‘We are the new mecca’: can New York’s underground ballroom scene survive the hype? | Life and style

‘We are the new mecca’: can New York’s underground ballroom scene survive the hype? | Life and style


The temperature was barely below freezing on the night of 19 February, but inside a converted warehouse in Queens, New York, thousands of people had gathered for the Coldest Winter Ever Ball – one of the largest ballroom events to ever take place.

Over eight hours, members of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, House of Lanvin, House of Balenciaga and House of Garcon among others faced off to the sounds of R&B, hip-hop and house music, competing for trophies and cash prizes in categories such as Runway and Queen of Sex before a cheering crowd of predominantly queer and trans people of color. Ballroom is a competition, but it’s also a community – a space where people can live unapologetically and be celebrated for doing so.

The 50,000 sq ft Knockdown Center is a far cry from the community center basements and YMCA halls where ballroom culture originated. In recent years, ballroom has established itself in pop culture and fashion circles, thanks to television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose and Legendary. Major ballroom events can now pull in more than $150,000 an event, while members of the scene have become celebrities in their own right. Where ballroom houses once adopted the names of designer fashion labels in an aspirational attempt to align themselves with the most elite arbiters of taste, now those same brands are seeking out house members for modeling gigs and advertising campaigns.

Inside New York’s underground ballroom scene: ‘It’s your chosen family’ — video

With mainstream attention comes mainstream influence, however, and inevitably, many within the scene view ballroom’s growing popularity with skepticism and trepidation. How can they ensure that the subculture doesn’t lose touch with its underground roots, even as it becomes more enmeshed with corporate interests?

“[Ballroom] was created by the necessity to give people a space,” Jack Mizrahi, co-founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, a member of the scene since the early 1990s, says in the Guardian film Inside New York’s underground ballroom scene. “It wasn’t created for people to learn it and go commercialize it.”

Icon Jusss Kelly, fellow co-founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci, goes further.

“Everyone is tolerating the LGBTQ community, because we are the new mecca of generating money, but when this span is over what are we gonna fall back on and what are we gonna rely on? Ballroom has been around for 50 years, why just now are y’all accepting the community?”

Jack Mizrahi, co-founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci.
Jack Mizrahi, co-founder of the House of Gorgeous Gucci. Photograph: Alex Fischman Cárdenas/The Guardian

The earliest “balls” can be traced all the way back to the late 19th century, when they were private events known for drawing men dressed as women, but what we now refer to as “ballroom” began in the 1970s, most prominently in Harlem. Trans and queer people of color, many of them young and unhoused, built a culture of friendly competition between established “houses” – or chosen families.

“Ballroom is a place where you get to choose your family,” says Gorgeous Jeter Gucci. “A lot of people come from backgrounds where they are ostracized from their blood relatives because of their sexual identity or whatever the case may be.”

The balls themselves were flashy, fun, high-energy spectacles. Often themed, people came dressed in their finest garb to either compete or spectate. Competitive categories judged contestants based on their outfits, their beauty, their ability to believably assume a specific demeanor, or their skills “voguing” on the dancefloor. Balls were a place where marginalized individuals could retreat for a night together and fulfill their otherwise impossible fantasies of grandeur, luxury and self-actualization.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be in a place where you’re accepted no matter what you are – and that’s really what ballroom is,” says Lola, Legendary Mother of the House of Gorgeous Gucci.

Lola poses at the judges’ table.
Lola poses at the judges’ table. Photograph: Alex Fischman Cárdenas/The Guardian

Ballroom remained an underground subculture until the 1990s, when Madonna’s single Vogue and Jennie Livingston’s influential and controversial documentary Paris Is Burning introduced the public to voguing, “reading” and “shade”.

Still, Mizrahi argues that ballroom’s influence on the vernacular has long been underestimated.

“People think they got [their way of speaking] from 227 or The Jeffersons,” he says. “But no. That started with the queens reading and snapping their fingers, playing The Dozens and adding a little extra sauce to how our regular heterosexual counterparts ever talked.

“Our presence has always been there.”

Mizrahi has played a major role in bringing ballroom to the masses: he is a co-executive producer on Legendary and served as a writer, consultant and actor on Pose. And he is happy to see paid opportunities for members of the ballroom community, many of whom struggle financially. Dominique Jackson, who got her start walking in the balls, has gone on to star in Pose, appear on American Gods and walk the runway for the French fashion house Thierry Mugler. “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado is a judge on Legendary, fronted an ad campaign for Nike and walked the runway for Rihanna’s lingerie line,​​ Savage X Fenty.

Ballroom trophies.
‘Ballroom is a place where you get to choose your family.’ Photograph: Alex Fischman Cárdenas/The Guardian

But Mizrahi remains wary of the potential for exploitation, or what he calls the “Trojan horse syndrome”.

“People come into a community, and they say they love and respect it and that they’re paying homage to it,” he says. “But once their little soldiers strike and they storm out of that horse and they’ve already collected everything they want to collect, then they’re all up out of there. And then you [have] a group of people stuck still fending for themselves.

“They’re trying to use vogue as a prop in a video or in a commercial,” he adds. “But they come and some don’t do the research to even learn the proper vernacular. They don’t even try to learn the history. They don’t care about that. They just want to get the job done and go.”

Still, Mizrahi believes that ballroom, as a culture, as an institution, is strong enough to weather the vagaries of capitalism.

“Ballroom is not a fad,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle, it’s a community, and we have governed ourselves well before [outside forces] even realized we existed. So whether we get their acceptance today or not, we will still be fine ourselves.”

  • Ballroom icon Jack Mizrahi and Legendary Mother Lola will appear at the Cîroc “Iconic Ball” on Thursday, 30 June at Koko in Camden, London

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