In the early 1970s, Black and Latinx gay, trans and queer people developed a thriving subculture in house balls, where they could express themselves freely and find acceptance within a marginalized community. It was here where the world of drag pageantry, which often favored white contestants, evolved into competitions that spanned a variety of categories, including “vogue” battles. All these events can trace their origins as far back as the late 1800s.
Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge No. 710 hosted regular drag balls during the post-Civil War era. Attendees varied in race, gender and sex—with some women taking part by wearing men’s clothes— but the main attractions were female impersonators who showed off their gowns and bodies to a panel of judges in typical pageant fashion.
As these balls continued for decades, they grew in popularity—and notoriety. By the early 20th century, drag balls were considered illegal and taboo to the outside world. That drove the competitions underground (and also undoubtedly added to their appeal). Spectators for drag balls expanded from “a few courageous spectators” in the 1800s, to thousands by the 1930s, according to a collection of essays about the balls at the New York Public Library.
Harlem Renaissance Fuels Drag Ball Scene
The growing freedom and expression of Black culture during the Harlem Renaissance also fueled the burgeoning drag ball scene into the 1920s. The era not only allowed African American artists—from painters and authors to dancers and musicians—to experiment with and reinvent their crafts, it also saw popular Black artists experience and explore gender, sex and sexuality like never before.
“Langston Hughes has gone on the record, talking about his experiences attending events where men were dressed as women, and all of that,” says Julian Kevon Glover, assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Although drag balls were interracial at the Hamilton Lodge, prejudices were still at play. Judges generally favored white, Eurocentric features. It wasn’t until 1936—69 years after their first ball, with an attendance of 8,000 spectators—that a Black contestant took home the top prize for the first time. As the balls expanded to other major cities in the early to mid-20th century, racial bias in judging continued.
When a white contestant, Miss Philadelphia Rachel Harlow, took the crown in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pagent, Black contestant Crystal LaBeija, representing Manhattan, claimed the judges had discriminated against Black and Latinx contestants and that the pageant was rigged.
“She can’t help it. Because you’re beautiful and young, you deserve to have the best in life, but you didn’t deserve… I didn’t say she’s not beautiful, but she wasn’t looking beautiful tonight,” LaBeija said about Harlow’s crowning.
LaBeija refused to participate in other drag pageants, but she didn’t exit the ballroom scene altogether. In the early 1970s, Harlem drag queen Lottie LaBeija convinced Crystal to promote her own ball. Crystal agreed, and the House of LaBeija—the first ever ballroom “house”—was born, with Crystal at the helm as the “mother.”
The Birth of House Ballroom
From its inception, ballroom houses offered security for Black and Latinx queer, gay and trans people. These houses became more like families than teams, led by house “mothers” or house “fathers” to guide and groom their house “children” for the world.
“In ballroom, houses offer the primary infrastructure upon which the scene is built,” explains Glover. “It provides the basic kind of kinship structure, and also demonstrates alternative possibilities for what kinship can look like. Moving away from this reliance on one's biological family, and complicating ideas of a family of choice.”
Crystal and Lottie went on to host the first house ball in Harlem in the early 1970s, entitling it “Crystal & Lottie LaBeija presents the first annual House of LaBeija Ball.” The ball, designed exclusively for Black and Latinx trans, gay and queer people, was a success. The house ball and the House of Labeija inspired many other prominent figures in the ballroom world to create houses of their own throughout the 1970s and beyond.
“Other trans women—some of them would never call themselves trans—the Pepper LaBeija, the Dorian Corey… Houses begin to be named after these women,” says Michael Roberson, resident of the Center for Race, Religion and Economic Democracy (CRRED) and founder of the House of Marison-Margiela.
House ballroom further differentiated from drag balls in 1973, when Erskine Christian became the first gay man to compete, according to Roberson. This signified a shift from trans women and female-presenting people in house ballroom to the inclusion of gay men and male-presenting people in houses and house ballroom. “And you begin to see the shift again from mother-children to mother-father-children, so men begin to participate. And so, ballroom morphs from drag ball to a house ball,” Roberson says.
Instead of the pageant-style of competition in drag balls, house balls held competitions between houses by categories. Categories range from face (the judging of a house members’ beauty) to body (the appreciation of a house members’ curves), to runway, to performances including vogue.
Voguing Begins as Pop Dip and Spin
Vogue is a type of improvisational dance inspired by the poses of models in fashion magazines. The dance style originated within the world of gay and trans Black people, but its exact origins remain unclear. According to Roberson, some believe that Paris Dupree—a pioneer in the house ballroom scene—created vogue, while others believe that it was created by a Black gay or trans person in the New York City jail complex at Rikers Island. Willi Ninja, another legendary member of the house ball community, has also been referred to as the “Godfather of Voguing.” Regardless of its creator, the art form had another name before it was called vogue.
“Really, vogue was called pop, dip and spin,” explains Roberson. “And it's in relationship to break dancing. But when people who were double jointed, who were acrobatic, started putting that in their vogues, then they wanted to call it a new way of voguing, and call pop, dip and spin, old way.”
This “old way” of pop, dip and spin vogue dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. Then other elements of the dance were ushered in during the early 1990s, to form two new types of vogue dancing, called “new way” and “vogue fem.”
While new way is characterized by precise movement of the arms, wrists and hands, vogue fem is broken down into either fast, angular movements or much slower, sensual and deliberate movements. The five fundamental elements of vogue fem include hands, catwalk, duckwalk, spins and dips (which are often erroneously referred to as “shablams” or “death drops”) and floor performance, according to Glover.
Willi Ninja described voguing as a way of throwing shade, or criticizing, opponents on the dance floor, in the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning.” But, beyond a dance style and competition, voguing came to represent much more.
“Voguing is very much about telling one's story through movement... And that for me, because of who is doing it, is very much an act of resistance to an entire world that not only tells us that our lives are devoid of meaning, but also tells us that we have nothing to contribute,” says Glover. “It's a kind of resistance, an embodied kind of resistance, to these cultural messages. To say, ‘No, I have a story to tell, and my story is going to be so convincing, that in this particular atmosphere you're going to be able to clearly understand what it is that I'm saying.”
Voguing in Mainstream Culture
Voguing as a form of expression became more mainstream with the release of media like Madonna’s song, “Vogue” and the documentary, “Paris is Burning,” released in 1990 and 1991, respectively.
Madonna’s “Vogue” paid tribute to ballroom and featured voguers such as José Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Camacho Xtravaganza in the video. However, Madonna was accused of culturally appropriating a culture that she had no claim to and turning a rich history of vogue into a fad.
“Paris is Burning” took viewers directly inside the ballroom scene. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston began filming the events after seeing people voguing in New York City’s West Village. The film is often referenced within the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. The ballroom term “throwing shade” was even added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2017. But Livingston, as a queer white woman, has been accused of enabling cultural appropriation through her documentation of house balls. Several participants in the documentary also threatened to sue after not receiving compensation following the success of the film.
Glimpses of house ballroom culture continued to permeate mainstream spaces more prominently since the early 1990s, through television series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, which premiered in 2009; the MTV series America’s Best Dance Crew, featuring trans Black voguer Leiomy Maldonado in 2009; and Ryan Murphy’s Pose in 2019, which featured a scripted take on the house ballroom scene and included the most trans actors in television history.
Glover says they expect ballroom culture to continue to evolve as a vital element of the Black queer community—and periodically influence broader audiences.
“I think about ballroom as being a whale,” Glover says. “It primarily dwells deep, deep, deep in the ocean. But there are moments when the scene comes up for air and emerges through the water, making a splash within the popular culture scene before returning to the oceans depths while those on the surface feel its ripples for quite some time.”