“I want the idea of the ballroom to be communicated as a radical place of freedom where nothing is too much,” says JC (they/she), one of the heads of BCB’s LGBTQ club. During our conversation right now, JC is sitting on my bedroom floor kindly answering my questions, but on September 25th they were dynamically leading a discussion and workshop that they put together entitled From the Womb to Ballroom. It was an eye-opening event that included both a small gallery outlining the history of Ballroom, as well as a discussion and workshop about one of Ballrooms most popular categories, Vogue Femme. Ballroom is a subculture first created by the underground queer BIPOC scene in New York City during the late 20th century, blossoming out of the need to provide a space for queer fantasy and performance to flourish.
“Expressing your femininity, that’s what Vogue Femme is for, ” JC explains. “BIPOC trans women created Vogue Femme as a way to express their femininity, their sensuality, and sexuality. Personally, it is a way for me to complement the bodily femininity that I feel I lack. When I dance, I feel the most gender euphoric.” In putting together the workshop, JC placed in our hands material and movement that would help our community find new ways to express our gender and sexuality with more pleasure.
In the workshop, there were three participants who led the discussion about Ballroom: JC, a second year student at BCB; Danielle, an exchange student from Bard Annendale who is the head of the LGBTQ club on the Annendale campus; and Magia, a prominent figure in Berlin’s current Ballroom scene. They continued, speaking of their personal experiences with walking Vogue Femme, explaining that it is made up of five different elements: hand/arm performance, catwalk, duckwalk, spins & dips and floor performance. Additionally, there are many other Ballroom categories such as face, runway, performance, realness, body, hands vs. arm control, and sex siren. “I think I enjoy walking ‘sex siren’ the most” says Danielle as she recrosses her legs, “it makes me feel desirable, and who doesn’t like feeling that way?” Each category illuminated different aspects of their own personal preferences in performing their gender. However, they also brought to light the reality and consequences of the treatment and misconceptions about Ballroom culture today, recounting countless experiences of witnessing the appropriation of Ballroom categories predominantly within Berlins white cis male gay scene.
Walking into the Factory, BCB’s arts facility for the workshop, I was welcomed by the smell of waffles and the bustle of BCB’s queer and ally community. The first introduction to the workshop was the mini gallery situated in a corner of the Factory’s entrance. Here, the LGBTQ Club had mounted a collection of images of Ballroom’s pioneers, as well as a timeline which guided the audience through the history and creation of Ballroom culture. Professors and students alike flooded the room, soaking in the information as a projected video of Ballroom performers dancing played upon a wall. The video was enrapturing; confidence and power oozed from the performers, their bold movements commanding control of the space, their gazes confident and unabashedly audacious. Watching the free expression of self put me in awe, and raised within me a strong desire to garner such inner strength; to release my perception of society’s expectations of gender performance and embrace freely the multi-dimensional ways in which I crave to present myself to the world.
After everyone satiated themselves with the gallery, we moved into the Factory’s main performance space where JC, Danielle, and Magia sat elegantly in their chairs, waiting to present their individual perspectives and accounts of Ballroom spaces. “Ballroom is a culture created by particular queer and trans individuals that simultaneously sets a standard for all of society,” JC explains, “this is why it so important to know the embedded history behind the now mainstreamed dance style that is Vogue Femme.”
During the discussion the audience was attentive and respectful, engrossed by the content being shared, but also by the humble way in which JC, Danielle, and Magia interacted with each other.
When one of them felt unsure about the information they were sharing, they would glance hesitantly at the others smiling, and a new voice would jump in to contribute. With this established awareness of each other, the audience felt comfortable asking questions and being vulnerable. This comfort allowed for our LGBTQ+ community to support each other through the opportunity to be honest about instances of homophobia and appropriation. Listening to the frustrations and struggles of my peers helped me process my own inhibitions.
“Now, so much of our slang, music, and fashion trends have been stolen from Ballroom culture. So many people don’t know what they’re doing. There’s something about being non- white, and not straight or cis in this school with a lot of white and non-queer people, that makes me feel like they don’t understand me, so they project their own ideas of queerness onto me. I know people are trying to give me a compliment, but it feels insincere. I feel like a clown,” says JC, swatting their pink head scarf off their shoulder. The discussion most of all gave the three hosts an opportunity to explain their own experiences of being trans and non-white to a community dominated by cis, straight, and white members. It felt like taking a step in the right direction, even if it was a small one, when witnessing our community creating space for voices that often go unheard. This felt especially present when discussing Ballroom, for, as all three of them explained, this is precisely what Ballroom was built for. JC’s reflections further reflected the need for spaces that prioritize queer and BIPOC voices, and the healing that the nourishment of these spaces provides.
Later, when I asked JC about whether hosting this event proved to be exhausting or empowering they answered by saying, “I think it’s about intentionality. Exposing people to things they may have been ignorant about isn’t tiring when I plan to do it intentionally. I feel sometimes that people in school do not understand the trans community, and it’s more important for me that the school knows about the kind of life I live and what culture this is. It’s not just dressing up, not just having fun, it is deeply rooted.”
Finally, the Ballroom workshop brought our community together by providing a place to move together. Magia, who JC met at an open community session in Berlin that Magia holds for trans women of color between the ages of 14 and 27, helped guide a mini lesson about the Vogue Femme dance style. Standing together in a circle, Magia, whose energy was vibrant and celebratory, instructed us first in chanting our names to the rhythm of the beat. This helped us loosen up and tap into our own expression. Everyone was slightly hesitant, all of us not used to moving out bodies so openly, except for JC and Danielle who had moved many times before with Magia. Yet our communal participation gave me courage, and helped me to embrace the unique way in which I performed. It was heartening to see the different ways in which everyone moved, all similarly exuberant, yet achieving this effect through our own specific relationship to our own bodies.
“Let your hands tell your story” said Magia, demonstrating their own narrative of their body by tracing their hands along their hips and waist, and accentuating their chest with elegant and sharp movements. Their hands provided a map for us as we stood in a circle watching them. They showed us where to focus our attention, and how to understand Magia’s own perception of their body. Then it was our turn. Some of us moved our hands in ways that seemed to flatten our chests, some gracefully outlined the curves of our bodies, some of us brought attention to the squareness of our shoulders, others to the delicacy of our waists. We were gently exploring the possibilities of movement that made us feel gender euphoric. Bubbles of excitement were building in my stomach as I tried different techniques with my own body.
Magia provided us with tools that expanded the ways in which we all perform our gender, encouraging exploration and acceptance. I couldn’t have been more grateful to have such an experience with my community, all of us seemingly breathing out a million breaths of fresh air as we walked out of the factory. We were loosened up, expanded, freer, coming back to our lives with a new vocabulary sprung from the tool sets created by trans women of color. We were lucky enough to have learned a fragment of a language that enables trans liberation, and unlocks knowledge to our own bodily autonomy and self empowerment.