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In post-internet society, things don't stay hidden for long. But there's a subculture with more than three decades of relevance that has inspired its own documentary and been co-opted by Madonna, yet it has remarkably remained largely misunderstood.
"Walk down the street in Fort Lauderdale or South Beach, stop 20 gay men, and ask them about the icons in the ballroom scene," says Power Infinity, mother of the House of Infinity and a vogue veteran of more than 20 years. "Most of them wouldn't even know, never heard of 'em. It's such an underground world that not even most of our own community knows about it."
So to help spread the ballroom gospel (and in anticipation of the latest edition of Miami's own Catwalk: A Night of Vogue), New Times got on the phone with Ms. Infinity to discern the ins and outs of the scene.
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The history. It all began in the '70s, or possibly before, as a means for urban outcasts to band together for strength and social acceptance.
"A lot of gay kids and gay youth were turned away from their own families, and they'd get together because they found this social network in the clubs and on the streets," Infinity says. "They formed these families. The older ones took care of the younger ones, and it became like a house. There are different houses that sprang up, and when they would meet, they would compete at these balls in different categories and competitions."
The houses. Often taking their names from fashion icons (Mizrahi, Revlon, Balenciaga), the houses of ballroom culture offer their so-called children a sense of belonging, as well as "mothers and fathers" who can provide advice and guidance.
"Us mothers have vaginas, and the fathers don't," Infinity jokes. "They both guide the house and lead the house. They are examples and role models to the kids. The mothers are drag queens, or what we refer to as femme queens or transsexuals, and the fathers are more looked at as butch queens."
The balls. Of course, competition is at the core of ballroom culture. Participants face off for money and glory against rival houses from their home states. Then awards are given at the end of each year by tallying the winners from the various competitions "that count," Infinity explains. Many smaller competitions, known as "mini-balls" or "keke balls," don't count toward awards. The contests feature fewer than 20 categories, though competitors may still win cash prizes, and they are also seen as great breeding grounds for young vogue enthusiasts looking to learn new skills or attract the favor of houses.
The categories. "Just too many categories to cover," Infinity says, but he enlightened us on the mainstays. There's runway, either the European female — a Naomi Campbell-esque, attitude-driven walking style — or the American male modeling, which derives inspiration from Calvin Klein-like fashion shows. And then there's vogue performance, with subcategories such as old style, new style, hand performance, vogue femme, and arm control. "Vogue is always the main event at almost every ball. It is the essence of ballroom. It's dance, and it is particular and exclusive to the underground ballroom scene."
The glossary. Last but not least, ballroom culture employs tons of gay lingo. Anyone attending a ball better watch out for flying "shade," the disses thrown in the face of competitors. Dancers "slay" one another on the runway. A girl who is said to "process" the competition is working through her category with ease.
And here's an important one for all of you curious straight men scratching your heads: "Everybody is a girl. So whenever you say, 'Oh, the girls are feeling it,' that means everybody," Infinity explains. "It doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy. You just refer to everybody as a girl."