whiggish notions of severe homosexual repression up until the liberating 1970s, Chauncey argues that “the gay male world of the prewar years was remarkably visible and integrated into the straight world” in the first decades of the twentieth century. In fact, it was not until after the close of Prohibition that new social norms and cultural anxieties forced a restructuring of urban gay life. “To use the modern idiom,” Chauncey writes, “the state built a closet in the 1930s and forced gay people to hide in it.”
You can read more over here. The book talks about how masquerades and drag balls have been organised by gay men since the early 1890s, they were a source of empowerment. Chauncey recounts how in the 20s, two telephone operators almost caused a mini riot by sauntering back to their apartment attired in a “Spanish shawl and a beautiful flaming red dress.” He describes how:
“Some were emboldened by the thrill of gathering with hundreds of other openly gay men at an event celebrating their style and grace, and they left the balls, unwilling, at least for a moment, to accept the usual constraints on their behavior Rather than hide on the way home from the balls, some refused to be bundled into cabs but marched daringly through the streets.”
…and goes on later to conclude:
“The theater of the drag balls enhanced the solidarity of the gay world and symbolized the continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture, much as ethnic parades and festivals helped to establish the solidarity of the ethnic community by bringing people together and constructing a sense of common culture.”
Check both the documentary and the book out. Well worth the effort.