Ball culture, drag ball culture, the house-ballroom community are all terms that describe an underground LGBTQI+ subculture that originated in the United States. Its participants are to date mainly young African American and Latin American members of the LGBTQ+ community. Everything about the scene is purposeful including the categories in which participants compete or support each other in. The categories are designed to simultaneously epitomize and satirize various genders and social classes, while also offering a glamorous escape from reality.
“The ball was a transformative realm, where anybody could be extraordinary, in defiance of everyday hardships – and that elaborate fantasy continues to seize mainstream fascination.” The BBC explained in an article on the culture.
Because of the stigma and intolerance surrounding the LGBTQI+ community ball culture extends beyond the events. Participants also belong to groups known as “houses”. This is a longstanding tradition where chosen families of friends live in households together, forming relationships and community to replace biological families that shunned or ostracised them.
Ball Room goes mainstream
The first global depiction of the scene came in the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning which debuted in 1990. Audience got to glean the queer underground ballroom scene and its pioneering dance style: vogueing, in what critics considered “an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.”
The film went on in 2016 to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Now almost 30 years later, US drama series ‘Pose’, which premiered last year has recaptured this iconic time and made ballroom culture mainstream. The show whose cast and crew feature several real life trans women, depicts a cloaked after-hours scene, where those excluded from conservative society could express themselves freely, dress fabulously, and find belonging in various families or ‘houses’.
“A show like Pose might have a gay white creator [Murphy], but it is about ball culture, and people of colour. It’s a big step – and that’s how major and political the ballroom scene is: people coming together and making a statement,” Kiddy Smile from House of Mizrahi told BBC.
Johannesburg’s first ball
Ball culture is now taking a hold among South Africa’s LGBTQI+ community. Earlier this year 26-year-old South African DJ and Performance Artist, Queezy documented queer South African’s mission to claim spaces they have notoriously been excluded from in a short film titled ‘Historical Glitch: Doing It for the Vogue’.
The short takes viewers behind the scenes of the group’s first vogueing performance commissioned by Cape Town’s Norval Foundation and curated by local artist Khanyisile Mbongwa.
Johannesburg was not far behind and the city recently held its first official black queer ball. The ball was themed ‘The Winter Fantasy‘ and four houses comprising of four members and a house mother, competed in varying categories that included, ‘African Royalty’, and ‘Skothanas’, which is a South African take on street style.
Co-founder and mother of House of Diamonds, Treyon Moosa told Africa News that, “How this ball came about essentially was we found that there was really no space in Johannesburg for queer, black, femme, gender non confirming , trans bodies to just go out and have fun and feel safe. Without having toilet issues, without having bouncer issues, without having are you a man, are you a woman issue? Just a space where we come and just be, I think queer.”
“We’re giving visibility to queer people and specifically people who don’t respond or specifically assign themselves to any specific gender.”