Ballroom culture is ready for its close-up and stepping toward the light — in 5-inch glittery stilettos.
This underground scene was fostered decades ago by black and Latino gay and transgender men as a way of celebrating their identities, finding a place to shine in the face of being marginalized double minorities. It has been growing in popularity around the country, on and off, since the documentary “Paris Is Burning” came out in 1990. But it didn’t start to catch fire in the Twin Cities until about two years ago.
A competition to be staged Thursday night at the Gay 90’s as a kickoff to Twin Cities Pride weekend will likely draw the largest local audience yet.
If it’s like the Fantasyland Ball held there in February, it will start well after its advertised time of 10:30 p.m. and go on into the wee hours. But no matter.
At that wondrous parade of outfits and antics, the warm-up was nearly as fun as the show. A virtually Olympian crush of fit bodies sashayed, spun and did the bend-n-snap like runway acrobats against a backdrop of encouraging signs printed with rallying cries like Vogue! Work it, Miss Thing! and Battle!
“Word is spreading about the quality of our events,” said ballroom competitor Xavier Rucker, 27, who books models for Vision Management Group and has helped kick-start local interest. One such event, held at Walker Art Center earlier this year, raised the profile of ballroom culture here, Rucker said, and word of mouth has helped draw competitors from Midwest cities with more established scenes, including Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee.
The appeal of competing, Rucker said, comes partly from the satisfaction of succeeding at a form of performance art, and partly from “the chance, for one moment, to be in the spotlight. Men who are both black and gay have stood back and tried to blend in for so long. This is a way to feel like a celebrity.”
Competitors are usually affiliated with a “house,” a sort of intentional family of performers on the circuit. Rucker is with the House of Legion (prounced Lee-ZHONE, a la français), which competes with the also-local House of Bordeaux. Recently, the nationally known House of Mizrahi opened a chapter here (they’re often named for fashion designers).
“Ballroom’s been around for 60 years, as far back as the Harlem Renaissance, but only recently has come above ground,” said Dr. Marlon Bailey, an associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University and author of a book on ballroom called “Butch Queens Up in Pumps,” due out this summer.
It’s increasingly referenced in mainstream popular culture, including reality-TV dance contests. Expressions that enjoyed popular phases in mainstream culture, like “Work it” and “Fierce,” originated in ball circles, Bailey said.
To understand what’s going on, you first have to disconnect from traditional associations of the word “ballroom,” as in fox trots and waltzes. Yet it’s not run-of-the-mill drag, either. Ballroom is a subculture defined by specific rules, language and competition categories.
There’s European Runway, which is more formal and feminine than American Runway. There’s voguing, the sophisticated dance-floor posing that was co-opted by Madonna for her hit “Vogue,” and there’s realness — the ability to blend in with heterosexuals in a variety of guises, including schoolboy, thug and executive.
An air of secrecy contributes to the excitement. Top contestants are called “legends” or “icons,” titles that are seemingly interchangeable and carry equally great prestige, but there’s no sign-up, so you never know who’s going to show up. Judges’ identities are not revealed until the event begins.
The extreme specificity of ballroom is a form of control, firmly demarcating it as a subculture with a set group of participants. Not just anyone can join the club. But if it continues to infiltrate the mainstream, that could change, Bailey said.
“The good news is it’s even going international, giving LGBT people of color in other countries a sense of community,” he said. “But the other side is it’s being appropriated, just like hip-hop was.”