Ballroom Prancing

South Florida's burgeoning gay ballroom scene has attracted an army of cross-dressers and transsexuals, who compete for bragging rights as fashion divas

The ballroom world is a long way from Pineda's Cuban-Catholic upbringing in Hialeah, where he learned to hide his sexuality and feel ashamed of it, along with his weight. Although they are accepting and supportive these days, he says his family is still in some denial about his sexuality. "They keep expecting me to change," he says. While family support made coming out of the closet less difficult for him than it is for others, admitting his orientation to himself and fully grasping it was not so easy. That is, until he began walking in balls. "Ballroom has made me a more open person," Orlando insists. "I used to be very quiet and reserved. Now I feel I can express myself however I want and not be afraid because I'm big."

Twenty-two-year-old Pembroke Pines student Suji Harper agrees. She's new to the scene and picked up her first trophy at the Jingle Ball walking the Butch Girl Realness category. Harper is a far cry from a supermodel. She's a big black girl with a combed back flattop. She wears blue jeans and a denim jacket, and walked at the ball with a patient swagger, as if sizing up the hollering crowd. But the toughness she conjures for the show drops away when she leaves the floor. Harper's mother has a hard time accepting her daughter, her only child, as a butch lesbian. But with Harper there is no doubt: She clearly wouldn't be caught in frills and dresses.

At a ball Harper can let it all hang loose. "Walking balls means a lot to me," she ruminates. "It means that I can show myself the way I really am and sell myself the way I want to."

South Beach club personality Power Infiniti makes a rare appearance for the  "children" of the houses
Steve Satterwhite
South Beach club personality Power Infiniti makes a rare appearance for the "children" of the houses

"There can only be one cunty girl tonight," MC Angel Camacho, father of the House of Quest, taunts the Jingle Ball judges as they examine the five beautiful contestants in the category Femme Queen Realness. If it's not already obvious, this is not your run-of-the-mill beauty pageant. "Are they real? If they're walking down the street, can you tell?" Camacho teases as five girls walk the floor to the judges. This is perhaps the most illustrious category of the night. Liliana represents the Infinitis, flipping her hair and wearing a tight denim pantsuit, as Champagne Bordeaux exposes her very real breasts for the House of Lords. Chastity Latex, done up in a smart skirt and red off-the-shoulder knit blouse, stands attentively as if meeting her boyfriend's parents. Kayla Tucker radiates friendliness for Infiniti, offering a warm handshake and winning smile. The competition heats up as the girls begin to grab the judges' hands and make them examine their jaw lines for stubble. "Flawless -- just like a girl," Camacho narrates. "Who's the cunty one?" Then they wipe tissues on their cheekbones and foreheads to show the judges how little makeup they are wearing.

Tucker, the Doris Day of the evening, wins after the judges examine her dainty hands. "When I'm walking, I'm going to give you exactly what I am: an everyday girl," she says. Instead of approaching the judges with ice-cold glares dripping with attitude, Tucker wins them over with her down-to-earth charm. She smiles and looks into their eyes when she shakes their hands. She walks the floor as if she's a coquettish Gwyneth Paltrow strolling in a park.

Twenty-one-year-old raven-haired Tucker is one of those transsexuals whose appearance often makes people say, "You could never tell." Since she began taking female hormones in 1997, she says no one has questioned her gender. Now living in New York, Tucker works in a straight Manhattan biker bar and lives her life as a woman. "Ballroom is like Thanksgiving. It's like spending the holidays with your friends and family," explains Tucker, who was vacationing in South Florida when she attended the Jingle Ball. "It can be an ego boost, a place where you can show off. And it's a safe place for people to sneak out and have a good time. Some kids just can't come out at home."

Infiniti's Liliana hails from Medellín, Colombia, and, like many of the ball performers, won't reveal her last name. She has racked up dozens of trophies from her triumphs at balls in New York and Miami competing in the Femme Queen Face and Femme Queen Realness categories. There is no way to tell that Liliana, with all the right curves and a flawless complexion, was born with a Y chromosome. She works as a freelance makeup artist and lives her life as a woman full-time. "Femme Queen Realness means working in the day as a woman, and nobody knows you're a man," Liliana explains. "It means going home to meet [a boyfriend's] family, and they can never tell." In the six years she's been living as a woman Liliana has yet to be discovered. "I'm 150 percent woman; there is nothing that I do in my life that has to do with my being a man."

At 24 years old, Vanessa Mizrahi is one of the New York legends who is settling in South Florida. Her famed reputation in the ballroom scene here stems from her stardom in Greenwich Village's House of Mizrahi. She began her career in the ballroom circuit at age sixteen -- two years after surreptitiously beginning hormone therapy with other drag queens in her hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She's seen the competition get tough not only at the dance clubs but also out on the streets. "There are some vicious queens out there. I've seen heads cracked," Mizrahi says from her South Beach apartment. "It's not all just fun and games." She is a survivor, and she relishes telling her story. She expresses herself with the mystique and majesty of a Gloria Swanson -- with a New York accent, of course. Her hair is bleached white, emphasizing cinnamon skin from her Cuban-Puerto Rican heritage. Since moving to South Beach last summer, Mizrahi has been working with the House of Quest and for support and advocacy groups for transgender youth and sex workers. She would like to see less stress on competition and more on community. "Do not forget the concept of a house is, it's a family," she remind. "Let's be a family and not go out against each other. Let's help each other out."

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