What is the history of drag balls?
Liz Highleyman | February 21, 2007
Cross-dressing at social gatherings has long been a prominent feature of GLBT culture and in America, from the 1970s onward, the drag ball community has provided a surrogate family for many black and Latino gay and transgender youth.
The contemporary African-American drag ball scene has its roots in the late 19th century. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, masquerade balls attended by thousands took place regularly at venues such as the Rockland Palace and the Savoy Ballroom, with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Renowned author Langston Hughes once described such events as "spectacles of color."
The New York drag ball scene enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, and reached the height of its popularity in the late 1980s. This era witnessed the creation of legendary "houses" such as Dupree, LaBeija, Omni, and Xtravaganza. Erstwhile punk impresario Malcolm McLaren highlighted the ball culture in his 1989 music video, "Deep in Vogue"; but the scene really burst into mainstream public consciousness a year later with the release of Jennie Livingston's documentary film Paris Is Burning and Madonna's hit song "Vogue."
Ball houses featured a Mother and Father who looked after the welfare of numerous children. Houses often served as substitute families for young gay men and transgender people who had been rejected by their families of origin. Though many were poor and survived on sex work or petty crime, everyone aspired to fame or fortune – or at least the illusion thereof. As house mother Pepper LaBeija explained, "Some of them don't eat, they sleep under the piers, and they steal something to wear for one night to live the fantasy."
Typically held late at night in community centers, hotel ballrooms, or nightclubs, balls offered contestants an opportunity to "walk," or compete, in a wide range of categories. While drag queens traditionally portrayed divas of the silver screen, younger aficionados turned to television characters and supermodels as role models. By the 1980s, competitions expanded beyond female impersonation to include all manner of feminine and masculine costuming – including military and executive wear – illustrating that drag could be as much about race and class as it was about gender.
In addition to costuming and style, participants were also judged on the quality of their "voguing," a dance form that incorporates the stylized poses of fashion models along with elements borrowed from mime, gymnastics, and martial arts. The most famous voguer to date, Willi Ninja, parlayed his appearances in McLaren's video and Paris Is Burning into a career as a dancer, choreographer, and instructor of professional models and socialites.
While the ball scene's moment in the spotlight was brief – and many of the early legends, were lost to AIDS – ball culture continues to thrive, as portrayed in the more recent documentary How Do I Look (2005). Continuing in the tradition of providing support for GLBT youth, the ball community has embraced fundraising and HIV prevention, spawning organizations such as the House of Latex (founded by Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1989).
In the wake of Paris Is Burning, the ball scene prompted much discussion among academics and activists about drag, gender, the nature of identity, and mainstream appropriation of marginalized subcultures. In the words of poet Essex Hemphill, "The yearning festering behind the illusions is a yearning for a full equality and a common privilege that the United States has yet to deliver."
For further information:
Brown, Aaron Pierre. House of Enigma.
Busch, Wolfgang. 2005. How Do I Look (documentary film).
Garber, Eric. 1989. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (New American Library).
Livingston, Jennie. 1990. Paris Is Burning (documentary film).
Trebay, Guy. 2005. "Still Striking a Pose." New York Times (May 22
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
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