Ballroom: The Underground Culture of Queer Black and Latinx New York

By Luke Morales

Ball culture, also known as ballroom culture or the ball or ballroom scene, is the underground LGBTQ+ subculture in the United States in which primarily Black and Latinx queer people “walk,” or compete, for prizes and glory at competitions known as “balls.” It initially emerged in the 1920s in and around New York City and became a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people of color and Latinx populations in the 1960s (Grinnell College, n.d.). The ballroom scene has made its way into the mainstream in the past, and sometimes controversially, as with the documentary Paris is Burning and Madonna’s Vogue. TV shows and movies such as Pose, My House, and Kiki show that ballroom culture is once again rising in popularity—even in Latin America, as seen in music videos for Alex Anwandter’s “Como Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?” and “Siempre Es Viernes en Mi Corazón.” While it is important to acknowledge the beauty and uniqueness of ballroom, it is just as important to recognize its cultural significance and examine the ways in which cultural appropriation has afflicted the community.

The deep impact that ball culture had on the Latinx and Black LGBTQ+ community in the United States is impressive, especially considering the extent to which homophobia was rooted in “above-ground” American culture at the time. The Stonewall Riots, which were a series of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement in New York City in 1969, were a product of this rooted homophobia. For decades prior to Stonewall, queer individuals would flock to gay bars and clubs to socialize and express themselves openly without worry (History, 2020). However, police would often raid gay bars and clubs, and the New York State Liquor Authority even argued that the gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly” (History, 2020). Despite the government’s abuse of the queer community at the time, it is important to dispel the myth that queer life did not exist in a public way until the 1960s: ball culture is proof of that.

New York’s Harlem became home to an intellectual, cultural, and artistic movement in the 1900s which centered Black life and promoted LGBTQ+ art, activism, and culture (NMAAHC, n.d.). “The movement offered a new language that challenged social structures and demonstrated the ways that race, gender, sex, and sexuality distinctions were actually intersecting, fluid, and constantly evolving” (NMAAHC, n.d.). Through ballroom culture, Harlem also became the birthplace of vogue, a highly stylized form of dance created by Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities. The documentary Paris is Burning acts as a chronicle of New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s. Directed by Jennie Livingston, the documentary shined a light on the underground culture (Clark, 2015). However, the film sparked discussion and controversy, with many wondering whether Livingston—a middle-class white woman—was acting as an enabler of cultural appropriation (Clark, 2015).

The voguers in Paris is Burning were working-class and poor, sex workers, and battling homelessness and HIV/AIDS, and they had to sue to be paid “next to nothing” for their contributions to the film (NMAAHC, n.d.). The controversy surrounding Paris is Burning can be used as an example of white people taking advantage of Black and Latinx queer culture for personal benefit. Another example, though widely argued, could be Madonna’s hit single Vogue, released in 1990. Madonna is without a doubt an ally to the queer community—we see this in her decades of AIDS and LGBTQ+ activism, her music, and her friends (Murrian, 2020; Virtel, 2017). Despite Vogue coming from a good place, however, we must question whether its release had its intended effect. For example, Madonna’s status as a world-famous pop star allowed voguing to be dismissed as nothing more than a fad while also erasing its original context as a creation of queer Latinx populations and queer people of color (Goodman, 2018). In addition, during the second half of her song, Madonna references other celebrities who were “on the cover of a magazine,” “a beauty queen,” who “had grace,” who “gave good face”—they were all white. If Madonna was trying to highlight the beauty of the ballroom scene, then why not reference the Black and Latinx queens and voguers who belonged there?

Ball culture is once again entering the mainstream, even in Latin America. Houses in ballroom culture are groups of LGBTQ+ members who ban together under a “house mother.” Mexico City’s scene can be traced back to 2013, when Any Funk started the House of Machos (Villegas, 2016). The city’s ballroom culture was a result of dance classes and rising nightlife trends in the city’s historical district, and since 2013, Mexico City’s scene has steeped and flourished vibrantly (Villegas, 2016). Brazil’s scene is much looser, and one drag queen describes it as a giant melting pot:

“‘There is more of an alliance of funk, vogue, house, disco, drag, clubbers, etc. Our ballroom scene has no real consistency to it, but it’s more a teaching that Blacks, gays, Latinxs who are at the margins of society need to unite’” (Villegas, 2016).

 Ballroom culture has historically acted as a safe space for queer Black and Latinx populations to exist without fear or worry. The ball scene united us and gave birth to the beautiful dance that is vogue. Though ball culture has been taken advantage of and appropriated time and time again throughout our history—Paris is Burning and Vogue being two examples—our culture remains strong as ever. We’ve faced genocide, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, oppression, structural abuse, and still we stand ready for whatever adversity comes our way. That’s the beauty of not just the ball scene but the LGBTQ+ population as a whole. As former House of LaBeija mother Pepper LaBeija once said, “We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive” (Livingston, 1990).

 

Luke Morales (he/him/his) is a junior pursuing a major in English writing, a minor in Portuguese, and a certificate in Latin American Studies. He is very active in university life, working as a Resident Assistant, Teaching Assistant, and Social Media Coordinator for the Luso-Brazilian Student Association. When writing nonfiction, Luke likes to write about things relating to literature; diversity, equity and inclusion; and current events. His favorite hobbies include reading, writing, and playing videogames. He plans to pursue a career in authoring fiction, creating and sharing multicultural literature with focus on the LGBTQ+ community

 

 


References

Clark, A. (2015). Burning down the house: Why the debate over Paris is Burning rages on. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/24/burning-down-the-house-deba...

Murrian, S. (2020). How Madonna became the ultimate LGBTQ icon: A timeline. Parade. https://parade.com/889697/samuelmurrian/madonna-lgbtq-icon/

National Museum of African American History & Culture. (n.d.). A brief history of voguing. Smithsonian. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/brief-history-voguing

Grinnell College. (n.d.). Underground ball culture. Subcultures and Sociology. https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-b...

Goodman, E. (2018). The historic, mainstream appropriation of ballroom culture. Them. https://www.them.us/story/ballroom-culture-rupaul-madonna-paris-is-burning

History. (2020). Stonewall Riots. History. https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots

Livingston, J. (Director). (1990). Paris is Burning [Film]. Academy Entertainment, Off White Productions.

Villegas, R. (2016). How voguing and ballroom culture became cool in Latin America. Remezcla. https://remezcla.com/features/music/rise-of-ballroom-culture-latin-america/

Virtel, L. (2017). 10 reasons Madonna is an eternal inspiration to the LGBTQ community. Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/7824546/madonna-lgbtq-insp...

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