Shifting in between racks of dance apparel in Danny’s Warehouse of Inglewood, Isla Ebony evaluates each piece inspecting if it fits the category of futuristic opulence for the upcoming ball. The performers she mentors are in need of a costume and she is looking for the right fit.
She pulls two one-pieces made from glimmering sequins arranged in large chevrons. She awes at the gold, black and white specs and started evaluating the size.
“This is totally futuristic opulence,” she said before navigating the room cramped with clothes to find the fitting room.
After getting a taste of the ballroom and voguing down the runway, she became addicted to the style and feeling of giving it all in a single walk.
“I fell down the vogueing hole,” she said.
Ebony, originally part of the underground music duo Purple Crush, went from one queer scene to the next, jumping from the underground Los Angeles queer music scene to the ballroom scene.
Her growing passion for vogue led her to New York City to compete because there was no women's category in LA where the community is small and slowly growing. Now she is the founder of Banjee Ball, one of the few balls that take place in Los Angeles.
Voguing began in New York City during the 1960s in underground balls where LGBTQ+ members were able to express themselves through dance and competitions. Ballroom culture grew in popularity and eventually made its way into mainstream media with artists like Madonna taking the dance style to her music. However, ballroom culture had its own social importance in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, when it was considered dangerous to be outwardly queer. This time was when the culture thrived. Since then, it has made its way across the country and is a growing scene in LA today.
Despite being a cis woman in a queer world, Ebony has made it her career to do everything to build up the community that has become her family. What she’s noticing instead is a separation.
“The ballroom community is very separated from the rest of the queer community,” she said. “The LA ballroom scene hit this rough patch where there weren’t really that many functions going on. Back in the day it was really popping off.”
Ebony said the separation has developed a closer knit community full of passion for voguing and ballroom.
“The LA ballroom scene is kind of unique,” she said. “It’s small but really fertile, but the landscape of Los Angeles makes it very different from say New York which is the hub of ballroom. In New York it’s very much more of a melting pot.”
Ebony believes the proximity and intermixing of people enriches the ballroom community. Los Angeles is home to members of legendary houses of ballroom, including the House of Evangelista, House of Aphrodite and Isla’s house, House of Ebony. Los Angeles is also home to the entertainment industry. With ballroom in close proximity to Hollywood, the entertainment world and social dance intermix.
“What’s special about what’s happening right now is that people are being able to access the ballroom community and the ballroom community is being able to access outside of the ballroom community. So it’s expanding and growing.”
Although the community is growing, there is still more to be done about the internal separation within the community.
In features for Los Angeles Magazine and LA Weekly, queer nightlife in LA is everything but ballroom. Despite efforts from people like Ebony, who put up balls around LA, they receive minimal recognition. When talking about queer nightlife, Ebony said most people take ballroom out of the picture even though mainstream media adopts its dance styles and culture. From Madonna to Sam Smith, people borrow from ballroom without falling back to its roots.
In “Strike a Pose, Forever: The Legacy of Vogue and its Re-contextualization in Contemporary Camp Performances,” Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis praises Madonna for bringing vogue to the mainstream and developing its popularity. “The reason why Madonna holds a key position in the development of the scene is not only because she brought vogue in the limelight, at least outside the U.S., but mainly because critics envisioned Madonna’s oeuvre as the embodiment of commercialization and cultural exploitation,” Chatzipapatheodoridis said. “Through her engagement with sub/cultural practices and scenes, Madonna came to epitomize the Jamesonian logic of late capitalism while her position in relation to those scenes was always fixed as one of uncreative plagiarism. It is possible, though, that Madonna’s cross-cultural liaisons may offer a fresh look on the current being of the vogue scene.”
Although Madonna had choreographers from the ballroom scene by her side to make “Vogue,” Chatzipapatheodoridis ignores the image Madonna creates in the music video that erases the culture she appropriates. “Vogue” is known today as an anthem for the queer community, but the audience does not get to experience the true image of vogue and ballroom, eventually looking to Madonna as the originator of the dance style. The viewer doesn’t get to see choreographers Jose and Luis Xtravaganza as the faces behind the style Madonna dances. No image or notion in the music and visuals allows the viewer to culturally connect it to an underground scene that is being exploited.
At the end of the day, Madonna can put away the costume and go about her day stripped from the culture she appropriated. Not everyone can. Ballroom developed out of a need for self-expression for a community that, at the time of its origination, was viewed as a danger to society for its existence alone. We don’t get this historical context through Madonna. Instead, we only see the dazzle.
“If [ballroom is taught by] people who are in the community who are paid for their work, that's cool," Pose runway choreographer Twiggy Garçon explained to VICE. "That's not always the case."
Approriation even comes from within the queer community.
Sam Smith and Calvin Harris’ music video for “Promises” attempts to provide insight on the ballroom culture, but immediately steers away from it after the introduction. It begins with quotes from people within the ballroom community, but does not give them the attribution and tiptoes over the history of ballroom and its importance to queer and trans people of color.
The music video is flashy and visually interesting, but in the act of being attractive, it steers away from the actual ball. Actors and models outside of the ballroom are depicted walking down the runway and dancing in a club next to the voguers who come straight from the community, however, they get little time to provide context to the ballroom scene. We see Smith as the leading person behind the movement and choreography, however, they turn voguing into a dance club scene. Once again, the history goes ignored for the advances of a queer artist jumping on the bandwagon of ballroom for their own personal advances.
But some artists have managed to capture the culture in an authentic way.
Teyana Taylor’s music video for “WTP,” short for “work this pussy,” begins with interviews with people in the ballroom scene. What differentiates this one from Sam Smith’s is that the interviews depict and show the true personalities of those in ballroom. The music video even goes into a ballroom scene that is more authentic to the environment of a ball.
Taylor’s character is introduced as the ugly duckling that states, “I just don’t understand why I’m not good enough to walk my pussy at the ball. I can work my pussy.”
Coming from a queer artist who spent her teens in New York in ballroom, there is a more authentic feel to it, with a sense of comedy that doesn’t mock the characters of the video, but instead humanizes the people of the culture.
Taylor goes across the country in the video, from New York to Los Angeles, gagging everyone with her voguing. She provides environments that are different, yet embody the community of ballroom. Taylor is one case of an authentic representation of ballroom culture, but it is one moment on an international level.
“Ballroom has been appropriated time and time again but at the same time those appropriation phases have been critical,” Ebony said. “I mean I’ve talked to people out here in Los Angeles who didn’t know about ballroom until ‘Paris is Burning’ came out in the 90s and that transformed their life so while I think there is danger there is also possibility.”
WHERE DID THE COMMUNITY GO?
For some, their entrance into the ballroom community is through “Paris is Burning.” But for others, it began out of necessity for a safe space, not from a commercialization of ballroom culture.
“The ballroom community was started as a safe space for queer PoC [people of color] and to this day still provides a home, and when I say a home it’s because these kids get kicked out of their home,” Ebony said. “They’re struggling, they’re homeless, they aren’t getting their medications, they aren’t getting fed, and when they join a house it becomes a family structure.”
Ballroom is home to a community that is marginalized, abused and discriminated against. People go there to fully express themselves, which can be seen in their glamorous outfits and strength in movement, full of life. In New York City, especially during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, people went underground for safety of expression and acceptance. Today, it is on the surface for everyone to see, so much so that the popularity is creating careers.
“I mean it has had many phases in the limelight but the phase that we’re in right now [is] taking it to a whole new level and it’s going to be really interesting to see the careers that are made from that. It’s going to be interesting to see how it changes culture,” Ebony said.
Ebony also said the exposure, although daunting, is what is needed to move the community forward. It normalizes a community once considered dangerous and inappropriate for society. Now they are on the big screen, producing television and sharing their story to larger audiences outside the ball. ‘Pose,’ a television series on FX, depicts the lives of queer people of color in New York City during the 1980’s, facing the AIDS crisis and building up a house competing in the local ballroom scene. What makes this show so significant is that there are queer people of color taking multiple roles in performing and producing the show.
“With ‘Pose,’ you have leaders in the community that are consulting the show that are writing the script that are in front of the camera,” She said. “Because of ‘Pose’ there’s like a million shows being made and the community, it seems, is going along with it.”
However, the popularity and commercialization of the dance and culture has consequences. Vogue hitting the mainstream partly takes it away from the people who made it.
“So there’s still an erasure happening. I think it’s because of a lot of things,” Ebony said. “I think it’s economics. I think it’s race. Things are better but there is still a lot of work to do because ballroom is getting huge, but the kids that the ballroom culture is for can’t afford to go to these balls that are getting more and more expensive”
Ebony also teaches vogue at a dance studio in Silverlake. For a single class, people have to pay $18, which means those who can afford the class have immediate access to a culture that may not be part of their history. Although this is true, Ebony said she makes sure classes or sessions like these are accessible to the community becuase she has no control over the price. She’ll even share a guest pass with them to help bring them in to a community that has become her family. In addition to her regularly scheduled class, she hosts free workshops to help make voguing more accessible.
And then there are balls.
Balls allow people to compete in categories from face to body to vogue femme. Some balls require people to pay to be in them. Others like the Dauntless Ball and Ebony’s Banjee Ball are free and open to all. Co-producer of the Dauntless Ball Thomas Davis wants the event to uplift the community and normalize being HIV positive, emphasizing the family aspect of ballroom.
“What Thomas is doing with the Dauntless Ball is having a ball but then providing acknowledgement and awards to people in the community that have worked tirelessly to uplift HIV positive people and that is sort of just an underlying theme in ballroom in general, and so in every city you'll see awards given out for their community service and the things that they do,” Ebony said. “So in a sense Thomas is carrying on a tradition.”
THE DAUNTLESS BALL
Hands flying. Cack a da cack cack WHAM!
Walking the ball comes in multiple forms, from slow sensual movement to a fireball of sharp swings of the arm. Competitors came down the center of the Dauntless Ball following categories regarding HIV.
Some dressed as celebrity figures and HIV activists while others came in more metaphorical looks, like the representation of being prisoner to HIV, depending on the category. A large handcuff wrapped around a man’s neck and bodies were painted in phrases.
They strutted and vogued down the runway to the judges, competing for trophies and cash prizes. But before the competition, the ball began with honoring activists and impactful people in the community, one of them being Icon Father Kage Aphrodite.
“What we need to do is love each other,” he said. “At the end of the day we are all one family because we are ballroom. Ballroom is me. Ballroom is you.”
Davis looks at ballroom as an important part to American history, as it was pivotal to an epidemic that shaped a large part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Voguing is important for our community for so many reasons,” he said. “One, voguing is an all-American tradition. It was made in America. It was started by people in America. It was started by people that looked like me. It literally is black history. It is something that is documented through dance.”
This dance goes back to the 1980s. The current generation doesn’t have the opportunity to understand how these fast movements of arms, wrists and hands with duck walk legs came out of frustration and desire for support.
“A lot of times it comes down to people not having the opportunity to hand the history down,” Davis said. “Voguing got really popular during the Harlem Renaissance, that’s when it was started. In the community we were hit by a plague in the 80s with HIV and AIDS really taking out a lot of our community members. Lots of artists, lots of black and brown people you don’t hear about.”
But that desire for support remains today. Davis was diagnosed with HIV seven years ago. He said he felt alone and unsure where to go but turned to his friends like Ryku Bella and the ballroom community to feel supported and know that he is not alone. He wants Dauntless Ball to do the same for others.
“This [Dauntless Ball] is really to be able to create a space for others to see other people that are living with HIV in their community and that are really thriving with HIV as well,” he said. “When I was first diagnosed with HIV in 2013 one of the first feelings, I felt was loneliness and not really having anybody else that I could reach out to.”
Ebony comes into the ballroom scene as cisgender and straight, but the accepting community that brought her into the world of ballroom and vogue made her family. Now she has kids of her own in ballroom who she teaches and supports, from buying clothes for the ball to instructing vogue to uplifting them in every capacity.
“As a non-PoC queer person, there’s a balance but at a certain point when you get so deep in the community. you’re in the community,” she said. “You are working to save lives just like everybody else. That’s when you know you’re ballroom.”
The ballroom community continues to grow on and off the runway. Balls like the Dauntless Ball remind the community of its roots that come from discrimination and plague, and the importance of love and acceptance in the community. As ballroom and vogue make their way into the mainstream, Ebony hopes that the characteristics that define the community follow.
“Ballroom has influenced culture for decades,” Ebony said. “But I think that ballroom has an opportunity to affect how people think about identity, and status and community and family and acceptance.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated Banjee Ball cost $10. Banjee Ball is free and open to all. Additional clarification was made on Isla Ebony’s classes.