Most people have brushed against the edges of the underground social phenomenon known as Ball Culture exactly twice in their lives. The first time through “Vogue,” Madonna’s global hit from 1990 that celebrates the stylized dance most commonly associated with the largely black and Latino queer subculture, and similarly three years later with the song “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
Legendary House mothers Dorian Corey (left) and Pepper LaBeija are featured in “Paris Is Burning,” the fascinating Ball Culture documentary from 1990.
The latter track, the debut single from gender-bending artist RuPaul, was only a moderate success on the pop charts, but it was influential in pop culture for bringing snatches of Ball-speak — “you better work, bitch,” “fierce” “work the runway,” etc. — into the vernacular.
But beyond the striking dance and the pithy parlance, what is Ball Culture? The answer begins in the 1930s when, according to Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hours,” white gay men in NYC would gather in bars to hold drag fashion shows for prizes.
Due to racial divisions blacks were usually excluded, so by the ’60s they were holding their own drag balls in Harlem. However, the size and visibility of their gatherings and the outrageousness of their costumes soon surpassed anything their forebears had produced or probably even imagined. It became common for hundreds of gay and straight spectators to fill the rented halls and lodges the competitions rapidly grew into.
The modern era of Ball Culture began in the latter half of the ’70s when the first Houses emerged. They were a social response to the fact that poor black and brown people are institutionally marginalized in America and gay and transgender youth in these communities are even further disenfranchised. Many are cast out of their own families.
Blocs of these thrown away kids began to coalesce around prominent figures in the Ball scene (“legendary,” in the cultural slang). In stark contrast to their raison d’etre, these alternative family structures were dubbed “Houses” in a nod to the glamorous high fashion industry.
Houses are named after their “mother” and/or “father” or for fashion icons like Armani, Revlon or Givenchy. The list of New York’s legendary House mothers prominently includes Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija and Angie Xtravaganza, all of whom are featured in “Paris Is Burning,” a compelling 1990 documentary about the city’s Ballroom Community.
“Children” advertise their allegiance to their House by adopting its surname on the street. Many also compete (“walk”) for their Houses in the Balls, which have grown from simple drag contests to extravagant spectacles with multiple divisions for fashion, face and physique.
In “Paris Is Burning” the children are seen walking such categories as vogue, butch queen (masculinity), fem queen (femininity), executive realness (business attire), military realness, preppie realness (also dubbed “Town & Country”) and school boy/girl realness.
Additional categories popular today include butch and fem queen face (facial beauty), butch and fem queen body, butch and fem queen runway (walk and attitude), fag out (stereotypical gayness), labels (designer fashions), bizarre (avant-garde dress) and arms control (vogueing focused on the precise movements of the arms and hands) among others.
Over the decades Ball Culture has spread across the U.S. Today, their are a number of thriving scenes — including the Carolinas, which boast nearly two dozen Houses. In addition, the Carolina Ballroom Council was established on Jan. 26, 2006, as an oversight and resource organization. Chairman James Milan, 29, says the group is working toward non-profit status to legitimize itself.
“We’d like to be able work with Bank of America and other [business and social entities] like them,” he says, “to help them better serve our community.”
Milan is a Winston-Salem native who moved to the Queen City four years ago. He has only been a member of the House of Milan, his first such affiliation, since May, but he has been involved with the culture since 1996. He produced his first Ball last year.
His current project is organizing a special Pride Charlotte Ball, “Carolinas’ Most Wanted,” that will be held at Scorpio nightclub on Aug. 17. “This is the first time for a Ball there,” he says, clearly pleased. “We’ve wanted to hold a Ball at Scorpio for a long time.”
While the event is sure to be an entertaining display, organizers on both sides say the real purpose of the gathering is to build bridges.
“It was important for us to partner with the Carolina Ballroom Council for this,” says Pride Charlotte 2007 co-chair Jim Yarbrough. “Ball Culture is a wonderful, vibrant aspect of the black LGBT community, yet it is unknown to many white LGBT people. If we are going to be ‘United For Equality’ like our theme says, this is exactly the type of cultural activity we have to start sharing and celebrating with each other.”
“This is our chance to come together,” echoes Milan.
He adds that Pride Ball categories are expected to include vogue, face, sex siren, realness with a twist, butch queen up in drag realness and the very popular European Runway.
Milan is also excited that for the first time Ball Culture will have a presence at the Pride festival. The winners from the Pride Ball have a 15-minute performance slot on the main stage at Pride Charlotte starting at 3:35 p.m.
“It’s really great,” he enthuses.
info: Pride Charlotte Ball at Scorpio. Aug. 17 starting at 10 p.m. Admission $15. 704.499.8577 for details. Pride Charlotte at Gateway Village, corner of Trade and Cedar Streets. Aug. 25 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free. www.pridecharlotte.com for details.