Jay Smooth introduced us this week to hip-hop artists, both pioneers and newcomers, who are hustling to make their own living inside the massive industry that uniquely black art form spawned. But hip-hop is not the only place where young black artists deeply influence mainstream culture and entertainment–and do so without recognition or pay. Pop artists have for decades appropriated the style, dance and sound generated inside the black and Latino LGBTQ community’s house ballroom scene. From Madonna’s 1990 "Vogue" to the Scissor Sisters’ 2012 "Let’s Have a Kiki," the creative teams of Top 40 performers have consistently mined the scene for inspiration.
Photographer Gerard Gaskin’s 2013 book, "Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene," chronicles the New York City ballroom scene itself with intimate portraits he began recording in 1994, not long after the balls first poked into broader view through the 1990 documentary "Paris Is Burning." Filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s documentary itself frustrated many within the scene, Gaskin included. "I’ve always kind of battled with the idea of whites coming in to do a documentary and their point of view being the strongest," Gaskin says.
Like many others, Gaskin was drawn to the balls as a teenager living in New York City. He began by making portraints of his friends, and just kept going for decades. "I try not to have discussions around, ‘Oh, it’s an important study and all that,’" he says, rejecting the detachment that too often comes with studying things. Rather, Gaskin kept the project going because he loved being at balls. It’s the opening moments that get him. "The toughness and the rawness that the outside world has put on these young people–parents who threw them out, the word faggot, all those ills, all of that stuff–just peels away and they’re mini-celebrities in their own space. That energy is amazing."
It’s also catching. Pop performers aren’t the only ones drawing from the ball scene, often even unwittingly. Ball styles, dances and lingo have become hip cultural signifiers among young, white gay men both in the U.S. and Europe. Gaskin notes the emergence of massive balls in Europe to which party promoters sell thousands of tickets, often with no connection to or recognition of the events’ roots.
Gaskin shared some of his images with Colorlines for our Life Cycles of Inequity series, which this month focuses on the cultural economy.
–Kai Wright, series editor
"I’m originally from the islands, so Carinval is a huge thing," says Gaskin in ticking off things that drew him to balls. "I loved the theater." Here, he profiles Ski at the 30th anniversary ball for House of Xtravaganza, in 2012. Balls center on runway competitions that are themed for both style presentations and gender expressions. Ski is walking in the category "Butch Queen Big Boys."
Gender is a multifaceted thing at balls, encompassing far more than the male-female binary we’re asked to accept elsewhere, and thus the balls have their own gender language, too. "Butch queens" are gay-identified men, for instance, while "femme queens" are transgender women. "Pre-1990, the femme queens ran the balls," Gaskin notes of the change he witnessed. As the decade wore on, he saw more butch queens in leading roles. Here, Tez prepares to walk the category "Butch Queen Tall Boys Bizarre," wearing an outfit made by his twin brother Marquise (right), at a House of Evisu ball in 2010.
Gaskin says expressions of tough masculinity also became more prominent throughout the 1990s–mirroring, or perhaps working dynamically with, trends in hip-hop. "Realness" categories, in which runway walkers emphasize a given masculine style, became popular. Sean, a legendary figure in the balls’ butch scene and a transgender man, walks the "Butch Realness" category at a 2007 ball led by the now-defunct community group People of Color in Crisis.
Voguing battles, like this one at a 1998 ball in Harlem, are often the high-energy moments of a ball. The dance style is also the most pointed example of ball culture seeping into pop culture, without recognition. In the late 1980s, vogue dancers began practicing and battling with one another at the large gay clubs of lower Manhattan. As recounted by music historian Tim Lawrence, the DJs and music producers who led the club scene quickly took notice and began incorporating ball celebrities and styles into their own music. Madonna and her creative team noticed, too, and her smash hit "Vogue," in 1990, featured but did not credit both the styles and the sounds of those earlier tracks. Madonna recruited members of the House of Xtravaganza to vogue with her in the song’s video and on tour, but many in the scene–including the DJs who introduced Madonna to ball culture–felt exploited. Similarly, some of those who participated in Livingston’s "Paris Is Burning," which debuted the same year, felt misled about how they’d be portrayed and what they’d get in return.
Gaskin and others argue the pop appropriation of ball culture that began in the early 1990s is now commonplace. But he also notes that there remain players in the ballroom scene who are deeply invested in its undeground status–because of organized crime that exits there, too. "People want to be recognized," he observes, "but it’s so hard because at the same time, they do get into trouble." Since at least the early 2000s, however, LGBTQ community organizers have also begun tapping into the scene as a base for connecting with young people around both sexual health and poltical action. Gay Men’s Health Crisis now hosts the popular Latex Ball, depicted here in 2002.
The New York City fashion and clothing design world has always been as core a part of ball culture as has dance, as seen in categories like this one at a 1998 ball, where two walkers show off their house’s designs. But today, the most vibrant ball scenes are no longer in New York City. They’ve branched out to southern and midwestern cities where black LGBTQ communities have grown and developed dramatically in recent years.
"Face" categories, like this one at a 1998 ball, are among those that developed as butch queens rose in prominence in the scene. In contrast to the "butch realness" categories, "face" competitions are often built around performing the classic idea of a male fashion model.
A universal observation of the ball scene is the profoundly broad range of creative talent–and work–that participants generate. The dance alone ranges from voguing to ballet, as seen in this "Butch Queen, Vogue Femme" category at a 2007 ball. It’s often noted that many house leaders work or have worked in the cultural economy–as designers, choreographers, producers and the like. But a disturbingly large share of those at the balls are LGBTQ youth whose creative skills are subsumed by the abuse and poverty that continue to shape the lives of queer youth of color around the country.