Among the ball children, there is no greater honorific than ‘legendary’ a status for which no fixed standard exists. A legend might be a man or a woman or a transgendered person or a butch dyke or a femme queen. A legend might be a brilliant voguer or somebody whose cross-sex impersonations inspire awe. Once attained, legendary status is never revocable. That legends are invisible to the eyes of the larger world causes no great concern at the balls, where they not only live on but are forged anew.
Most people, if they think of vogue balls at all, tend to recall filmmaker Jenny Livingston’s adroit documentary Paris Is Burning, or else Madonna vamping in “Vogue.” The cultural moment bracketed by film and video left many with the impression that the world of the balls was transitory. Those with long memories could perhaps dredge up the image of “legendary” drag queens Avis Pendavis, Paris Dupree, Pepper Labeija, Dorian Corey, or else Willi Ninja, progenitor of the acrobat challenge dance called voguing. But that was it. Voguing had come and gone.
In reality, Madonna’s video and Livingston’s film were station stops on a cultural continuum, affectionate but voyeuristic peeks into 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. And last week they were out in force for the Ultra-Omni ball, a gathering of clans celebrating the 20th anniversary of one revered local house.
In the ball world, 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.” The House of Ultra-Omni is supervised by Kevin Ultra-Omni, a smooth-skinned and handsome man of 42 who has both “walked” and promoted the balls since, as he says, “back in the day, through better days, and surviving AIDS and all that nonsense.” Recently, Omni was telling a reporter, “We started our house when it was just a bunch of drag queens having fruit fights in Washington Square. In the old days, there were just the drag queens. There were no butch categories, no realness, no face. I want these children nowadays to know the history. I want them to go to school.”
School was in session last week at a miniball sponsored by party promoter E-Man and the House of Ultra-Omni. Held at the Clubhouse on 28th Street, it attracted ball children both from rival local houses and from Milwaukee, Detroit, Gary, Atlanta, and L.A. The children came to vie for trophies and prizes, walking the runway in such categories as Femme Queen Impression; Male Face: Legends vs. Statements vs. Stars; Male Impersonator (Butch) Face With Labels (Hip Hop Gear); and Male Vogue Performance Millennium Mania. Few came in traditional drag. On the evidence, feathers and beads are passé. Replacing them these days is a kind of impersonation that would certainly arouse interest among gender theorists: feminine types dressed convincingly as gangstas and thugs. Men, that is, got up in drag as men.
Banjee boy categories have been a part of vogue balls since at least the early ’80s. But the ascendance of hip hop, with its cartoony male archetypes, was bound to attract the children’s attention, not to mention their critique. When Paris Is Burning debuted, the standard reading of its subjects’ approach to culture was mainly condescending. The ball children were depicted as subcultural wannabes, pathetic in their yearning for arrival, acceptance, the trappings of wealth. Scarcely anyone noticed the ways in which their appropriations of labels and symbols constituted a kind of interrogation of power, which is to say of maleness, and white maleness at that.
Is it a signal of bigger changes that the ball children now parody Jay-Z and Juvenile while performing to their music? That they vogue with greater acrobatic skill than ever and parody gang hand signals as part of their show? That children from all-female houses walk in male categories with such unnerving conviction that they make the performance-art antics of most drag kings look feeble? “It’s about the surprise in it,” said 19-year-old Tiya Latex, a young woman attired in the male hip hop winter uniform of superlarge Fubu jeans and a hooded down parka. “You take the expectations of how people think you’re going to perform,” said Latex’s friend, 18-year-old Antonio Milan. “Then you turn it fiercely on the runway. But then I give it that femmeness and cuntness to show I’m still a lady.”
Milan was dancing that night in a category called New Way Vogue With Dramatics, a form of dancing that’s both acrobatic and exaggeratedly masculine. “It’s the most exciting category now,” explained Wolfgang Busch, a filmmaker who has been documenting the revitalized ball scene for the past three years. “The old-way vogue people don’t necessarily respect it as much. But the scene is coming back. The hype is back out. The new generation is coming in and it’s very dramatic. In the female categories, they fight each other and compete fiercely for that trophy. If you know the language of the children, they really bring it and serve it in a fanatical way.”
** “People don’t understand” the continuing importance of the houses, said Andre Collins, DJ at the Bronx’s Warehouse and something of a legend himself in the club music underground. “They think it all ended with Paris Is Burning. Those legends—Paris and Pepper and Dorian—are important, but what nobody realizes is that the concept has transferred from one generation to another. Hip hop and r&b has taken a large portion of the ball scene.
“You have to realize,” Collins went on, “that, from the onset, there has been a need for gay people to have a unity. Being a homosexual, a lot of these kids have been ostracized, beat up by their families, thrown out of their homes. It’s no different now than when I was a kid. Some of these kids are homeless and struggling. They don’t know how much talent and ability they have going on. So, if they join a house, they can belong somewhere. They can be part of a team.”
Of course, in the old days, those teams were often little more than minisyndicates, each house specializing in a particular crime. There was a time when the children from one well-known house were all expert shoplifters, while those from another ran a credit-card-theft and check-kiting scam. It’s a measure of how much things have changed that one of the evening’s best-dressed people, Gerald Dupree LaBeija, could point to his costly clothing (Fendi hat and gloves, Vivienne Westwood shirt, suede Helmut Lang trousers) and say, “I bought all of it!”
A self-proclaimed “former professional klepto,” LaBeija now considers himself a role model for the next generation of children, hundreds of whom crammed the club on a frigid winter night. “I’m an old-way legend in recovery,” said LaBeija. “Four years clean and serene. I don’t mop,” or shoplift, “anymore because, for one thing, you mop you get locked.” Another reason is this: “When Avis Pendavis was dying four years ago, I held her in my hands and that was a wake-up call. Now I get out there and teach these children to practice safe sex and not to do drugs. But I don’t just tell them how to live! I show them!” At this, LaBeija sucked in his cheeks, flung his hands in the air, and struck a timeless pose.