Ballroom Blitz, 1991

‘Work, bitch!’ From deep in the vaults, here’s Frank’s brief glimpse into the New York ballroom scene: a Sunday night of runway and voguing in October 1991, accompanied by some programmes from the era, including this first one from the great Sound Factory Ball in 1992, dominated, if memory serves, by the club’s own House of Xtravangaza. A shout-out across the years to Joseph and Reggie and the other Roxy girls, to the banjee boys of the Factory floor, and to the House of Elite for welcoming us into their family for the night. Additional reporting by June of the House of Nubia.

 

Runway Punishment

“There’s a score to be settled and only those walking bitches will survive.”

‘I’m looking for what Madonna didn’t have, and what she wished she had, and what she might have if she keeps watching.’ Devin Elite, master of ceremonies and Father of the House of Elite, is spurring a pair of bodystockinged duellers into a frenzy of head-to-head voguing. The two gentlemen on the catwalk have the moves of dancers, the attitude of Dynasty starlets, and lycra that curves in all the right places. They twist their athletic bodies around, posing and pouting and writhing aggressively on the floor, but even when they’re face to face glaring daggers at each other they’re not allowed to touch.

‘It never gets too violent,’ Devin explains, ‘It’s just very competitive. Everyone’s jolly and friendly until the music starts, and then you see the crazy fucking effort, the sweat popping and all the antics.’

It’s Sunday night in a masonic hall in downtown Brooklyn and the event is ‘Couture Allure ‘91’. An outrageous parody of a fashion show, it’s a chance for some of New York’s black gay population to dress up in the wildest of outfits and strut along the catwalk to pumping house music, fulfilling their dreams of being models and superstars, and showing the world just how wonderfully incredibly gorgeous they are.

Makeup is applied, outfits sorted, and precision voguing moves perfected on the sidelines. In this very ordinary hall, with very ordinary lighting, are gathered some of the most extraordinarily beautiful men and women alive. Except that pretty much everyone in the room, whether rippling with dignified manliness, or glowing with cutesome femininity, was born male.

Balls like this one have been happening for more than thirty years, and despite the popularising efforts of Madonna and Malcolm McLaren they remain a decidedly underground phenomenon. A product of the bygone days of glamorous Harlem drag queens, the scene remains exclusively black and Hispanic, and balls are kept very low-profile. Hardly surprising since they evolved as a fantasy escape from the all too common reality of bigotry and misunderstanding.

‘You have two strikes against you if you’re black and gay,’ says Wayne, a teacher and activist, ‘These people aren’t likely to become white or straight so they’re mimicking white straight culture – being characters they’d never be in real life.’

The people involved are organised in ‘houses’. There are currently 47 of these, with names like Milan, Extravaganza, Armani, Revlon, Ashanti, Africa, and tonights hosts, Elite. Each consists of a ‘mother’ and a ‘father’ and their ‘children’, and like families they offer mutual support and encouragement, as well as providing the team groupings for the competitive balls. Most house members emphasise the positive nature of the houses, and are unhappy when they are disparaged as gay street gangs.

‘I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a particular curriculum my house members have to follow,’ stresses Devin, ‘They have to be actively in school or working. I prefer to be strictly positive. I started the House of Elite for the sole purpose of showing everyone else in the ballroom what it should be like.’

Music thumps into action, kickstarting the ball into life. The children of the House of Elite parade themselves along the runway and take the stage as our hosts for the night. Although the hosting house is traditionally barred from competing, they are keen to show off a few moves before the contest begins. Devin arrives to take his place at the head of his house wearing a fabulous outfit halfway between a mafia chieftain and a Las Vegas magician. A table in the wings groans under a mass of golden statuettes (like Rolls Royce figurines in 30’s bathing trunks), and one by one the judges take their seats.

Contestants are either ‘gentlemen’ (straight-acting gay men), or ‘ladies’ (trans women) and they compete for prizes in diverse categories dreamed up by the hosts to set the tone for each bout. Some of the more outlandish might include: ‘Runway Punishment – There’s a score to be settled and only those walking bitches will survive’, or ‘Big Bad Girls vs the Small Call Girl vs the Amazon Hooker’; and ‘Costume – Cher vs Grace Jones’, and there are always ‘realness’ categories, for example ‘9-5, white collar only’ where the aim is to ‘pass’, to look like an unquestionably straight businessman. Another favourite used to be ‘Drug-Dealer Realness’, where quilted jackets, cellphones and briefcases full of bags of white powder were the order of the day.

Tonight’s categories underline the current fashion for taking images and idols from the worlds of haute couture, advertising and television. In one, ‘Body with Production’ the gentlemen are invited to compete as living versions of the beefcake in Calvin Klein’s Obsession ads. This offers the spectacle of hunksome young musclemen getting greased up with lotions and potions, slipping off their trunks and cupping their bare essentials for modesty’s sake (with a less modest two hands). In ‘Double Take’ the ladies are asked to, ‘recreate a look of your favorite model from a magazine – You Must Bring Magazine’.

‘Everyone’s a little less on costumes now and a little more into a ’90s kind of look,’ Devin explains. ‘They’re more into European effects and looks compared to back then. Now they’re wearing tights and they’re creating an androgenous look, and they’re doing a lot of things with hair and so on.’

But what about voguing? We’ve all seen Ms Ciccone strike a pose and we’re itching to see the real thing. Seeing as the V-word is notably absent from the programme tonight, where are the coverstar moves, the waving hands, the pouting stares? It seems ‘voguing’ is no longer the thing to say. ‘Performance’ is the favoured term these days, and ‘precision is a must’. When the fellas come out on the floor to do their thing what’s most striking is the speed and agility of their movements. There’s none of this slow-motion activity that Madonna foisted on the world; instead we get an intense flurrying of limbs, plenty of grooving around, and a deal of raunchy gymnastics. It’s fast, it’s millimetre-accurate and it looks as if it probably hurts.

It’s a close call and the finalists are called back to fight it out. Voguing started in battles like this as a way of cursing out your opponent without saying a word. Where rapping evolved as a way of warring with words, voguing takes things a step further, being a means of showing yourself to be dripping with glamour, style and attitude and your opponent as being a dowdy uncoordinated loser.

Frank Broughton, 1991

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Glossary

LADIES OF DISTINCTION – Women who were born female.

LADIES OF SPECIAL PREFERENCE – Gay women.

GENTLEMEN/BUTCH QUEENS – Gay men who dress/act straight.

LADIES/FEM QUEENS – Trans women.

OVERNESS – A total state of being. Perfection. What everyone competing in the ball is striving to achieve and display.

SPOOKABLE – If you are spookable, you are not what you appear to be. Your cover can be blown. The opposite of overness.

REALNESS – Looking completely convincing in your assumed gender.

WALKING – Entering the competition. Walking down the runway.

BATTLE – When the two finalists fight it out together on the floor.

THROWING SHADE – Giving off attitude. Spoiling for a showdown. (Also SHADY, SHADING)

READING – Cursing, throwing shade in the form of verbal attitude.

OVAH! / IT’S OVAH FOR YOU – The supreme compliment, meaning that the person thus addressed is brimming with overness.