It’s the late 1960s in Harlem. In bars, in dance halls, and in basements, a community of mostly trans and queer Black and Latino New Yorkers have started gathering under the cloak of night. Many of them are very poor. Many struggle with homelessness. Many have not felt accepted by their families for a long time, if ever. But in this secret world, those identities are pasted over with sweat and high heels. In this world, you have a family you can count on, gender is deconstructed and reconstructed, social stratification is turned on its head; anyone can be the CEO, the all-American macho man, the high fashion model from Paris. On the runway, anyone can be anything – but you better bring it.
Welcome to the ball.
Kida practicing in the category of Sex Siren at the 519, Toronto, Canada | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
A Ball is a form of competition where people compete on a runway. Drawing its inspiration from the worlds of fashion, hip hop and dance, it includes categories such as "Butch Queen Realness" – judged on a participant's ability to pass as a straight male, "Face" – an assessment of the beauty of the face, and "Vogue" – a highly stylized form of dance, most famously featured in Madonna's music video, "Vogue".
But for many, this isn't just a genre or side hobby. The culture of the Ball scene is inextricably intwined with politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and its structure reflects that.
Groups, called Houses, formed to compete against one another. Each House has an appointed mother, father, and sometimes even grandparents and godparents. This structure provided many members of the Ball scene with people they could count on and be accountable to. Families cared for each other on and off of the runway.
Though the Ball scene bruised badly with the AIDS crisis of the 80s, it has been growing and evolving ever since. Today, despite its widespread popularity around the world, the scene remains largely unknown, even in queer and trans communities it is shrouded in mystery and misconception.
The House of Constantine in rehearsal at the 519, Toronto, Canada | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
Father Dutch Constantine
is the father of the House of Constantine
Each House in the Ball scene is structured like a family.
FATHER DUTCH: There’s always the father and the mother of the house. Houses formed as families to give a name to the kinds of relationships that were already forming.
He explains that the House of Constantine is part of Toronto’s Kiki scene.
FATHER DUTCH: There’s two levels of the scene. There’s the Ballroom scene, and then the Kiki scene. The Kiki scene started so that people just getting into Ballroom would have a platform to cut their teeth before they went and walked the real scene.
He takes his role as father very seriously.
Father Dutch teaching duckwalk technique with Toniq | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
FATHER DUTCH: At the Ball, I advocate on behalf of my kids. It’s funny, like, I never would get angry or steamed at a Ball when I was just walking for myself. But if your kid gets chopped you kind of have to make a stink.
But he’s definitely not doing it alone.
FATHER DUTCH: Legacy is the Godfather of the house. He has a lot of experience so he helps instruct. Father Danger is the one who brought us all together. He’s the founder and heart of the house. Then there’s Mother, who’s a motherly figure and also a figurehead.
He came to the Ball scene by way of his other love: writing.
FATHER DUTCH: At one point I was interviewing the House of Monroe for their five year anniversary Ball. I was like, What’s it feel like to walk a ball? Because, you know, I’ll never walk a ball. And Mother Monroe looks straight in my eye and says, Oh, we’re waitin’ on you.
He has found it to be something really special.
FATHER DUTCH: The ballroom scene has been a simultaneous opportunity to nurture and be nurtured, and also to bear witness to, and be a part of, forging really important relationships that are aware of dynamics around race, gender, class, but which also have a platform that transforms it.
In some ways, the Ball scene is expressly political.
FATHER DUTCH: One of the really famous lines from Paris is Burning is “you know, you can’t make it really far in this world if you’re a black gay person.” Now, thirty years later, We have a sort of visible conversation happening going on around those identities, and I find the ballroom scene as like a platform to acknowledge those things and expand them, to make them more capacious.
But let's be clear: not everyone in the Ballroom scene is interested in politics.
FATHER DUTCH: There’s so much more nuance to it, and sometimes politics isn’t even really at the surface. Like it’s happening, but it’s not the conversation. The conversation’s like, Where are you gonna get your hair done tomorrow night before the ball? That’s just as important.
He is very aware of his position as a white person in the ballroom scene.
FATHER DUTCH: I was invited into this community, as much as I play a leadership role. If I ever feel like that invitation doesn’t stand, it’s my obligation to back off.
If you’re looking for a friend to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with, Father Dutch is not your guy.
FATHER DUTCH: There’s a misunderstanding that drag culture is the same thing as ball culture. I say I’m involved in the Ballroom scene, and people are like, Oh my god! RuPaul! And I’m like, No. I don’t know anything about the RuPaul scene. They’re great, but it’s just not my thing.
Father Dutch practices Schoolboy Realness in Toronto, Canada | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
is a baby of the family.
The first ball Spectrum went to was a breakfast ball, hosted by the House of Nuance.
SPECTRUM: The commentator was like “Face! Anybody walking?” And nobody was walking, so I was like, I guess I’m just gonna do this. I ended up winning.
Growing up, Spectrum didn’t know this kind of community existed.
SPECTRUM: I was 16, stuck in North Etobicoke, in Catholic school. It wasn’t the greatest environment to be in. We didn’t have a gay straight alliance. When they had that whole “wear purple for bullying against LGBT day” they just said it was for bullying. They cut out the gay part. Their excuse was that people might not want to donate if they know it’s for gay people.
To Spectrum, the ballroom scene is about more than just performing.
SPECTRUM: I had been involved in queer communities before. People were more likely to include you if you conformed to what their idea of non conformity was. That wasn't me. A big part of this is being able to genuinely be myself around other people.
Spectrum, far left | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
Spectrum finds that people from outside the community are quick to judge the way gender is articulated in the Ball scene.
SPECTRUM: I’m non-binary trans. There’s a tendency for people to see my House calling me “girl” and saying “she” and they say, Oh they’re misgendering you! It’s like, No. Everybody is called girl. Everybody is called she. People would know that if they got to know the scene more. But they just see what’s there and they decide not to look any further.
"We're real people. We have real lives."
SPECTRUM: It’s not this outrageous, fringe thing that weird people are doing. We’re real people. We have real lives. There’s different things about us. I’m disabled. There’s so much more to us than just this. When people see it from the outside, they’re just like “oh this is just fun party people.” But we’ve got a lot in our lives, in general. This is like letting go. For me at least. I can’t speak for everyone.
Before I can interview
Madame Scarlett Constantine,
she stops me.
MADAME SCARLETT: Wait. I need to put on lipstick first.
"When I'm walking, it’s like Michelle Mason’s not there anymore. This very powerful, sexy person comes out." - Madame Scarlett Constantine | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
A proud mother of twins, Madame Scarlett usually walks runway, but she’s hoping to branch out into the body category.
MADAME SCARLETT: Certain categories are misinterpreted. Body, it’s not like you’re naked and showing off your body. It’s like an art form, you show off the curve, what you have and what you don’t have. It’s fun.
Madame Scarlett’s cousin, Danger, is the founder of The House of Constantine. He plays an integral role in taking care of his family.
MADAME SCARLETT: We have fun like a family, we chill like a family. If there’s no practice, sometimes we just go out together and chill.
For Scarlett, and many others in the Constantine family, this feels more like family than the one they were born into.
MADAME SCARLETT: It’s weird to say this, but sometimes the family you pick other than your own bloodline family is more like your bloodline family. We fight like brothers and sisters. But at the end of the day, you can’t touch one of us, because the whole of the group is beyond you.
Scarlett and Jojo practice Body category | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
JoJo and Yovska Constantine
ask to be interviewed together
Jojo was afraid to join the Ball scene at first.
JOJO: I knew some people in the scene and I had already been to two balls, but I didn’t want to walk. The scene seemed to have a lot of drama, and I get scared of drama.
But now, they’re all in.
JOJO: They’re like, my gay family. I can’t talk to my biological family about stuff like this, so having Mommy and Daddy here has been great. They’ve helped me through some really, really rough times. My confidence since joining has gone up a ridiculous amount.
Jojo getting tips on Runway | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
The first time Yovska walked in a Ball, it wasn’t planned.
YOVSKA: The first time I walked in one, I wasn’t planning on walking, but they had a category called Fag Out which was like, be as gay as you can, sort of thing. And I remember that category called for glitter, so I was like fussing around, like –
JOJO: Give me some glitter!
YOVSKA: Yeah. I ended up winning when I poured an entire bag of glitter on my head. People were excited. I loved that energy.
Jojo and Yovska | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
Jojo loves the vast variety of categories people can participate in.
JOJO: It’s like, this equalizing thing because you know no matter what there’s gonna be a category for you.
Both of them agree that it’s important to acknowledge the political landscape of the scene.
YOVSKA: Mainstream media constantly borrows from gay culture and doesn’t acknowledge where it’s coming from.
JOJO: I see those campaigns and they’re like, Oh, voguing, cute. It takes away a lot of the political agenda of it. They’re just trying to make the scene palatable, but if you want to be in the scene, you’ve got to accept all the parts of it.
When I interview Godfather
he offers me a cookie.
GODFATHER LEGACY: Girl, what's mine is yours, what's yours is mine.
He’s been walking for close to five years now.
GODFATHER LEGACY: When I started in the scene I used to walk All-American runway, then I changed to Butch Queen Vogue Femme, and now I walk European runway.
Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
As the House’s Godfather, he is known to be a little bit tough.
GODFATHER LEGACY: I speak with passion, and they might take passion as anger. I would never attack them. I am a lion to my cubs. Anyone else tries to yell at them, I’m the first one to jump in and rip their neck off. If there’s a problem, WE will deal with it. Don’t baby them, don’t sugar coat it.
JoJo and Yovska get tips on Hand Performance from Godfather | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
But he maintains that it’s important to have fun.
GODFATHER LEGACY: The wolves will bite you, but as long as you’re having fun, it’s like getting bit by a toy shark.
There is a common misconception that the Ball scene is very flamboyant.
GODFATHER LEGACY: It’s much more than that. If you look at, for example All-American Runway, is not a flamboyant type of runway. It’s an all male, masculine runway. For people to be like, This is flamboyant, and then look at All-American Runway and go, Oh, well I didn’t know this existed, I’m like, You didn’t know cause you never asked. You just assumed.
Walking American Runway | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
To Godfather Legacy, the closeness and cohesiveness of his family are what set his family apart.
GODFATHER LEGACY: People are like, Where do you come from? Who put you all in a box together and sold you for one price? People enjoy looking at us doing what we like to do.
He wants everyone to feel welcome in the House of Constantine.
GODFATHER LEGACY: I want to bring in new people, new types of personalities, people that are afraid. Anybody, bring them into the family.
"I took a chance and found these amazing people that I care about and that care about me." – Spectrum Constantine | Photo Credit: Jess Shane (c) 2016
Thank you to the House of Constantine for welcoming me to their practice.