Ballroom subculture helps young LGBTQ+ people of color find a home

“Three, two, one — hold that pose.”

Two contestants made their way up the runway towards the judges’ table at Meow Wolf, furiously dancing before freezing into a statue-like form at the word of the event host.

The judges deliberated before awarding a small trophy to the superior dancer. The two contestants hugged, then promptly cleared the runway for the next contenders.

This is Ballroom, a rapidly growing facet of LGBTQ+ subculture with a vibrant scene in Denver.

Combining dance, fashion, self-expression and community, Ballroom creates a space where many young people — particularly LGBTQ+ people of color — have built their own families and forged their own identities. These families are known as “houses,” and are central to Ballroom culture as centers of community. Ballroom first grew out of the Harlem drag scene of the 1960s, when the late drag queen Crystal LaBeija broke off from the established white pageants to create a new “house” where Black and brown queer youth would feel more comfortable.

“It is kind of like another branch of family,” Ruby LaBeija who is a member of the Royal House of LaBeija said. Ruby’s pronouns are they/them.

Ruby, 22, was born as Joe Quinto into a Catholic Filipino American family. They were comfortable sharing their legal name, but prefer to go by their chosen name of Ruby in the Ballroom scene. While Ruby was fortunate to have supportive parents and family who were willing to understand their identity, they nevertheless found solace in their “chosen family” of LaBeija.

“When I was about to graduate (from college), both of my families really wanted to celebrate,” Ruby said. “My mom was actually the first one to say like, ‘Oh, bring your team over.’ … We gave them a full traditional Filipino meal.”

Ruby first discovered Ballroom when they were 15, watching a YouTube video of two dancers who were “voguing,” a dance style that dates back to the beginnings of Ballroom culture in the ’60s (and made famous in mainstream culture by Madonna). Inspired by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and models in the magazine Vogue, the most current style of voguing — vogue fem — emphasizes exaggerated feminine movements built around catwalking, duckwalking, hand performance, spins and dips, which are often incorrectly called “death drops.”

The flamboyant movements of voguing again found mass appeal a few years ago with HBO’s reality competition show, “Legendary” (which finished its third season in 2022). TikTok videos of high schoolers voguing in class have gone viral, amassing tens of millions of views.

Valentino Valentine also came up watching voguing videos on YouTube. But as a second-generation Haitian American growing up in Texas, Valentino, now 27, struggled to find acceptance of their interests and identity. (Valentino, who also uses they/them pronouns, asked to be referred to by their chosen name in this story.)

“I wasn’t in an environment that, you know, accepted and fully embraced my femininity,” Valentino said.

Valentino moved to Colorado to work as a software engineer after college and started taking a voguing class taught by Passa Flora, the founder of the Portland-based Kiki House of Flora. Kiki is a more youth-oriented flavor of Ballroom which focuses on learning the art. Valentino became a Flora in 2018 and founded the Colorado chapter of the house — which they said was the only house in Colorado for about two years. Valentino has since become the mother of the Kiki House of Flora and has been active in community outreach, hosting weekly sessions, teaching voguing workshops and organizing and judging balls.

Ballroom traditionally divides categories by gender. A “realness” category evaluates contestants on their ability to blend into a straight cisgender society. Both Ruby and Valentino pointed out that the Kiki scene is more open to breaking the mainstream norms.

“But at a lot of Kiki balls, you’ll already see (changes) at the forefront,” Valentino said. “There are gender nonconforming categories. There are nonbinary categories. Everyone is represented.”

The balls were impossible to hold during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, but the scene is gaining traction again now. Black Pride Colorado opened October with its annual Black Fantasy Ball at the McNichols Civic Center Building and the Kiki House of Flora will close out the month on October 29 with the SpooKiKi Ball at Meow Wolf, where new houses are expected to make their debuts.

Smaller balls are popping up, too. At one such ball held in August, at the Blush & Blu bar on Colfax, three new house members nervously got ready to perform.

They couldn’t wait to walk the runway for the first time in their lives.

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