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 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 gay males and transgendered people, the majority of which are African American or Latino, banded together under a respected "house mother" (usually a drag queen or a transgender person) or even a "house father".
The best known houses are New York City groups, especially those such as the House of Corey, the House of LaBeija, the House of Ninja, the House of Pendavis the House of Garavani and House of Xtravaganza that were shown in the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning. Other houses function similarly in many United States but mainly focused in major cities on the East Coast, in the Midwest and South (i.e. House Of Infiniti, House of Mizrahi, House of Aviance, etc.)
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 lead by Willi Ninja, for example, adopt "Ninja" as their surname within ball culture, members of the house led by Anji Xtravaganza used the surname "Xtravaganza" and members of the house led by Avis Pendavis used the surname Pendavis such as Deborah, Kim, and Freddy and so on.
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 (gay men who wear men's clothing), 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 gay 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 its members, the main function of these houses is to compete against one another in "walks" or "drag walks" 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.
Categories vary according to the event but categories might include banjee realness, butch queen (emphasizes masculinity), executive realness (also known as Wall Street), drag queen (emphasizes extravagance), face (showcasing attitude and facial attractiveness), fag out (displaying androgyny and stereotypical gayness), fem queen (emphasizes femininity), hand performance (showcasing upper-body dance moves), military realness (typically featuring dress uniform), old way (showcasing dance styles from circa mid-1990s and before), preppie realness (also known as Town & Country), schoolboy/schoolgirl and so on.
Regarding these competitions and their importance to ball culture and the people involved with it, one participant wrote:
There is more to the ballroom scene than chopping, mopping, "fierceness" and shade; and there is more to vogueing 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 of 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 139th 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.
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 which 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.
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 formerly a Miyake Mugler), James Khan, Legendary Charles Khan ("father" of the House of Khan), and Twain Miyake-Mugler ("father" of the House of Miyake Mugler, DC Chapter). 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 Fem 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 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 others.
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 drag house culture has had on mainstream society was in the creation of "vogueing", 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 the same year as Paris Is Burning. One source asserting that "Many people only know of underground ballroom culture from Blah-donna's 'Vogue' or the film 'Paris Is Burning'.
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 "fierceness", "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 black drag queen RuPaul. 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 which has then, through famous DJs like Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia and their successors, been introduced to the world.
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 been gay black culture and the mainstream, a professor at New York University said "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.
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...'"
- House of Garavani
- House of Aviance
- House of Beigen
- House of Diabolique
- House of Enigma
- House of LaPerla
- House of Parangon
- House of Efficacy
- House of Infiniti
- House of Paragon
|LGBT and Queer studies|
|Lesbian · Gay · Bisexual · Transgender · Homosexuality|
|Timeline · Gay Liberation · Social movements · AIDS timeline|
|LGBT Community · Gay pride · Coming out · Gay village · Queer · Queer theory · Religion · Slang · Symbols|
|Marriage · Civil unions · Adoption · Sodomy law · Military service · Hate crimes · Laws around the world|
|Attitudes and Discrimination|
|Heterosexism · Homophobia · Lesbophobia · Biphobia · Transphobia|
|LGBT Portal · Categories|
- 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. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
- The Rainbow History Project: Drag in DC. Rainbow History Project (2000 - 2007). Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
- House system", in this sense, is unrelated to the house system used in British schools and those modeled along these lines.
- Levy, Emanuel (2004-2007). Paris Is Burning (film review). Emanuellevy.com. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
-  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.
- Trebay, Guy; Credle J. (January 12–18, 2000). Legends of the Ball: Paris Is Still Burning. Village Voice. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
-  Ottowa 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.
- "The Slap of Love" by Michael Cunningham
-  House of Beigen
- Some of these categories are from Paris Is Burning. Others are taken from the House of Beigen (external link provided below) describing a January 2007 drag ball held in South Carolina.
-  House of Diabolique
- The House of Khan
- The House of Balenciaga
- 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
-  The Independent Online, 03 September 2006