Home » Arts and Culture, Featured Articles » Butch Queens and Vogue routines
Butch Queens and Vogue routines
“Realness—realness with a twist. These are the boys that twist their wrist. A little bit of that, a little bit of this,”chant the Chicago ballroom spectators as competitor Magneto Ebony confidently walks on stage backed by pounding house music.
He first appears in a sloppy, mannish outfit—sweatpants, sneakers, a baggy T-shirt and a baseball cap—meant to fully disguise his sexuality. He disappears offstage and re-emerges in a dainty figure skating costume as he starts to vogue, hands framing his face and his body contorting into geometric shapes. He moves sharply to the beat of the music, a performance described as “full-out femme,” showcasing his trained ability to appear both hyper-masculine and feminine. He goes on to win the ballroom category Realness with a Twist.
Magneto Ebony is part of the ballroom scene, a black underground subculture in which LGBT and straight competitors perform or “walk” in several themed categories—including Realness with a Twist and Executive Realness—with the goal of winning a trophy and cash prize, according to Marlon M. Bailey, assistant professor of gender and American studies at Indiana University Bloomington and author of “Butch Queens Up in Pumps,” a comprehensive examination of Detroit’s ballroom culture in which he once competed.
“[At the ball], people can perform as whatever gender they want, suggesting that gender is not something inherent or biological,” Bailey said. “[Gender] is something we do, as opposed to who we are. It’s a performance.”
The contemporary ballroom scene began in New York during the late ’60s as a way for the black LGBT community to congregate and celebrate its sexuality in an attempt to transgress harsh societal criticism, he said.
Magneto Ebony said the ballroom scene is divided into the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf-Coast, South and Midwest regions, and the largest communities are in New York City, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Detroit and Chicago.
Chicago’s local ballroom community, which initially began as a celebration of sexuality similar to the scene in New York City, has grown into one of the nation’s largest, after East Coast ballroom members moved the tradition to the Midwest years ago, said Adonis Escada, a professional ballroom commentator.
Escada said the Chicago ballroom scene is uniquely built around family values, while New York competitors take no prisoners and favor a strict, business-like approach to their competitions.
“[The Chicago] community is a bit more close-knit than others,” Magneto Ebony said. “We really consider each other to be our family.”
With a panel of six to nine judges, a DJ and a carefully-selected commentator to guide the competition, each ball, Bailey said, is divided into an organized gender system of six general categories that have no meaning in the outside world—Butch Queens, Butch Queens Dressed in Drag, Femme Queens, Butches, Men and Women. These ballroom identities categorize performers, and each contains more specific subcategories in which participants compete, such as Realness and Runway, Bailey said.
He said most competitors perform in the Butch Queen category, which is a ballroom label for gay men. Butch Queen Dressed in Drag, however, is a gay man who wears women’s clothing solely for the purpose of competing at the ball. Costumes for this category range from everyday street wear to dramatic, runway-inspired looks. A Femme Queen is a transgendered woman, and a Butch is a transgendered man. The Men category involves participants who don’t identify as gay but often engage in homosexual relationships, and the Women category involves female competitors who classify under a range of sexual identities including straight and lesbian, Bailey said.
Escada said a ballroom competition doesn’t operate on a set of formally written rules but on traditions that have been verbally passed down through generations as the scene evolves.
“The only solid rule for a ballroom [competition] is that when you participate, you have to bring it to the best of your ability,” Escada said. “Once you bring it, it’s up to the judges whether they believe you have it or not.”
Magneto Ebony said flyers are distributed approximately three months prior to a ball outlining what’s expected in each of the categories, giving participants an idea of how to prepare costumes, choreography and so on.
Although each ballroom category has specific guidelines, Magneto Ebony said judges are open to competitors’ creative twists on a category’s requirements.
Tone Balenciaga, a Chicago-based competitor who has been involved with ballroom since 2003, said he mainly walks in the Schoolboy Realness category, which may include using props like school supplies, and Executive Realness, for which he dons business suits and professional mannerisms.
Bailey said the Realness categories are designed to portray “normal masculinity” to reflect how ballroom competitors’ homosexuality can be disguised in the outside world.
“It’s a survival strategy to reduce being subject to homophobic violence, which a lot of ballroom scene members experience,” Bailey said.
Since joining the scene in 2003, Balenciaga said he has become “legendary” in his category of Schoolboy Realness, meaning he is a trendsetter within the ballroom scene.
Magneto Ebony said being “legendary” is a part of the hierarchy system. He said the titles range from “star” to “statement,” “legendary” to “iconic” and, finally, the “pioneers,” or high-status, early ballroom scene game-changers.
The icons ultimately determine which ballroom participants are awarded the coveted “legendary” title, he said.
However, Escada said gaining ballroom status has become less about the craft than it has been in years past. He said the community is now 90 percent politics and 10 percent talent, and it seems to rely less on perfecting a performance and more on social connections within the scene. While it used to take nearly a decade to rise to legendary status, he said people are now gaining the title within only two years simply because of favoritism.
While category winners originally received a simple trophy, ballroom competitions have recently introduced a cash prize, which Escada said distracts from the artistry and increases politics and tension among members.
“The nature of the ballroom has changed from being about creativity and a love of the art to being more about controlling [who wins] through personal relationships,” said Dutchess Bulgari, a Detroit-based ballroom competitor.
Bailey said tension often turns violent because the ballroom is one of the few places where the black LGBT community can realize its full potential in what he calls a profoundly homophobic and racist world.
Violence can ensue during competitions because for many ballroom members, losing a competition means losing their only source of pride, Bulgari said, adding that these fragile egos have sparked arguments and even stabbings.
“When this is the only affirmation you [receive], it becomes personal,” Bulgari said. “It becomes the only way of life you know.”
Bailey said receiving affirmation from the ballroom scene is vital because many members have been ostracized or marginalized at home because of their sexual orientation. They don’t feel their families and communities of origin accept or understand their gender, sexual identities and experiences, Bailey said.
Bulgari said one of his ballroom peers was kicked out of his parents’ house when he made the decision to transition into a woman. He said the parents gave their son the ultimatum to live at home as a man or permanently leave if he decided to continue expressing his sexuality
“The ballroom allowed him to transition in a space where people affirmed [his decision] and celebrated his sexuality,” Bulgari said.
One of the main ways the ballroom scene addresses this societal exclusion is through an organized system of figurative “houses,” said Tyana Ebony, a Chicago-based ballroom host and competitor.
“[A house] is really a safe haven for ballroom members,” Tyana Ebony said. “It’s a family where people who aren’t accepted at home can come to.”
House titles determine participants’ last names at the ball, she said. So, as a member of the House of Ebony, her full ballroom name is Tyana Ebony.
Bailey explained ballroom houses aren’t physical buildings but rather social configurations. They are guided by a house mother and father who not only provide emotional comfort but also help the house prepare for ballroom competitions against other houses, he said.
“We bond together, eat together, travel together and shop together—we do pretty much everything together,” Magneto Ebony said. “[It fills] the parts of a family many [ballroom] members feel are lacking.”
This close, family-like kinship is a facilitator for lowering the prevalence of HIV in the black LGBT community, Bailey said. He said house mothers can speak candidly about risk-reducing sex in a way biological mothers cannot because ballroom members have a collective understanding of gay living.
“There are [HIV] prevention balls that have HIV prevention messaging in their performance categories,” Bailey said. “There are even prevention houses like the House of Latex.”
Aisha Iman, a former mother of the House of Latex, said the organization advocates safe sex and ensures that the entire ballroom community has continuous access to both testing and care.
This positive environment is what Magneto Ebony said drew him to the scene. He first became involved in the ballroom community through the competitive dance form Vogue, which has evolved from New York’s ’80s Harlem ballroom scene.
Bulgari said Vogueing, a dance form originally created within the ballroom culture, is judged on a competitor’s intricate ability to showcase five elements: hand performance, dips, duck-walk, cat-walk and spins. He said he has personally competed and won in the category Vogue Femme, at which he impressed the judges with his showcase of the five elements.
Vogueing was made famous by Madonna in the ’90s, Bailey said. But, despite using real Harlem ballroom members in her music video for “Vogue,” Bailey said the public didn’t make the connection that there was an entire underground community behind the choreography that has now expanded worldwide.
Bailey said the American public has been blind to the ballroom scene for years because of poor literary and media documentation. With such little coverage, he said outsiders have developed serious misconceptions about what happens at a ball, especially with the release of “Paris is Burning,” a 1990 documentary on New York’s ballroom culture in the ’80s.
“Many people think the ballroom scene is full of a bunch of misfits with no lives, standards or values,” Balenciaga said. “But it’s so different. [Our community] has people with Ph.Ds, people with careers, people that when the ball is over, they’re going to a Fortune 500 company and running it.”
Escada said a triumphant moment in ballroom history was when East Coast dance group “Vogue Evolution” competed on America’s Best Dance Crew in 2009, which he said showed the public what ballroom participants are physically and creatively capable of.
Through mainstream exposure, Escada said people are becoming more accepting of the LGBT community. However, he said there is still progress to be made, and the ballroom scene is a powerful force in the fight for equality.
“I believe it’s important to strive to be who you are,” Escada said. “[The ballroom community] is a place to have differences be embraced and welcomed.”