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Ball culture, the house system, the ballroom community and similar terms describe the underground LGBT subculture in the United States in which people "walk" (i.e. compete) for trophies and prizes at events known as balls. Those who walk often also dance and vogue while others compete in various genres of drag often trying to pass as a specific gender and social class. Most people involved with ball culture belong to "houses" led by a single leader.
"Houses," also called "drag houses" or "drag families," are groups composed primarily of the LGBTQ Community, the majority of which are African American or Latino, banded together under a respected "house mother" (sometimes a drag queen or a transgender person, but not always) or even a "house father."
The best known houses are New York City groups, especially those such as the House of Garcon, the House of Icon, the House of Khan, the House of Evisu, the House of Karan, the House of Mizrahi, the House of Xtravaganza, the House of Ebony, the House of Revlon, the House of Prodigy, the House of Escada, the House of Omni, the House of Aviance, the House of Legacy, the House of Milan, the House of Princess, the House of Pend'avis, the House of LaBeija, the House of McQueen, and the House of Ninja among others which were shown in the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning. Other houses function similarly in other states but mainly focused in major cities on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in the South (e.g., House Of Infiniti, House of Mizrahi, House of Aviance)
According to the Village Voice:
...houses are loose-knit, typically same sex, confederacies of "children" who adopt a family name, usually swiped from a fashion designer, and adhere to rules set up by a presiding "mother" and "father."
Members of the house led by Willi Ninja, for example, adopt "Ninja" as their surname within ball culture, members of the house led by Angie Xtravaganza used the surname "Xtravaganza," and members of the house led by Avis Pendavis used the surname Pendavis.
One theme discussed in Paris Is Burning is that people of color, queers, and poor people face certain disadvantages and are each a marginalized group; to qualify as all three makes one a pariah. In response, drag houses are
...a whole new way of living, one that's highly structured and self-protective. The structure consists of system of houses where the young men function as apprentices. Reflecting a minority coping with hatred, the houses are associations of friends, presided over by a "mother," [...] that provide a substitute for biological families.
Under the house parents are
...a big raucous band of "children": drag queens, butch queens, transsexuals—mostly MTF but some FTM, a few non-trans girls and one or two straight guys. The smattering of girls and straight guys notwithstanding, the houses are, essentially, cabals of young black and Hispanic men obsessed with being fashionable and fabulous.
House parents can provide wisdom, guidance and care for young people who otherwise might be homeless and without a parental figure. An exploratory study of two houses in Newark, New Jersey employed qualitative research methods including participant observation and in-depth interviewing to discern that:
Strategies employed by "house parents" have had an impact on the choices made by children of the houses regarding HIV risk behaviors. These strategies can be adapted for use by well-established community-based HIV prevention programs when they are comprised of staff who mirror the characteristics of "house parents" and engage in relationships that parallel this alternative family structure.
Besides providing a support system for their members, the main function of these houses is to "walk" or compete against one another in "balls" in which they are judged on dance skills, costume, general appearance, and attitude. Participants dress according to category in which they are competing and are expected to display appropriate "realness."
...a tradition dating back to the 19th century and going strong into the 21st. Balls continue to be held at bars or Masonic halls or other improbable venues. Across the country and throughout the five boroughs legends are still being born.
While these competitive walks may involve crossdressing, in other cases the goal is to accentuate a male participant's masculinity or a female participant's femininity so as to give the (almost always false) impression that the walker is heterosexual.
Some Categories and their descriptions
- Butch Queen Vogue Femme/Female Figure Performance — Give a stunning performance using the five elements of vogue: hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, and spins and dips
- BQ Realness — Judged on participants' ability to blend in with heterosexuals by giving Thug, Pretty Boy, School Boy, or Executive
- FQ Realness — Judged on participants' ability to blend in with female heterosexuals
- Realness With a Twist (Twister) — Judged on participants' ability to blend in with heterosexuals, then come back and vogue fem
- BQ/FQ/FF Runway — Judged on participants' ability to catwalk, usually with a requested outfit or color
- Bizarre — Judged on participants' creativity to design a costume based on what the category asks for
- Labels — Judged on how many of the year labels a participant is wearing and their authenticity
- BQ/FQ/FF Face — Showing off your clean, perfect, smooth face
- BQ/FQ/FF Sex Siren — Giving sex appeal mostly in sexy underwear such as thongs, briefs, or bikinis
- Commentator vs. Commentator' — Allows aspiring and current MCs to showcase their chanting ability to the music and ability to hype the crowd
- Dipology — Like Vogue Femme but involves spins into dips only
- European Runway — Often a Butch Queen Category, European runway is brought in over the top effects that are more likely to be seen in a high-cost European fashion show; the person walking walks like a female or feminine model, not like the male models of America.
- American Runway — Much like European Runway, American Runway is usually a Butch Queen Category but is often walked by TransMen and Butches/Studs, but the models walk as a masculine models from America, not feminine models like in European Runway.
- Butch Queen up in Pumps — Basically the same as Labels or Runway but you must wear heels usually six inches or more
- FQ/BQ in Drag Female Figure Performance — Give a performance (usually lip-synched) of a famous female figure
- Hands Performance — Give a voguing performance using hands only
- Virgin Vogue Femme — The same as vogue femme but for participants who have been voguing for less than one year, as per Legendary Icon Selvin Khan
- Virgin Runway — The same as Runway but for participants who have been walking Runway for less than one year, as per Legendary Icon Selvin Khan
- Best Dressed — self explanatory
- Legendary/Iconic Categories - Only the legends and icons of the ballroom scene can participate in categories such as Face, Runway, Realness, Performance (all voguing categories), etc.
Regarding these competitions and their importance to ball culture and the people involved, one participant wrote:
There is more to the ballroom scene than chopping, mopping, "fierceness" and shade; and there is more to vogueing [sic] than striking a pose. [...] Drag is a form of control. By looking good one can feel good. By looking powerful, one can feel powerful. One can be powerful. Therefore, beauty begets control. Artifice equals power. [...] Then again, it may just be a bunch of bitches competing for trophies. Either way, its fun. There is of course a distinction between the casual runway that would erupt at a "normal" club, and the formal runway of a ball, where there are judges and prizes and actual vogueing.
Having evolved over the years, the largest balls are competitions that can go on as long as ten hours. There can be dozens of categories in a single evening . No longer attracting the same number of spectators, almost everyone comes to compete. Some of the trophies are twelve feet tall and a grand-prize winner can take home $1000 or more.
As a phenomenon of a counterculture (or of several countercultures), the origin of ball culture is a story of both necessity and defiance.
New York City
...the underground drag balls that had been going on in and around New York City since the thirties. Those balls were merely drag fashion shows staged by white men two or three times a year in gay bars, with prizes given for the most outrageous costumes. Black queens sometimes showed up but they were expected to whiten their faces and they rarely won a prize.
In the 1960s, black drag queens started holding their own events in Harlem where they took the concept to
...heights undreamed of by the little gangs of white men parading around in frocks in basement taverns. In a burst of liberated zeal they rented big places like the Elks Lodge on 160 West 129th Street, and they turned up in dresses Madame Pompadour herself might have thought twice about. Word spread around Harlem that a retinue of drag queens was putting together outfits bigger and grander than Rose Parade floats, and the balls began to attract spectators, first by the dozens and then by the hundreds, gay and straight alike. People brought liquor with them, sandwiches, buckets of chicken. As the audiences grew, the queens gave them more and more for their money. Cleopatra on her barge, all in gold lamé, with a half dozen attendants waving white, glittering palm fronds. Faux fashion models in feathered coats lined with mylar, so that when the coat was thrown open and a two-thousand-watt incandescent lamp suddenly lit, the people in the first few rows were blinded for minutes afterward.
Eventually the participants in these balls split into factions centered around influential and charismatic leaders:
In 1977 an imperious, elegant queen named Crystal LaBeija announced that a ball she’d helped put together was being given by the House of LaBeija, as in House of Chanel or House of Dior. It was a p.r. gimmick, something to add a little more panache and, not incidentally, to increase the luster of Crystal LaBeija. The concept caught on, and suddenly every ball was being given by a house. Some queens named their house after themselves, like Avis Pendavis’ House of Pendavis or Dorian Corey’s House of Corey. Others took the names of established designers like Chanel or St. Laurent. [...] By the early eighties younger, less experienced drag queens were declaring themselves members of this house or that house, and competing in balls under the house name. Some went to court and had their last names legally changed, to Pendavis or Corey or Chanel or St. Laurent. [...] Houses came to be ruled by their biggest stars, who were known as mothers and who exhorted their members—their children—to accumulate as many prizes as possible for the greater glory of the house.
In 1989 The House of Latex was created as a call to action in the ballroom community to bridge the gap between HIV/STI prevention and the underground ballroom culture. The House of Latex has been led by various leaders. The most influential and memorable was the Legendary Arbert Santana Latex/Evisu, who passed away on March 3, 2011(Big Boys Runway) and Mother Aisha Diori Latex/Prodigy(Legendary Women's Face) who were put in place to educate, provide a safe space, and inspire creativity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of color involved in the ball scene.
Born in 1989 out of a collaboration between GMHC and members of the ballroom community who were concerned about the growing presence of HIV and AIDS within the ball scene, the House of Latex was committed to outreach and prevention, primarily among LGBT youth of African American and Latino descent, for 20 plus years. The name “Latex” was given to HOL by members of the community because one of the house’s primary functions is to distribute condoms at balls and other events, in addition to participation within the scene. Most other houses are named after famous designers or famed community members.
HOL became an official “house” in 1993 and held its first annual ball, which quickly developed into one of the largest events held by any house in the New York City ballroom community.
One of the famous ball themes for the Latex Ball was The Latrix, a play on the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Matrix.” Mother Aisha Latex, explained that the theme was chosen because the movie is a pop culture classic in which the “reality” of day to day life turns out to be an elaborate façade created by machines that control the “real” world. This relationship, she said, parallels the attitude many people display toward the “machines” of HIV and AIDS—instead of fighting back through prevention and education. Essentially, they deny the truth and passively accept the authority of the disease. The Latrix, the evening’s program explained, aimed at allowing members of the ballroom community to tackle issues such as racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, HIV, and AIDS head-on by competing in over 40 different categories and sharing their talents and creativity with the community.
“Our chances lie in the acknowledgement of these issues,” the program read. “If we free our whole community we can survive. There is hope.” “The House of Latex works in partnerships,” stressed Arbert Santana “Our partnerships with other agencies are very important.”
HOL’s partners include People of Color in Crisis and Gay Men of African Descent, among others who were present to distribute literature and safe sex packets. The David Geffen Testing Center at GMHC was also on hand to provide free HIV testing. At 10:30, the runway came to life with several performances by members of the community who are trying to make it as entertainers outside the ball scene. Performers included singer/dancer Harliquin, fashion diva Princess Xtravaganza, rapper Inhance, and the punk rock sounds of Blue Doll. This was followed by a short awards ceremony in which allies of HOL were awarded for their activism and creative use of their talents. One notable award went to Selvyn Givenchy, who won the Eric Christian Bizarre Lifetime Achievement Award, which is bestowed upon a community member who carries on the legacy of the late Eric Christian Bazaar, a renowned ballroom commentator who died of AIDS in 2001.
Before actual competitions commenced, HOL held its “Grand March,” which is the traditional way for the host house of a ball to present itself and its theme to the community. The Grand March for The Latrix 2003 featured HOL members dressed as characters from “The Matrix” parading their elaborate costumes down the runway and acting out a skit which featured HIV and AIDS as the enemy to be destroyed through awareness and education. Following the Grand March, members of the community competed in dozens of categories (competitions continued until almost 4 a.m.) with the goal of freeing the most souls in order to win the Grand Prize. That night’s Grand Prize went to the House of Allure. Mother Aisha Latex was quick to point out that HOL goal in all this fun is to get the community involved in promoting AIDS awareness, intervention, and prevention. One category Santana was particularly proud of was the Mini Grand Prize for the best safer sex poster.
In addition to its annual ball, HOL also “walks” balls throughout the year, handing out educational pamphlets and safer sex packets, did outreach on the streets and in clubs, and provided peer space for LGBT youth by holding discussion groups, or “House Talk,” twice a month. Santana explained that HOL specifically focuses on youth of color between the ages of 15 and 25, because “if we are able to provide intervention at an earlier age, we can stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.” The House of Latex has changed its direction from a walking house to primarily service/drop in resource for the LGBTQ house ballroom community, since Mother Aisha Latex moved on to create and implement the KiKi Ballroom initiative targeted at LGBTQ youth and young adults involved in the mainstream ballroom scene. The Kiki ballroom scene created by Mother Aisha Latex is being replicated nationwide via various CBOs.
This account from the metropolitan Washington, DC area describes how ball culture and drag houses developed there around 1960:
Some regular house parties became institutionalized as drag "houses" and "families." The leader, or "mother," often provided not only the opportunity for parties but also instruction and mentoring in the arts of make-up, selecting clothes, lip-synching, portraying a personality, walking, and related skills. Those taught became "drag daughters," who in turn mentored others, creating entire "drag families." Drag houses became the first social support groups in the city’s gay and lesbian community. House names often came from addresses of the house ‘mother’, such as Mother Billy Bonhill’s Belmont House at 15th and Belmont NW, or associations with the "mother’s" chosen personality, as Mame Dennis’s Beekman Place.
At this early date, the styles of dance that came to characterize drag houses had not been developed and competitions between drag houses involved more usual drag performance in which entertainers lip synced or, more rarely, sang.
It contrast to the NYC houses shown in Paris Is Burning, some of the Washington, DC house mothers were white. Still, African-American drag queens were a prominent part of this community:
Venues for drag shows and competitions were a constant challenge in the 1960s. The Uptown Lounge sponsored monthly drag contests, an event later duplicated at Johnnie’s on Capitol Hill. Chunga’s drag shows at the Golden Key Club in North Beach, MD were a popular Sunday event. The major hotels’ resistance to drag events was not broken until February 1968 when African-American drag impresario Black Pearl staged the gala Black Pearl International Awards at the Washington Hilton. It was the drag event of the year.
Today in Washington, D.C., the ball community consist of mainly African American and Latino participants and has taken on a lot of the attributes of the NYC houses shown in Paris Is Burning. While the drag shows and competitions of the 1960s era still exist, they have created their own audience and scene in itself. Ball patrons will find a lot of the same categories such as "banjee thug realness" and "vogue" as an audience member.
The founding members of the Washington, D.C. ballroom scene in 1986, are Icon Lowell Adonis-Khanh and Icon Eric Christian-Bazaar. From 1986 through the 90's Icon Lowell Adonis-Khanh fought with fire, brimstone, temperament, and frustration to put the Washington, D.C. ballroom scene on the map. In the 90's more houses appeared in Washington, D.C. thanks to Twain Miyake-Mugler ("father" of the House of Miyake Mugler, DC Chapter), Legendary Shannon Garcon and Icon Whitney Garcon (founders of the House of Garcon and original members of the The Legendary House of Miyake-Mugler, NY-DC Chapter). Washington, D.C. has become a leading ball city within the past few years through the contributions of successful houses and leaders within the scene such as Legendary Harold Balenciaga (founder of the House of Balenciaga, who was formerly a Mugler). The first N.Y. house to have a chapter in Washington D.C was the Iconic House of Ebony (ca. 1979) in the middle 80s. Through networking and introducing new and innovative talent to the area, these ball culture figures have managed to make the nations capitol one of the ballroom capitols as well. Washington is now hosting an annual D.C Awards Ball in which contestants from all over the world come to the capitol to compete. D.C also host an annual series of balls. Contestants in these balls compete for trophies and cash prizes. They are then able to be nominated for the title of "Of The Year" (E.G.- Vogue Femme Of The Year), which simply means they have dominated their prospective category for that year similar to an athletic conference MVP. Before the Awards ball, each house selects two leaders. These leaders will then vote for who they think should be "Of the Year" for their category. The winner is announced at the ball. These titles are a new trend in a ball culture that is becoming a lot more mainstream and easier to access in post Paris Is Burning days, where websites such as www.walk4mewednesdays.com makes ball culture more accessible.
Leading houses in the D.C. area include the House of Khan, House of Balenciaga, House of Comme des Garcon, House of Miyake Mugler, House of Ebony, House of Milan, House of Evisu, House of Prodigy, House of Revlon, House of Allure, House of Manolo Blahnik and House of Xcellence.
While still very much an underground phenomenon, ball culture has had a wide influence on notable individuals and on mainstream culture including the following:
The most recognized influence that ball culture has had on mainstream society is its creation of "voguing," a dance style originating in Harlem ballrooms in the first half of the 20th century and popularized worldwide by the video for Vogue, a song released by Madonna in 1990, the same year as Paris Is Burning. One source asserts that "many people only know of underground ballroom culture from Madonna's 'Vogue' or the film 'Paris Is Burning'." More recently, the dance group Vogue Evolution from America's Best Dance Crew brought voguing to domestic and international popularity once again.
Occasionally, certain ball culture terms discussed above are used in more general ways. For example, "drag mother" may be applied to any drag queen in the role of mentor, and "drag house" sometimes refers to any group of drag performers allied together personally or professionally.
Terms like "fierce" and "fiercenes," "work it" and "working it," "fabulous" and "fabulousness" and so forth are all part of the argot heard in Paris Is Burning and were central to the lyrics of "Supermodel (You Better Work)," a hit released in 1992 by drag queen Ru Paul. These terms quickly entered gay slang, fashion industry jargon and the mainstream colloquial vernacular.
Ball culture has long been a fertile ground for new forms of house music and electronic dance music through famous DJs like Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia, Johnny Dynell. Well-known contemporary DJs and producers include DJ Sedrick, Angel X, DJ Carlton, Vjuan Allure, MikeQ, DJ Lucky, Kevin JZ Prodigy, Jay R Neutron and more. 
Arguably, the fashions and manner of depicting masculinity in ball culture has influenced "the über-puffed-up peacock sexuality" of contemporary, mainstream hip hop." Regarding this interchange between gay black culture and the mainstream, a professor at New York University said this: "Today’s queer mania for ghetto fabulousness and bling masks its elemental but silent relationship to even more queer impulses toward fabulousness in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kevin Aviance, whose appearances include Flawless, The Tyra Banks Show and America's Next Top Model, is a member of the House of Aviance founded 1989 in Washington, DC. Poet (Def Poetry), author (Christ Like), actor (The Ski Trip), and activist Emanuel Xavier was involved with the Houses during his time out on the streets and writes a lot about his experiences. One of his most famous poems, "Legendary," is a tribute to ball culture and was remixed into a house music record and released as a digital download single from his spoken word compilation CD, Legendary- The Spoken Word Poetry of Emanuel Xavier.
In 2006, Beyoncé Knowles told a reporter from The Independent "how inspired she's been by the whole drag-house circuit in the States, an unsung part of black American culture where working-class gay men channel ultra-glamour in mocked-up catwalk shows. 'I still have that in me,' she says of the confidence and the fire you see on stage..."
- ^ a b c Podhurst, L.; Credle J. (2007-06-10, page 13; Intl. Conference on AIDS. 1998; 12: 913 (abstract no. 43338). NJAETC at UMDNJ, Newark 07107-3000, USA.). "HIV/AIDS risk reduction strategies for Gay youth of color in the "house" community. (Meeting Abstracts)". U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://gateway.nlm.nih.gov/MeetingAbstracts/102231503.html. Retrieved 2007-10-20.
- ^ a b c d "The Rainbow History Project: Drag in DC". Rainbow History Project. 2000 - 2007. http://www.rainbowhistory.org/drag.htm. Retrieved 2007-10-20.
- ^ House system", in this sense, is unrelated to the house system used in British schools and those modeled along these lines.
- ^ a b c d Levy, Emanuel (2004-2007). "Paris Is Burning (film review)". Emanuellevy.com. http://emanuellevy.com/article.php?articleID=2151. Retrieved 2007-10-20.
- ^ a b  Paris Is Burning (1991)
- ^  Bent Magazine
- ^  How Do I Look, an instruction DVD with limited distribution in NYC and Philadelphia, also delves into this NYC ball culture.
- ^ a b Trebay, Guy; Credle J. (January 12–18, 2000). "Legends of the Ball: Paris Is Still Burning". Village Voice. http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0002,trebay,11690,5.html. Retrieved 2007-10-20.
- ^ a b  Ottawa Citizen September 06, 2006
- ^ "House names" are also used and passed along in the Imperial Court System. While these imply a degree of friendship and trust, these are not a primary means of organization and an individual in the Imperial Court may belong to an unlimited amount of houses.
- ^ a b c d e "The Slap of Love" by Michael Cunningham
- ^ a b c  House of Diabolique
- ^ www.walk4mewednesdays.com
- ^ The House of Khan
- ^ The House of Balenciaga
- ^ The House of Garcon
- ^ The House of Myake Mugler
- ^ The House of Ebony
- ^ The House of Milan
- ^ The House of Evisu
- ^ The House of Prodigy
- ^ The House of Allure
- ^ House of Blahnik
- ^ Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker
- ^  Hang the DJ(2006)
- ^  Pic Up the Mic at Toronto Film Festival.
- ^  "Don’t Hate on Us, We’re Fabulous: Notes on the History and Culture of Black Glam"
- ^  IMDb Bio for Kevin Aviance.
- ^  House of Aviance
- ^ "Official Website Bio". Official Website. http://www.emanuelxavier.com/bio.htm.
- ^  The Independent Online, 03 September 2006
- Voguing: The Message (1989) - short documentary on YouTube
- House of Khan
- House of Blahnik
- House of Garavani
- House of Aviance
- House of Beigen
- House of Comme des Garcons
- House of Diabolique
- House of Enigma
- House of LaPerla
- House of Parangon
- House of Efficacy
- House of Infiniti
- How do i look -documentary
- Legends of the Ball -Article
- Paris is burning -documentary
- Slap of Love -Article
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) topicsSexual orientation identitiesRelated HistoryPre-modern era16th to 19th century20th century21st century
- Same-sex marriage
- Post-Queer Theory
LGBT rights by country or territoryLGBT rights topics
- Legal issues
Sexual orientations – Medicine, science and sexology
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