From Madonna’s “Vogue” to the film Paris is Burning, Ballroom has made tremendous impacts on popular culture through dance, fashion, language, television, and music in the United States and abroad. While the beginnings of the Ballroom scene are typically attributed to 1980s New York, the roots of this culture have been traced back to the 19th century. Ballroom historically served, and still serves, as a space for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ individuals to build community through pageantry, dance, fashion, and performance while facing exclusion and danger in other nightlife and community spaces. On this episode of cultureXchanges we speak with Dr. Julian Kevon Glover, an academic, activist, and performer whose academic work focuses on Black and Brown queer cultural formations, performance, ethnography, embodied knowledge, and performance theory.
TK Harvey – Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host, Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts.
On this episode of cultureXchanges, we have an exciting interview with Dr. Julian Kevon Glover on the ballroom scene. Ballroom, which is a culture that came out of queer black and brown communities in New York, is characterized by elaborate pageantry of performance, costumery, and community. From Madonna’s “Vogue” to the film Paris is Burning, ballroom culture has made tremendous impacts on popular culture through dance, fashion, language, television, and music in the United States and abroad.
Dr. Glover is an academic, activist, and performer whose academic work focuses on black and brown queer cultural formations, performance ethnography, embodied knowledge, and performance theory. They were awarded a Franke Fellowship at Northwestern’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, and their work appears in journals including American Quarterly, The Harvard Kennedy School, LGBTQ Policy Journal, South Atlantic Quarterly, Souls, and Text and Performance Quarterly.
In 2019, she was inducted into the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society at Yale University and is a longtime member of the ballroom scene.
TK Harvey – Thank you so much, Dr. Glover, for joining us. We really look forward to diving deeper into the subject matter. I thought we could begin at the origins of ballroom culture, and there seems to be a debate around the beginnings of ballroom. Some say the 1980s, whereas others have found traces going back to the 19th century, which is incredible. How and when did this culture emerge and how did the ballroom scene get its name?
Dr. Glover – Very happy to be here. So, as is the case with any cultural formation in history, it evolves over time and seldom does it look or resemble, as time progresses, what it used to. The ballroom scene is no different. Some of the earliest iterations of the ballroom scene, you know, I really do harken all the way back to the 19th century, right? We can think of some of the pioneers or people whose performances and understandings of gender were really transformative. I’m thinking of the work of somebody like Channing Gerard Joseph, who asserts that the first drag queen was a formerly enslaved person by the name of William Dorsey Swann, who was alive around the 19th century, late 1800s. And that’s important because it provides a bit more context to see and understand just how long and how intricately connected legacies of black humanity are with legacies of ballroom, particularly here in the United States.
Now, the scene that we know, or as we know it today, really began to form in New York City around the turn of the 20th century, really during the Harlem Renaissance. We really began to see the earliest iterations of what would become ballrooms. There’s even … in his biography, even Langston Hughes mentioned attending drag balls, and he has some fierce critiques of the girls and people who were there. So, I thought that was particularly interesting. And in terms of where the name “ballroom” comes from, it also reminds us, historically speaking, of where balls were held. They were held in grand “ballrooms,” which is what they were called. Of course we know that around the turn of the 20th century (1920s, 30s, 40s), grand ballrooms were all the rage, right? They were the place where you would go and gather with friends, go and dance. All kinds of dances would happen there. So that is how the ballroom scene got its name.
TK Harvey – Incredible. One thing that comes to mind when discussing ballroom history is the importance of space. Can you talk about the necessity of having a space specifically for queer black and brown community and performance? How does this need for space translate and move around the world in other ballroom scenes?
Dr. Glover – Great question. I will say that we need to think about this structurally for this to really make sense and before we can zero in. And when I say that, we need to think about the kinds of structural barriers that brown, black, LGBTQ people face. Many of these structural barriers are due to our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, and our class. So, there are multiple ways in which we experience marginalization. And so, what that means is that even in spaces that are marked for marginalized communities, like black spaces … Often, black spaces are not very hospitable to black LGBT folks, whereas you also have LGBT spaces which are not always hospitable to black folks and brown folks as well. So it’s to say that there’s a need — folks of ballroom really saw a need — to create a space for ourselves that was wholly independent of the existing kinds of spaces. So that we might not just be able to come together, but come together to honor and to affirm one another and to recognize our own embodied, creative, and logistical genius. And I say that because it takes a lot of logistical knowledge and power to put together a ball. One, and then two, to put together a major ball takes even more, right? And so, by creating these particular spaces, we were able to carve out space for ourselves rather than attempt to continue to interject ourselves into other spaces. And as history has shown, the scene remains very, very, very influential in terms of space and a number of other things.
TK Harvey – Yeah, I mean, yet another example of how a culture and a community can really bring communities together through this safe space. It’s really amazing. So as a scholar, multidisciplinary creative, and longtime member of the ballroom scene, your work focuses on black and brown queer cultural formations, embodied knowledge, performance ethnography, and performance theory. There’s so much to discuss with ballroom, but you previously mentioned the importance of ritual performance. Can you just define “ritual performance” for our audience? In what ways can ritual performance be seen and experienced within ballroom?
Dr. Glover – Great, love the question. Ritual performance is a type of performance that is engaged by a particular cultural formation with specific purposes. Often, the purpose is to honor, to recognize the pioneers, the moment-makers, and the overall contributors to that cultural formation. And the way that folks do that is by constituting a very particular processual way of moving through the space. Within ballroom, the best example of ritual performance that happens at every single ball and starts every single ball is LSS, which stands for “Legends, Statements, and Stars.” What this is is a ritual performance where the MC — what’s called a commentator in ballroom — gets on the mic and before the ball starts, they ask the DJ to pump the music. And they recognize individually, one by one, all of the people in the building, in that moment, who are pioneers within the ballroom scene. Right. And of course, it’s so ritualized, it’s so instituted into ballroom that you have these classes that are called “Legends, Statements, and Stars,” LSS for short.
Those are all three different gradients that tell you, the person being honored — and also communicate to the overall community — the magnitude, if you will, of your contribution. So, people will start off as a “star,” meaning that people are starting to see them, starting to see what they bring specifically or uniquely to the ballroom scene. Then you become what’s called a “statement,” which means that your contributions are pretty well known and people are beginning to really come to the ball expecting to see you bring your best. And then you have “legends.” These are the people whose contributions to the scene are innumerable, who have given so much to the scene that the scene has largely been transformed, if you will, by their particular contributions, whether it be aesthetic, embodied, or a number of other ways as well. And then for the chosen few, there’s a status even above “legends,” and that is what’s called “icon status.” These are the blueprints for often the entire category in ballrooms. These are a very, very select group of people, also called the “Hall of Fame.” These are the most well-known people in ballroom across time, across space, whose contributions have been made usually over a period of 20 years or longer. They also, like I said, have to have very serious, longstanding kinds of contributions to be able to become an “icon.” And we live in a day and age where the term “icon” is used, misused, and a bit abused, if you will, just in terms of its use. But ballroom — in accordance with its ritual performance practices — really, really means it when they call somebody an “icon.“ It’s something that you’re … it’s a designation that you’re not just given. It is something that you must earn.
TK Harvey – Wow, that is quite powerful. Speaking more broadly, I would love for you to talk more about the role … or what role has the ballroom scene played in the conversation and understanding of gender identity and expression. How does ballroom foster these dialogues in an international context when the scene develops in other countries?
Dr. Glover – So this is great. I love this question. I will start by saying or starting with a personal kind of example. I came into ballroom as a teenager. I was a 16-year-old coming from a Pentecostal household where, for a short amount of time, my parents told me that if I was not going to change my ways and get out of what they deemed to be a bad lifestyle, well then I was going to have to leave their home, which I did. You know, I was perhaps a little scared, but not scared enough to stay. So I left and made my way to the nearest major city, which was Chicago. And ended up in community and fellowship with three femme queens — that’s ballroom terminology for transgender women — who fed me, clothed me, sheltered me, took care of me, and most importantly, they introduced me to the ballroom scene. And for me, the ballroom scene was the very first example where I got to see with my own eyes what could become a black queer life beyond getting HIV and dying. Because at the time, as a 16-year-old, the images and representations I had of black queer life told me that I was very likely to get HIV and die.
But ballroom really gave me a very different understanding of what was possible, right? And really what it taught me in terms of gender and identity expression is what I saw there. Who was celebrated, right? It was my first time really being in a space where you openly saw people loving on transfeminine people, transmasculine people, and many other LGBT folk within the community. The ballroom scene does recognize an expanded set of gender embodiments, if you will. And I’m thinking of the scholar Marlon Bailey who wrote a book called Butch Queens Up in Pumps, in which he theorized that the ballroom scene today recognizes six gender categories rather than the two sex categories that we recognize within the world today. And that’s important on a number of levels. One, it speaks back to this idea that is pervasive in the United States, which suggests that black people somehow are more homophobic, more transphobic, if you will, than other communities. The existence of ballroom for me and its contribution, its significance within the world, definitely proves that to be not true. And like I said, it also really helped me understand that, in terms of gender embodiment or gender identity, it was really all about what I make of it.
Now when we think about the international context, this is what’s really exciting to me because I’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad quite a bit and have experiences with other ballroom scenes, most notably in London, England; in Paris, France; and in Toronto, Canada as well. As is the case with gender, it is very much contextual in accordance with the geopolitical context — the way you define yourself. So, that means that gender identity expression manifested differently in these different places. It’s to say the kinds of cultural cues that might be really well known here in the United States might not always translate so well when we go to another place. But the thing about it that I really love about ballroom is that ballroom does a pretty good job of making space for a number of expressions of gender. It is not without … As is the case with any cultural formation, it is not without contestation, right? And when we really think about gender identity or gender embodiment and expression, this is where we get real contestation in ballroom. It comes around this idea of “realness,” which Marlon Bailey theorized as a kind of strategic minimization or elimination of any deviation from heteronormative gender roles and norms. Meaning that even though many people in these communities are trans people, the goal of realness is to blend into normative society.
We have notions of realness which were determined by people in the United States, which are then exported in terms of expectation across the world where people do their gender very differently. The last thing I’ll say … One of the biggest subsets within the LGBT community that the ballroom scene is at odds with is definitely the nonbinary community. Because even though the ballroom scene has an expanded understanding of gender embodiment and expression, it still preserves this dichotomy, this binary between the masculine and the feminine, man and woman. And of course, nonbinary people, really, myself included, really desire to collapse that bifurcation, so you can see how that might cause a number of potential contestations.
TK Harvey – Wow. Yeah, beautifully said. Thank you so much. You know, when we discuss cultural diplomacy as a whole, we often focus on the cultural exchange component. One component that is often left out is the building of community and we touched on that a little bit earlier, which is an important tenant of ballroom. Can you speak about the creation of communal structures within ballroom? In other words, what ways has the scene redefined what community and kinship look like?
Dr. Glover – It’s another great question you guys. I would say that the ballroom scene departs — and we’ll start by saying that the ballroom scene departs — from normative ways or normative formations of kinship to a significant degree. What do I mean by that? The ballroom scene does not privilege biological understandings of kinship or family as the basis for creating community. Now that’s a huge departure from how we understand community in the West in general, not just the United States, but the West in general, right? And so, how the ballroom scene understands community … it is a practice that requires a kind of intention, a kind of doing, right? And so, how does it manifest in ballroom? Well, it manifests within the housing, the house structure of ballrooms. So, you come into ballroom and you want to compete. You are able to compete as what’s called a free agent or a 007, right? But most people are competing as a member of a house. So, within ballroom, the houses are the kinship networks, the community networks, that organize themselves in particular ways. They often have house mothers, house fathers that are largely irrespective of gender embodiment. You know you do not have to be … so that is to say, you do not have to be a cis woman or even a trans woman to be a house mother and vice versa. So, the ballroom reimagines community and kinship within the house system.
And one of the other things that the house system really does provide is a sense of community, and it’s through a sense of safety, right? Because we know that this world, with regards to black and brown LGBTQ people, remains quite hostile. We need only look at all of the things going on within the American landscape to see in terms of what’s going on legally with trans people, to really see that the LGBTQ community remains within the crosshairs, if you will, of so many cultural contestations. And so, even with all that, we know that every human needs a sense of safety, a sense of security, and the ballroom scene — through its understanding and delineation of the house network — really does help us provide those kinds of structures. It’s also … the other thing I will say is that the house structure within ballroom also really helps to aid skill-building for folks. So, this is something that I think within ballroom is often forgotten because ballroom largely takes place within a competitive framework, right? A ball is a competition at the end of the day. We often can forget the other important roles that houses play beyond the ball, right? And so that is to say, for example, it takes a lot of logistical know-how to organize a ball. Well, when you are part of a house and you are close to house parents or whoever is running the ball, you by virtue of being in proximity with them, watching them do what they do, can learn an abundance of skills that are very much transferable to the other kinds of things that you may find yourself doing in the world, right? So, organizing the ball can very well be understood as event planning experience, right? And so, the ballroom scene really helps people who have largely been taught that their experiences and their skills do not matter in this world. They are shown, in a different way, that in fact they do. They might look different, but they do not mean any less than if they received the training from some other kind of avenue. So, that’s just a little bit about how it understands … how the ballroom scene understands community and kinship, and how it manifests, and also what it manifests too.
TK Harvey – Wow, I love that. I’ll leave you with this final question. It is really regarding the impact of ballroom culture on the world stage. You know, it’s clear the ballroom has played a tremendous role in shaping international culture, especially pop culture. The presence of ballroom has created and/or influenced dance forms such as voguing; music genres such as house, funk, disco and rap; fashion; and language. I mean, the list goes on. What are your observations of the scene’s global impact?
Dr. Glover – Yes, this is a lovely question too. You know, I would say that the scene’s impact globally remains quite strong. I’ll also say that its impact really differs from place to place. However, there are a couple of things that I think are kind of through lines, if you will, that are the case with everything. And that is specifically thinking about how folks will use their own cultural context to inform their relationship to voguing. It is well known that voguing is a story told through movement. Well, if voguing is a story told through movement, then the story is going to look very different whether you find yourself in Chicago, you find yourself in Toronto, you find yourself in Paris, you find yourself in London, you find yourself in Tokyo, you find yourself in Oslo or anywhere, right? And so, what I found to be so interesting is that these stories are very much different. And even the kind of sounds that are used according to the context are very different, right?
So, for example, I remember attending in 2019 the Caribana Festival in Toronto. It’s North America’s largest gathering of Caribbean and Afro-descended people in Toronto the first weekend in August, I believe, every year. And what was so amazing about that is that there’s a concurrent event that happens right alongside Caribana called “Blackorama.” Well, Blackorama is organized by specifically black LGBT folks who also assert their particular stance within Caribbean and African descent, while also embracing their sexuality, right, and their gender. So how this manifests is … I went there in 2019 to Blockorama, and I was amazed to see that those who were voguing … instead of voguing to a beat that is very much expected, right? One of the beats that’s well known in ballroom is called the “Ha.” So instead of voguing to the “Ha,” you had folks voguing to soca, to dancehall, to afrobeat. And so, of course this reflects a very different kind of cultural understanding, cultural connotation, than what might be the case in the US where if you don’t hear the “Ha,” you are more likely to hear beats that come from the kind of hip hop genre.
Well, this also looks different if you are in Paris where many of these balls are done in French, as they should in France, oui? That’s also very, very interesting to kind of understand, to kind of look at. And also, the folks in Paris really are voguing to a number of beats that move way beyond the “Ha,” not just with dance and voguing, but also with the aesthetics, right? I will never forget. There was a ball in London right around Pride where folks who were contestants, you know, were instructed to come and bring it as a deity, an orisha in the Yoruba spiritual tradition, right? But everybody dressed as the orisha they wanted. So you saw many Oshuns, you saw a few Oguns, and I saw even one Babalu Aye, which was wonderful to see. So again, these are things that you would really only see according to whatever geopolitical context you find yourself in. And so, it really speaks to the way that ballroom provided a particular kind of framework through which other folks could explore, understand their own kind of culture, and really shape popular culture in their respective places as well.
TK Harvey – Wow, it’s really great when a cultural phenomenon can be universal by context, but really quite different depending on where you are and what locale you’re in. So, I can’t thank you enough Dr. Glover. We’ve learned so much. I know our audience gained a great appreciation and a deeper knowledge of this amazing cultural phenomenon. So thank you.
Dr. Glover – Yes, thank you for the opportunity. Ballroom is here to stay. It’s going nowhere. So get in while you can.
TK Harvey – Thanks.
TK Harvey – Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy in its many forms on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy.
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