By Michael E. Miller
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If there is a sport that compares to the dance floor tête-à-têtes of the ballroom scene, it might be professional wrestling. The competition hinges on who can persuade the audience he is genuinely something they are not, while he impresses spectators with his physicality and personas. As New York house luminary Emanuel Xavier points out: "In a ball men dressed like women must look like real women. Women dressed like men must look like real men; gays and lesbians must pass for straight. Attending any ball can become a Crying Game of sorts as you try to figure out who's got what between their legs."
Xavier, born Emanuel Martinez, is a published poet and performer living in Manhattan. In the early Nineties, he chronicled his ballroom experiences in his book, Pier Queen. He was sixteen years old at the time and delving into the seamier side of New York's ballroom circuit, which included prostitution, drugs, and violence. That world was depicted in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, which thrust the Harlem balls, along with Madonna's megahit, "Vogue," into mainstream pop culture. Although the documentary dates back almost a decade, and voguing today seems almost archaic, the subculture and the dance style are thriving in houses from New York to Washington, D.C., from Atlanta to Miami.
In South Florida the house members are not as streetwise as their New York brethren, and the scene is more clean-cut; most of the children here hail from the comfy cul-de-sacs of Pembroke Pines, Westchester, and Kendall. But there's one universal bond. "It's always going to appeal to younger generations for the simple reason that a house represents the creation of your own family," Xavier explains. "A lot of gay kids are thrown out of their homes and are not understood or accepted in their real families. In a house they sort of come into their own by proclaiming their own brothers and sisters."
Many houses adopt names that inspire opulence, such as the Extravaganzas, LaBejas, and Mizrahis. Each, however, owes its existence to the original queens of ballroom, Harlem cross-dressers who held secret-society parties in the early 1900s. Once discovered by the speakeasy set, those parties quickly blossomed into large-scale balls at the Rockland Palace on 155th Street and the Savoy Ballroom on 140th Street and Lenox Avenue, where thousands of onlookers, from all facets of the New York social strata, craned their necks to see the grand dames promenade in style. "Of course a costume ball can be a very tame thing," reported the Twenties Harlem weekly, the Inter-State Tattler, "but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed."
Although the balls eventually waned in the Thirties and Forties, the cross-dressing underground continued to exist. The modern-day ball re-emerged in the Seventies with a growing awareness of gay rights and with funky fashions that screamed for a good drag queen to flaunt them. After Madonna explored the balls in the late Eighties, Paris Is Burning won critical acclaim, and a not-so-underground following started to swell, the ballroom scene broke out of its New York City confines, thus ensuring its longevity in gay culture, Xavier says.
Soon after the release of the documentary, a paean of sorts to the ballroom circles, New York members brought their houses to South Florida.
Many credit Jojo Infiniti for sparking off the groups here. Jojo, a nearly 300-pound drag queen, began walking balls with the Infinitis in New York in 1991. Not long afterward he gathered his friends in South Florida and established the house in Miami. He began producing balls in Hollywood's Club 21 and South Beach's Torpedo Club, both now-defunct venues. "It was all very premature; there was no ballroom professionalism here," Jojo recalls. "The children had attitude, but they didn't have what it took to pull it off."
What was lacking at the time was a unifying vision toward which the house members could strive. "What you have to have is an idea that everybody can believe in," he explains. "It all begins with friendship and with one cause: to be fierce." He defines fierceness as a state of mind infused with arrogance and style, shared by the children, that sets the house apart and inspires awe when it makes a group entrance at a club. "It's a state of being accepted and celebrated," he notes.
Although he is strongly associated with ballroom in both Miami and New York, Jojo is reluctant to participate in the balls these days. In fact the Quest ball may have been his last. His new domain is the South Beach nightclub circuit, where the scene is older, with a stronger focus on designer drugs, muscle mass, and cruising. When performing or making the rounds at Level, Score, or Salvation, he cultivates an androgynous look that is a cross between the cartoon character Zippy the Pinhead and Divine, the hefty perpetual queen of cross-dressing debauchery. At a recent performance at Salvation, Jojo ruled the stage in a form-fitting chiffon frock, with a thonged patent-leather corset showing underneath. The outfit accentuated his large round belly, and his bald head, framed by black feathers that rose up from his leather choker, was a sight to behold.