Ball culture began in Harlem around five decades ago as a way for non-white sexual minorities to convene and compete in a non-judgemental setting. Balls themselves are like hybrid fashion shows, dance battles, and parties — allowing some of the most marginalized members of our society a space to create their own kind of glory and live out the fantasies of fame that our racist and homophobic culture have for so long precluded them from having. Alongside the balls developed the dance form of vogue, an improvisational and highly technical style which continues to evolve to this day.
While ballroom and vogue culture has existed largely in the queer underground since its inception, it was just last month that Apple actually used a ballroom track in one of their commercials. There was a catch of course: despite the culture being created by and for queer people of color, the track featured was by Surkin, a straight, white French EDM producer. Later investigation into the artist revealed that Surkin had never even been to a ball, nor was he particularly interested in that world. While some might have seen this as a chance to celebrate the spread of the genre, MikeQ, the most prominent and widely recognized DJ in the community, was understandably disturbed.
"People say, 'Oh it's just music and..it shouldn't matter,' but this particular culture is so deeply rooted into what we do [and who we are], it is really important for people not to come in and mess it up," MikeQ explained to Paper Mag.
A month later, the ballroom figurehead would go on to organize and host his own celebration of the culture — and the event was a roaring success.
Co-sponsored by MikeQ's label, Qween Beat, and DJ/producer Gooddroid's Loveless Records, the Qweendom Ball was a lively ode to both the history and the future of vogue as a musical genre and dance form. The event comes shortly after the release of Qween Beat's first compilation, similarly titled Qweendom, which shows off the immense talent of the collective's crew.
While most of the participants in the actual event's processions were long-standing and dedicated members of the community, it was fascinating to see an incredibly diverse audience fill the space of Queens' Knockdown Center.
"I feel like ballroom has gone in and out of the spotlight in the last 30 years," explained Gooddroid. "It happened in the 90's because of Paris is Burning and Madonna and then went back 'underground'. Ballroom music got a wider audience because of pioneers like Vjuan Allure and MikeQ which brought the focus back around again. This time it's gotten a lot more mainstream because we live in the age of mass social media. This has brought good and bad things to light. The good thing: the amazingly talented people in this scene have gotten some attention they more than deserve. The bad thing, which happens with anything that is brought into the mainstream, [is that] people get into it for the wrong reasons without knowing where it comes from or what its about."
People in the world of vogue have been historically protective of their culture, which makes sense considering the large number of high profile incidents in which straight, white people attempted to co-opt the scene for profit. I wondered, after running into several obviously straight, white men in attendance at the event, if attitudes were changing about the medium's spread into other worlds.
"I think [people in the community are] even more protective now. Honestly, the amount of discussions held on maintaining the real message of ballroom are at an all time high. Everyone has so much access to things now so people have to be even more protective. I mean, I'm very protective of it as well," said Gooddroid.
"The spread of ballroom music for the people involved in the genre means more gigs and notoriety internationally that they wouldn't have received within their local/national scene," she continued. "But it also means there are going to be a lot of copycats out there that completely miss the point and lack respect of its origins entirely. I personally appreciate the increase of opportunities for everyone now that there are ... but my heart will always be rooted the underground."
Martin Fowler, an indie and electronica musician currently working on ballroom influenced music who attended the festivities, was awed by his first actual in-person encounter with vogue.
"I was incredibly impressed by the community surrounding the ball," said Fowler. "The balance of formality, rituals and respect for royalty with a casual, friendly party atmosphere made me feel both welcome and honored to be there."
That said, Fowler was shocked to see the whiteness and straightness of many of the spectators: "I think it's great to get more people (like myself) educated about the history and deep roots and culture surrounding ballroom. That said, a lot of people will inevitably use so much of it for their own purposes. Nothing that becomes popular can escape a degree of appropriation."
In his own musical endeavors, Martin certainly thinks about the politics of cultural sensitivity, too: "I'm really pleased to be working with some incredibly talented vocalists/rappers who have deep ties to the culture in a way I can't claim to," he explained. "I think it's also dangerous to make music like this with any goals of grander success or recognition, but that's not really what I'm looking for. If I manage to help elevate the profile of these artists of color at all, that's a huge success, but I'm making this music simply because I love the sound of it. Plus, in learning all about this culture and scene, I've really learned to love it."
Ultimately, these problematics had little to do with the success of the event. The dancers battled ferociously for glory and a massive grand prize, showing love and respect to each other along the way. The incredibly engaging music (provided by a new generation of club producers like Byrell The Great and JX Cannon) celebrated and honored the traditions of the art form . "Being at the ball was like being at church," said Martin.
"Qween Beat is the vogue music label, the roster is phenomenal," said Gooddroid, praising the event. "I'm really really proud of Mike and everyone involved, this is almost like a coming home."
[Photo: Screenshot via Spotify]