In chapter 25 of OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation, I wrote about ballroom culture, but with some fear and trembling. My knowledge of ballroom is mainly derivative, through friends/colleagues and through media. In an earlier time, the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference held Friday night ball events. In short, I know enough to know how little I know–and I know enough to know that it’s important to get it right.
An earlier draft of OtherWise Christian referenced ballroom community more briefly, but then one of my readers said they didn’t know what that was at all. After consulting with my friend and elder, Upāsikā tree (AKA Cleis Abeni), I published the following explanation to introduce the concept:
Ballroom culture emerges from a small community in the U.S. (especially in the Northeast) that frequently serves as a safer space for Black and Latinx same-gender-loving, transgender, and gender non-conforming young people. Individuals compete at events known as “balls.” A ball contestant typically walks, dances, or vogues in various categories and is judged based on their appearance, including costume, dance moves, and overall attitude. Ballroom communities have come to be somewhat better known in mainstream culture through the documentary film Paris Is Burning (1990) and the scripted TV drama Pose (2018–2019).
In ballroom communities, individuals may join (or be adopted into) a “House” which is organized around a parent figure and their (adult) children. The “House” gathers its “children” in and keeps them from living alone on the streets. The parent of the “House” provides loving care, discipline, and purpose for the children as well as survival resources. While a “House” is not typically a legal family relationship, it is not accurate to call it an “informal” structure, either. A “House” is an intimate and substantial family structure that is based on neither marriage nor biology and that supports the well-being and survival of its members.
In that chapter, I go on to explore and imagine the earliest post-Jesus community of disciples (in the Book of Acts) as the “House of Jesus.” However, like many themes in OtherWise Christian, I only scratched the surface of what could be said. I hope that, in time, others who are closer to those communities and cultural influences will expand on the theme.
Meanwhile, I will share some basic ballroom cultural competence that I have learned along the way:
- I don’t call it a “scene.” For many, ballroom is a lifestyle, a community, a culture, a family. To call it a “scene” evokes a trendy commercial endeavor or a place you visit as a tourist–which may how some treat it. However, such a characterization lands poorly for those who find life and sanctuary in the midst of ballroom communities.
- I don’t mix up “drag” with “ballroom.” While there may be overlap between drag culture and ball culture, mushing them together only serves to confuse things. There is lots of drag culture and performance culture that has nothing to do with ballroom culture–and there is lots of ballroom culture that is not about drag.
- I don’t call it “underground” or “subculture.” Using “under” and “sub” really only makes sense in a world where there is up/down, over/under, top/bottom. For those in the community, they are not “sub” or “under.” They simply are themselves, living life as best they can.
I am no expert–and you will certainly see others who are more connected to ballroom life than I, who may use this language. However, if you are someone, like me, who is not intimately involved in ballroom communities, then these are some basic learnings that may help you avoid some traps that could lead to inadvertently disrespecting the strength and beauty of these communities.
We (Transfaith) asked Upāsikā tree (aka Cleis Abeni) to write something for Dharma Day and we were blown away by the powerful and poignant tribute she shared:
Everyday is Dharma Day for Alphy by Upāsikā tree (aka Cleis Abeni)
So this is a restorative narrative, a healing story that recovers some of Alphy’s power. This essay’s prayerful form is important. Like Biblical psalms or Buddhist sutra, each paragraph is of the same relative length within three sections of twelve prose verses each.
Personal reflections like those from tree poignantly get at the complexity of ballroom community, from seeking fame to living on the edge to experiencing trauma to finding strength in one another.
The documentary, Paris Is Burning, is a classic film (currently available on Netflix) which will arguably always be an important part of the LGBT film canon. Here are a few articles exploring its importance, complexity, and controversy:
- Pride Month: ‘Paris is Burning’ and the shady mainstreaming of ballroom (Film Daily)
- Burning down the house: why the debate over Paris is Burning rages on (Guardian)
- Why are LGBT people of color protesting the screening of this cult film classic? (The Daily Dot)
- ‘Paris Is Burning’: ‘Pose’ Writers and Creators Reflect on Landmark Documentary (Indie Wire)
Finally, the scripted TV drama, Pose, is part way through season 2 on the FX Network as I write this. I recommend watching the show (season 1 is currently on Netflix) and reading commentary about it. Both will be quite instructive for anyone who is not already familiar with ballroom communities.
- Already Obsessed With Pose? Here’s A History Of New York’s Ball Culture (Refinery 29)
- Love the new NYC ballroom drama ‘Pose’? Then give these films about the scene a whirl (NME)
- Strike a Pose: Ryan Murphy’s Tribute to Ballroom Culture Isn’t Perfect, but It Is Very Necessary (The Root)
Neither Paris is Burning nor Pose are perfect ways to learn about ballroom culture, but they are influential representations that are worth seeing. I just recommend that you spend some time reading critiques and clarifications like those I’ve cited above to make sure that the fantasy does not override reality.
As always, I am grateful for Upāsikā tree (aka Cleis Abeni), as well as risen ancestor, Charlene Arcila, who have been my gateways to a deeper appreciation of and sensitivity toward the nuances ballroom communities.
Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on July 14, 2019.
Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.