It’s a snowy December night on the South Side and the ballroom has filled up quickly. There are guys in tailored suits, girls in red heeled Louboutins. There are pop-gothy capes and futuristic glasses. The crowd is gathered around a catwalk– and everyone is young, Black and queer. This is a ball. Balls reached fame with the documentary Paris is Burning but balls haven’t gone anywhere, and with the Internet spreading ball culture, the community is bigger than ever.
Chicago’s December Escada House Ball
What is a ball?
It’s an underground LGBTQ contest where participants compete by “walking”– showing off themed outfits and voguing—a stylized house dance that continues to evolve. They are competing for trophies and the hope to become “legendary”–famous in the entire community, which now spans the globe. Balls remain about 97% black, but are open to everyone. “Because of disenfranchisement, balls provide an outlet for people with few options. That is not to say that all ball people have few options, just to say that the scene is dominated by many who don’t ” says Aaron Enigma, a Chicago ballroom legend.
The History: Long Before Vogue
Underground drag balls came into their own during the 1920′s and 30′s Harlem Renaissance, but this was more about glamorous-drag queens competing Miss America style. Aaron Enigma has been researching this for years. “Blacks just created their own ball formats. This was a time when blacks couldn’t compete fairly with mainstream balls (often, black drag queens would have to “whiten” themselves with makeup). Think of a time where Black performers could not dine, lodge or otherwise fraternize in some of the same venues in which they worked. Everyone else that couldn’t break into showbiz might find a stage in the ballroom setting. Blacks weren’t allowed in White establishments, but it was often easier for willing Whites to patronize Black establishments. The Harlem Renaissance was partly about adventurous Whites rubbing elbows with the Black arts community on their grounds.”
Paris is Burning—again
Chicago kids tell me that there is about a ball a month. Youtube videos of balls spread, and the scene, now decades old, keeps growing. A young member of the House of Omni explains “Kids are now 13-14 and coming to know their sexual preference. When they are finding out they are gay, they’ll go to someone in their community, someone at school or in their family, who they may have heard is gay. Then they will be directed to the ball scene, they seek the ballroom scene as a safe haven because they can actually be themselves around us.” The difference from the Paris is Burning days is the balls don’t end, they continue online, on forums and youtube. This makes for more cut-throat competition and maybe in turn more creative balls. Father Will Omni explains “You can lose yourself. I’ve seen good things come out of it and bad things. It depends on a person. If you are strong, you can make it into something great.”