Executive Realness: Ball Culture And Vogue On Screen
Ball culture and the ceremonies, theatrics, and styles it inspires are fiercely protected by those for whom it is a vital life force and a rare platform for self-expression.
HBO Max’s upcoming series Legendary aims to spotlight this underground community once more, but alongside the sheer joy that ballroom brings is a lingering suspicion of the mainstream. For every example of ball culture being represented effectively there is another accusation of bias and exploitation, leaving this fragile community bruised.
Legendary will air shortly, and - after a colossal Twitter-storm and subsequent coming out statement - Jameela Jamil will be joined by Megan Thee Stallion, Law Roach and Leiomy Maldonado.
Alongside these judges, though, widely recognised vogue figure Dashaun Wesley will appear as MC/commentator, with additional commentary from DJ MikeQ.
But many of Jamil’s castmates were noticeable in their absence from the wider public discourse. What does ballroom mean to these stars in the making? Here are seven videos to watch, along with a soundtrack that turns the spotlight towards them, before they step onto screens around the world in the spring.
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Paris Is Burning
Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary was not the first to give an insight into New York’s ballroom scene in the late 1980s (see the work of Marlon Riggs), but it is by far the most widely referenced, having secured a prize at Sundance and a distribution deal with Miramax.
The feature length film explores the lives of Harlem’s drag mothers and their children, whose fantasies of acceptance and ‘realness’ were played out via ‘categories’ or competitive heats on the floor at balls.
Effectively a foundation course in ballroom for anyone who’s curious, Paris Is Burning’s release met controversy in much the same way as HBO Max’s new series is now, sparking debates about exploitation when it was revealed how little the film’s stars were paid for their contributions.
Watch Paris Is Burning on Netflix.
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The inescapable success of this award-winning series, which premiered on 21st Century Fox’s FX in 2018, has once again brought ball culture into the spotlight, this time many would say finally allowing for members of the community to find true representation and validation.Featuring a ground-breaking cast of transgender women and in part written and directed by trans writers Janet Mock and Our Lady J, Pose has created space for marginalised talent in Hollywood.
Pose is a high-glamour, high-drama take on the highs and lows of New York’s drag houses during the late 1980s. A triumph in story-telling that tackles tough tales of survival and heartbreak among ballroom’s colourful community, it has no doubt paved the way for Scout Productions’ (the producers of Queer Eye) new series Legendary.
Watch Pose Series 1 & 2 on BBC iPlayer.
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Thump Night Visions Episode 1 - The New York Vogue Scene
The now defunct VICE platform Thump kicked off its Night Visions video series with The New York Vogue Scene, an eight-minute documentary in 2016.
Bringing us into the 21st century, this short film introduced the modern houses via interviews with the likes of MikeQ, a DJ and pioneer of the cracking, rhythmic sound that has punctuated voguing battles for the past decade.
When describing ballroom culture Gisele Xtravaganza explains why what they do is so much more than entertainment: “This is not only a dance, this is a lifestyle, you know that’s why it’s so empowering to so many artists.”
Co-Founder of weekly event Vogue Knights Jack Mizrahi features, who according to recent Tweets appears to also be involved in the filming of Legendary.
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Ballroom Culture: the Language of Vogue | Ronald Murray | TEDxColumbus
Ronald Murray is a social worker, also known as Father Ron “Drama” Xclusive Lanvin, a respected leader within ballroom culture from Ohio.
Taking to the TEDx stage, Murray recounts a story of family rejection that is still so common for gay, trans and queer people, especially QPOC. He describes how it is from these shared experiences of ostracism and shaming that drag families grow – providing understanding, safe and nurturing spaces for young people who simply have nowhere else to go. In turn, the balls strengthen those family bonds by encouraging unity and pride within the tight-knit groups.
Murray’s talk also features a voguing demonstration from Majur Mizrahi, Lamont West and Sky Prodigy stripping back the basic elements of the dance with breath-taking skill.
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MikeQ on Ballroom Culture, Making Tracks and Qween Beat | Red Bull Music Academy
HBO Max have certainly hit the mark in one respect, by casting DJ, producer and label head MikeQ as a “commentator”, according to Deadline’s release.
MikeQ was interviewed at CTM Festival in Berlin in 2017, an extended conversation where he covers his musical influences, the ballroom sound, and his role as a ballroom DJ. MikeQ has become synonymous with the sound of modern balls, in particular thanks to his multiple reworks of Masters At Work’s ‘Ha Dance’– a track that unexpectedly lent itself effortlessly to the snapping rhythms of vogue, helping to make it a ballroom staple.
MikeQ is undoubtedly a forerunner of contemporary ballroom culture and a worthy ambassador for innovations in the scene.
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Meet Leiomy Maldonado, The Wonder Woman of Vogue
Known as The Wonder Woman of Vogue, Leiomy Maldonado’s extraordinary energy when she dances is a perfect example of the life-affirming power voguing can have.
Discovering ballroom culture in her early teens and using voguing to come to terms with her transsexuality, Maldonado has since built a glistening career as a dancer, choreographer, model and activist. She appeared on Season 4 of America’s Best Dance Crew in 2009, has worked on various pop music video projects (including Icona Pop’s ‘All Night’, an homage to Paris Is Burning), is only the second transgender woman to feature in a Nike campaign, and appeared in and choreographed ballroom scenes for Pose. She also featured in an episode of Viceland’s My House which followed young members of the community in New York.
Her charisma and experience in front of the camera makes her a bona fide one to watch when Legendary arrives.
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Meet Deshaun Wesley, King Of Vogue
Another win for the Legendary producers, Deshaun Wesley has now been touted as the MC/commentator according to Deadline’s updated release last week, and his own Instagram.
Wesley is a star of Pose, direct proof that the show’s ground-breaking efforts to make space in showbusiness for QPOC is in full effect. Cast for his jaw-dropping technical ability, Wesley is a vogue instructor, clearly making him an authority on the dance and bringing real credibility to a cast that has otherwise been heavily questioned.
Twitter storm aside, a series featuring the electric talents of performers like Wesley and Maldonado is an exciting prospect and a step in the right direction for a rich sub culture which has been picked at and appropriated by mainstream artists for decades.
In the words of one of its brightest stars Leiomy Maldonado as told to Vice in 2018, “In the industry, a lot of cultures and a lot of things are taken, and no one wants to give credit.”
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Words: Scarlett Pares Landells
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