Voguing and Sequins: the wonderful world of the Ballroom
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LGBTQ people are considered the last of society: Fortunately, there is another world, underground and clandestine, where this community can freely express its identity with pride, The Ballrooms

Strike a pose!

Harlem – NY, late 1970s.

In this conformist and puritanical corner of the country, racial clashes between police and the gay Hispanic and African American communities are commonplace.

LGBTQ people are considered the last of society: they are continually ghettoized and persecuted with acts of verbal, psychological and physical violence.

These were the years of the first demands for gay rights, culminating in the heated Stonewall riots on June 27, 1969, an event that officially gave birth to the Gay Pride movement.

Fortunately, there is another world, underground and clandestine, where this community can freely express its identity with pride:

The Ballrooms

Ballrooms are legendary dance halls where Trans, Drag, Butch Queen, Open to All perform before a panel of judges.

On these dance floors one arrives strictly at 3 A.M. to avoid police raids, very frequent at least in the early years, and where the black contestants bleach their faces with wax to stay in line with the beauty standards of the moment.

In this parallel universe of sequins and wigs, Voguing was also born: a type of contemporary dance that mimics, with angular and fluid movements, the plastic poses of models on the catwalk or on the covers of glossy magazines such as, precisely, Vouge.

This dance-which undergoes influences from martial arts and ballet-is used as a nonviolent House clash: no contact is allowed between the challengers.

The winner is decided on the basis of posture, originality of interpretation of the established theme. Voguing was later taken up by Madonna in the video for the famous song “Vogue”; thanks to the star, the dance became wildly popular and an integral part of 1990s pop culture.

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Le House.

For the LGBTQ community the Ballroom is much more than a place where they take refuge from a hostile society.

The House, or the crews that participate in the competitions, have a family-like hierarchical organization: there is the Mother and/or Father who are responsible for educating the new followers, known as “children,” who are almost always young people leading difficult lives, picked up from the streets.

House members are bound by strong affection and a sense of belonging: for many of them, the house constitutes the only place where they can feel loved and accepted, where they can receive the affection that their family of origin has denied them because of their avowed homosexuality.

The Competition.

The “Houses” stage fierce competitions for supremacy and fame for their members; the opening ceremony is called “Le Gran March” where the Houses and categories competing are presented.

At the Balls one can participate as an audience/jury, or as a model and tackle the Walks, or parade.

Those who parade, in addition to having to show an impeccable wardrobe, perfect makeup and hair, must put on a show in the most real way possible: study every movement, detail, attitude of a given theme and interpret it in a believable way.

The Categories.

  • Runway: contestants parade and are judged on their performance, in this category the costumes chosen are of paramount importance, which can be brandi signatures or handmade.

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  • Face: those who participate for the Face category must “see their face,” be able to enhance the gestures of the face through makeup, which can be “painted” i.e. made up, or “unpainted,” without make up.
  • Performance / Voguing: participants must engage through dance, gesture and dance performance.
  • Fashion: contestants are judged on the best outfit and accessory required by the theme, how to show it off and show it to the jury. The Fashion subcategories are: Best Dressed, Sneakers vs. Sneakers, Labels, Designers Delight.

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  • Sex Siren: here, the jury is judged on the sex appeal of the participant who generally wear sensual clothing, such as corsets, fishnet stockings, garter belts.
  • Realness: here, the jury judges how real, authentic the participant is in the role and mask required by the theme of the evening. For example, if the theme is “Schoolboy Realness,” participants must dress, move, pose just like young schoolboys, naive and carefree.
  • Body: competition based on the ability to show one’s body, thanks in part to special costumes.

The message of inclusivity, fight against marginalization and the artistic impact given by Ball Cultures has spread through movies, documentaries, TV series as “Paris is Burning,” the Netflix series “Strike,” or the recent movie “Kiki,” reaching the masses and the so-called “Streight,” but it was the famous photographer Chantal Regnault who captured the scene in all its authenticity, from 1989 to 1992.

Chantal followed the predominantly African-American NY Gay scene, collecting interviews, testimonies and shots that she later published in the volume, “In Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92”.

Ballrooms Today

Ballrooms have spread like wildfire from the late 1980s to the present.

Europe spawned a corollary scene to the American one with its own rules and Houses, particularly in the French capital, the hotbed of Can Can and Moulin Rouge.

Today, Ball Culture has lost some of its authenticity, turning more into a costume event than a social one. However, the scene continues to inspire pop culture through dance, cross-dressing and performance.

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WORDS: Manuela Palma

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