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Opinion: New York City, Madonna, Vogue, and Black, Brown, LGBTQ+ community ball culture

Karen Madej

Queen of Pop, Madonna, brought worldwide attention to a dance style with her hit single Vogue in 1990. But had you ever heard of voguing before then? She showcased the moves of the young Harlem African-American and Latin American underground LGBTQ+ subculture ballroom community.

One account reports Madonna first saw men striking poses and holding them in Sound Factory. Another account from Vogue states that avant-garde boutique owner Susanne Bartsch held the first Love Ball as a fundraiser for people with AIDS. She'd seen many of the performers she invited to her ball mopping (stealing) her Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano stock from her shop!

Vogue contributor Liam Hess wrote: "somewhere within the crowd, according to queer folklore, was Madonna herself, witnessing the legendary Houses of LaBeija and Ninja storm the runway with their dips, pops, and spins."

A Black woman called Crystal LaBeija created the arena for the young and unwanted to gather and express themselves. A place where using the poses of Vogue magazine's models combined with costumes begged, borrowed, or stolen (mopped), and fancy limb positioning formed body shapes to popular music.

Balls are places where people gather who are not welcome to gather anywhere else. Blanca Evangelista

I had never heard of this movement until I watched POSE on Netflix. Fascinated by the characters' lives competing to win trophies in categories set by the ballroom compere ( for the best costumes, appearance, and poses, I sang and danced, laughed, and cried along with them all.

The ball culture started in the 1970s with people who disagreed on something battling it out on the dance floor. Whoever threw the best vogues won.

“Everybody wants to leave something behind them, some impression, some mark upon the world. And then you think, you've left a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the world. I think it's better just to enjoy it. Pay your dues and enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.” ― Dorian Corey

Trans mothers or gay fathers set up houses where they provided a home for the lost and strays of the streets. Rejected by their families and society, the two mother characters from POSE include Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a loving, caring woman who longed for a family of her own.

Mistreated and verbally abused by Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the mother of the House of Abundance, Blanca rented an apartment and created a home for herself and her new family. She called it House of Evangelista.

One of Blanca's children is Angel (Indya Moore, Non-Binary uses they/them), a stunningly gorgeous and sweet Black woman looking for herself and trying to understand her needs.

Angel's love interest, Stan Bowes, played by Mark Evans, is a well-known face on TV. He's best known for his characters on the FX TV show American Horror Story. He plays a straight married with two kids guy with a kink for Angel.

Damon Richards was kicked out of his home by his homophobic father and ended up sleeping on a park bench and dancing during the day to earn some cash before Blanca discovered him. She invites him to her house, where he is welcome.

The colorful dresser and wordsmith, Pray Tell, played superbly by Billy Porter, is the ball's compere. He's supported by five judges who score the vogueing contestants. You might also recognize him from American Horror Show; he played Behold Chablis. His tongue, a double-edged sword, could cause contestants to storm off the dance floor after a lashing or stay to bask in the glory of his praise.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, producers of American Horror Show, Glee, and The Prom, also created and produced POSE (2018). They based many of the show's characters on real-life people who starred in Paris is Burning 1990. Pray Tell's character was based on Junior LaBeija.

The real history of ballroom culture and voguing was a little less glamorous in the 70s and 80s, but then film quality wasn't as amazing as it is now. Accounts vary but let's say the first house, La Beija, opened its doors in the early 70s. However, drag pageantry can be traced back to the late 1800s.

Previously above ground, the drag balls became illegal and taboo to mainstream society and disappeared underground. During the 1920s, Harlem's Renaissance Black queer folks could express themselves freely without fear of judgment. Hamilton Lodge No. 710 offered a haven for all-comers, including curious voyeurs, artists, and straight.

Black, brown, queer, unapologetic, deviant and revolutionary! Karyl J. Truesdale

It wasn't until 1936 that a Black contestant won the top prize and broke the run of 69 years of judges selecting white, European features. Racial bias didn't stop there but continued for another 31 years.

In 1967, Crystal LaBeija, a Black contender, spoke up when another white woman, Miss Philadelphia Rachel Harlow, won the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pagent. Crystal refused to compete again.

Like Miss World pageants which started in the UK in 1951, white women took the annual title until 1970 when the first woman of color won.

“Women from small countries, and particularly women of color, like myself, really were not expected to be more than a number in the contest,” Jennifer Hosten in Time Magazine

Drag pageants favored whites. Mainly men dressed in women's clothing, but white women were also allowed to dress like men and compete on the runway. The drag balls featured female impersonators wearing dinner gowns and emphasizing their bodies battling to win votes from the panel of judges.

In the early 1970s, Lottie Labeija encouraged Crystal La Beija to set up the first house. Many others followed, and new houses are formed to this day.

In director Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, she recorded key characters of the 1980s ballroom scene speaking about their lives and supporting each other.

In ballroom culture, houses compete against each other by walking (sometimes strutting), posing, voguing, and dressing in the most real costume for the category. The winner is chosen based on their vogue skills, costume, appearance, and attitude.

The trophies vary in size from manageable to as tall as a competitor. In POSE, Electra Abundance used a cart to hold all her trophies!

The real-life characters in Paris is Buring morphed into TV show stars with their actions and words provided by the POSE creators. The TV show brought to life the hopes and dreams of trans having the operation and getting married, being rich, famous, and remembered.

Madonna's hit single Vogue provided white folks with a glimpse of a short-lived dance craze. Yet, New York's Harlem house and ball culture and voguing remain a lifestyle that provides Blacks, Latinx, lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer plus others with their community and a place to call home.

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Passionate about climate change and living a debt-free, sustainable life. Determined to learn how to and build an adobe house or Earthship. The goal is to live off-grid and off the land. Energy for heat and to power electrical devices and appliances will use solar, wind, and hydro-powered electricity. No trees will die to make my home.


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