I stood next to my friend Ashe, who scanned the empty rink. The room was lit by rose-pink dome lights with two rows of white tables running parallel and a single table sitting at the head of the rink. They created three-fourths of a rectangle that would be tonight’s battleground.
“Meeko just said the ball starts in twenty minutes,” I say.
“You know this ball isn’t going start in twenty damn minutes,” Ashe says.
It was 3:00 A.M.
“You know this thing isn’t going to start until like 4:30,” I reply.
We had apparently forgotten a ball’s first commandment. The “KIDS” always make an entrance.
A ball may be one of very few coordinated competitions participants and audience members expect to begin late. Tonight’s event will commence a couple minutes past 4:30 a.m. and sign-off a few shy of 7:45 a.m.
The word “Ball” generally conveys images of thousand dollar-a-plate dinners, black-tie gentry and debutantes waltzing inside Valentino gowns. On the south side of St. Louis, Missouri you won’t find any of the above. Here a “ball” imparts rivalry, competition and community. Balls boil down to fierce competitions among “houses”, teams, predominately composed of Black and Latino gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight and transgender men and women.
A “House” includes members, “children” and leaders, “fathers and mothers”. The matriarchs and patriarchs of a house can be of either gender but they are almost all recognized and established veterans of ball competitions. Houses take on luxurious and fantastic surnames such as Infiniti, Prada, Blahnik, Mizrahi, Escada, Effifacy, Revlon, Latex, Labeija and Chanel.
Members of a house walk against other houses and battle each other in various categories that mix fashion, dance, gymnastics and hip-hop into races for trophies, prize money and recognition in the ballroom community.
Witnessing a ball is akin to watching Project Runway with a Cirque du Soleil twist. Entrants utilize ballet grace and sniper precisions in intense battles on the runway where a panel of experienced and respected members of the ball community analyze each movement and every tiny flaw. “Tens across the board,” signals an advance to the next round. A “CHOP!” takes you immediately out of the game.
“Attention!” Meeko announces again. “The ball is starting in exactly 20 minutes! Tell your crew to get their pumps and get here!”
We have another solid hour I think to myself.
Today’s house-ball communities are products of New York City black gay-drag circuit pageants that sprung up during the Harlem Renaissance. Black-queer drag performers routinely found themselves marginalized inside the white pageants of the 1930’s and so they began constructing their own competitions. At first the pageants centered on drag queens and “show-girl” type performances, but they soon began to quickly evolve with pop culture and expanded to include more participants.
Major house syndicates began sprouting around New York City throughout the 60’s and 70’s and eventually spread across the country as prominent houses propped up branches in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Houston and St. Louis among other cities. Each new scene contributed their own flavors and categories to the balls and brand new houses emerged with the introduction of new champions.
Balls generally mix both female bodied and male-bodied drag performances but in St. Louis the competitions are tailored generally for “butch-queens”. Butch queen balls feature both male and female identified performers who in large were born male. So although you can find lesbians, straight women and trans-males competing in butch-queen balls, the majority of categories are set up for gay, bisexual, straight men and trans-women.
The element of drag reaches far beyond female impersonation at a ball. When you think drag you normally imagine six-foot drag queens belting out Beyoncé or Whitney Houston for a booze-soaked crowd at a local queer watering hole, but inside the world of balls, “DRAG” is theater. The art of illusion and theatrics become the cornerstone for ball performers who battle in divisions that call for the most “REAL” effects. To be “REAL” means you have mastered techniques of imitation that serve to tell a kind of story. Gay men imitate the strolls of designer models; Trans-women (or fem-queens) compete to see who passes as a biological woman the best; The kids battle to show they can be real “school boys and girls” or as “thug realness.” From their hair, to the makeup, to costumes and props, music and their pumps, a ball performer conveys feeling, mood and purpose with their walk. The best storyteller doesn’t just win; they become legends.
4:00 a.m. and more bodies begin filtering through the door. Its apparent the “KIDS” have come prepared. Commandment number two for a ball makes it a point that you SHALL come dressed to kill. Anything less than “sickening” (fiercely impressive) is an invite for “shade” (stinging ridicule).
Hip-Hop fashion and urban-hipster aesthetics are the flavors of the moment for St. Louis ball kids. Purple, blue, pink, and red hues integrate themselves among flannel hipster patterns and into old-school high-tops and onto hounds tooth scarves. Skinny gray jeans sit atop neon Converses while coke-white Nikes ground a casual black tuxedo that bring together Kanye West-like elements of street and elegant apparel. Spike healed stilettos click and fresh Timberland boots thud across the rink.
On this night I was at the “Mutilation” Ball hosted by the St. Louis House of Kahnflict. It was my third ball and the front of its ad flyer featured an open skull with an exposed brain while the back told entrants to bring a Gothic effect to their categories.
Corey Wind’s category only called for fishnet pantyhose. Wind belongs to the House of Mazarati and battles for “butch-queen-up-in-pumps”, a category for men walking the runway in high-heels. Tonight he’ll don are a pair of green Guess Marcianos.
“I like to play in woman’s shoes, I get a kick out of it,” Wind says. “You’ll see a lot of skipping, running and jumping. I might give a cartwheel, just a little bit gymnastics.”
I had witnessed Wind walk up in pumps at my very fist ball experience on St. Louis’ Eastside Pepe La Pew club. The club was dark, smoky and congested with about two hundred bodies smashed together around a small wooden stage. Sets of black stilettos snap on the floor. Fish net stockings wrapped around Wind’s calves and thighs as he made his way down the catwalk. That night he wore a floor length tailored trench coat, dark high-waisted pinstriped women’s shorts and a white, silk collared blouse, but tonight he goes for a more masculine look. Instead of women’s clothing he wears an over-sized white t-shirt and a pair of light blue jeans rolled up to reveal toned legs and sharp heels.
Wind has walked in balls in Nashville, Memphis, Louisville and Chicago, and tonight he hopes to make this his thirteenth win.
“Personally I have yet to be chopped,” Wind says. “I don’t know how it feels but it could happen. I may not be on top of my game tonight and I know that’s a possibility. If I’m chopped that means I didn’t bring it right then I gotta do it right next time.”
Tonight would end with his win/loss ratio reaching 12 to 1.
Battles are the most intense parts of a ball. Some balls can have category lists 30 to 40 competitions long and depending on the crowd many categories can pass with only one or two or even no one walking them at all. But specific categories tend to always generate interest and tend to end up being the most intense combats of the night. Runway and Vogue battles are two of St. Louis’ hottest ones.
Voguing, the 90’s “fad” dance hijacked by Madonna in her video VOGUE, actually comes straight from the New York City ballroom scenes of the 80’s and 90’s. Part ballet, part gymnastics, Voguing combines yoga-like positions and dramatic feminine mannerisms into a battle between contestants. The category can call for effeminate gay men (butch-queen vogue), trans women (femme queen vogue) and masculine gay men (“realness” with a twist).
Tonight Kellen Mizarahi is voguing “butch-queen femme performance”.
“I like to feel feminine and really girly,” Mizarahi says. “I can express myself through my voguing.”
Mizarahi began walking balls in the runway categories. “Runway is something I always know I can do,” Mizarahi said. “But performance is something I never thought I could do and I’m good at it so I just ran away with it.”
Performance vogue takes skill and shade. Skills include theatric costume and makeup effects, twists, sharp turns, precise hand positions and dramatic spins, dips and falls.
“Performance is all about grabbing attention,” Mizarahi says. “People think voguing is just a gay thing but it’s really an art. It’s a dance.”
Kellen is the one talking to me about the ball but tonight it’ll be Vixen who walks.
“When I’m on the floor they call me Vixen,” Mizarahi said. “It’s actually like an alter ego, so its like Vixen Mizarahi. Vixen is very much a girl.”
Vogue performers put immense energy into their battles inciting emotional support and even shade from the audience. When the kids battle in vogue categories the crowd swarms around them edging to get a closer look and house names are chanted out.
The House of Mizarahi comes out on top of femme performance tonight.
“You can tell them Vixen won tonight!” Ms. Mizarahi tells me after she wins.
It’s 7:30 in the morning and the sun creeps in and out of the door as people head to their cars but instead of straight lines to the exit everyone says goodbye. Hugs and congratulations are exchanged between houses and former competitors. The atmosphere feels more like the end of a long family reunion than a three-hour fight between teams for recognition and trophies.
House systems assist in fueling the camaraderie between ball kids because many do not receive acceptance for their sexuality or gender identities outside balls.
“It gives them a safe place to have fun no matter how flamboyant you are,” Wind says. “No matter how you identify, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender. It gives you a place to go where you don’t stand out, you fit in. That’s what it does for the black gay community.”
Wind finds his role as a housemother an important part of the ball process because some of his “ball children” don’t have that acceptance from their biological families.
“I have five children altogether,” Wind explains, “and four don’t have that support from their family. Two of their families don’t even know (their sexuality) and they want to keep it that way. I’m here to give them that support they might not have at home.”
Wind also sees his motherly duties in line with actual parenting. “You have to have mental stability,” Wind says. “Because they will drive you nuts. It’s almost equivalent to a normal family having a teenager. There’s a lot you have to teach them a lot to shield them from. But you still have to let them go through their experiences too, you can’t shield them from everything.
Sergio Buchanan, a former member of the St. Louis house of Efficacy, said balls also provide a place where performers can live out their fantasies and feel accepted.
“Everyone wants to be successful,” Buchanan says. “Everyone wants to feel famous and that they’re leaving a legacy and it’s hard in our society because it’s set up against our race and sexual orientation and class status.
“Its hard out there in the world,” Buchanan says. “When we get to experience some of that acceptance in the ball scene we latch on it. Its power and power that helps a person feel somewhat better about themselves and it’s hard to come across that in the real world.”
FEATURE & PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JOSHUA BARTON