I made a couple of mistakes when I first spoke with Rashaad Newsome— a visual and performance artist who makes digital and video work largely inspired by vogue– ahead of his third King of Arms art ball. In these situations I usually shrug and move on, but what I assumed were slight missteps actually indicated a larger misunderstanding on my part of some essential tenets of ballroom culture. Thankfully the King of Arms, held Sunday night in Bushwick, offered an introduction to the pillars of vogue for many newcomers like myself, while pushing the medium beyond its bounds for the old school ballroom crew in attendance.
If you’re not familiar with voguing, please be advised of the following, as I learned the hard way: a) competitive “categories” at a ballroom event should never be casually referred to as a “pageant” or downplayed in any similar way, b) vogue does not equal drag– not all drag queens practice vogue and not all vogue performers are drag queens.
In fact, vogue was pioneered by gay men and trans people of color in Harlem who formed “houses” led by “mothers” joined by their “children,” as white standards of beauty took hold in the largely white New York City drag community in the 1960s. Ever since, the ballroom community has been one that is largely distinct from the drag world. Overlap is possible, but the scenes have unique characteristics and generally (sorry, drag queens) vogue is crazier.
Before last night, I had only a vague understanding of vogue, having never seen the style of dance in person. What I did know about the ballroom scene, I learned/forgot from Paris is Burning. But not even that film could prepare me for the electricity and unpredictably of seeing vogue in person.
While Rashaad Newsome has thrown two King of Arms Balls prior to this one, funding for this one came from the Absolut Art Bar project sponsored by… you get the idea. Alban de Pury, the “Absolut Art Ambassador,” explained that the concept of aforementioned art bar is to “collaborate with artists on their dream parties, events that have little to do with what they do in the gallery– nothing is for sale, it’s just another creative outlet, something they might not be able to do in an institution.”
And if Absolut’s corporate stamp of approval gives a plastic sheen of inauthenticity to an event that’s part of what was for a long time (and still is to some extent) a subversive underground sub-culture, Rashaad was sure to put some scratches in that lacquer. “This is an actual ball, it’s not someone making their own version of a ball,” he explained over the phone prior to the event. “I did this for the vogue community, I wanted to be surrounded by my community.”
That said, a few aspects made the whole King of Arms thing absurd before it even started. Firstly, the prizes for top honors in the six competing categories ranged from goofy (a trophy in the shape of a customized Absolut bottle) to practical (an internship at a fashion house). “The vogue community has so many creative people in it, so this is a way for them to use those skills and turn it into a career,” Rashaad reasoned.
Then there was the venue: the ball was held at Livestream Public— the techy co-working and event space where you’re more likely to see “disrupters” competing over app designs than divas battling it out for bragging rights to realness. Consider that the last time B+B was there, the place was hosting the TedxBushwick talk. Shudder.
After arriving at Livestream on Sunday night, I was bowled over by the ability of the ballroom community to take this sterile tech retreat and turn it into a rip-roaring party. It’s doubtful those walls had ever seen a crowd so stylish and expressive. “This is basically a scene from Brazil,” my friend concluded. People went all out– I spotted everything from a Pharrell Hat to light-up sneakers, boys in skirts and girls in suits– it was like Fashion Week on a candy flip.
Projected around the catwalk were netty visuals in which men flipped and spun in formation against a backdrop of bejeweled cathedrals and patterns inspired by Vuitton and Versace-inspired prints.
Rashaad could be seen at first puttering around the floor then darting to and fro in between and around the crowd, all while trapped inside a geometric head gear piece that was one part stegosaurus, two parts Hellraiser. Though he said the event was aimed at attracting people from “New York all over,” which it definitely seemed to succeed in, it was also an opportunity to make a splash in Bushwick, his new home. “It’s kind of my coming out in my neighborhood,” he laughed.
Though Rashaad had emphasized to me over and over the event was for and by the ballroom community, it was also open to the public and offered a way for people who might have never been to a ball to experience one. Which makes sense seeing as how Rashaad has dedicated much of his work as an artist to framing vogue as a legitimate art form. One such effort was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennale. “This event is a way for me to subversively teach art history,” he explained.
People took advantage. The crowd was a diverse one and for myself, someone with zero ball experience, it felt not only like a means of peeking into a world I’ve never been a part of, but also of participating in it. While a good chunk of people appeared to be there solely to guzzle down a seemingly unlimited supply of overly sweet drinks (Absolut “cocktails” featuring eye-popping additives such as dry ice, “banana chip” infused vodka, edible flowers, and minuscule mushrooms– um, because you definitely need to dangle gimmicks in front of adults to get them to drink free alcohol) the vast majority of the crowd was freaking into it. And seriously, we needed all the drinks we could get. A line extended out the door and down the block as the room filled up, packed to the brim and steaming with excitement-sweat.
Rashaad had (understandably) been precise on the phone about the words I used to describe ballroom, so much so that I expected the event to be a tightly constricted one. And in some ways it was. The competition at this ball consisted of six categories including “Face/Hair Affair,” and one inspired by the incredible costumes of artist Nick Cave, like his fantastical sound suits and the one we saw at Frieze this year. There was little room for free form.
And as with many styles of dance (think ballet, in particular) there are recognizable movements and routines. Classic vogue moves are inspired by fashion shows and photo shoots: the cat walk, dips, vogue arms and hands (framing the face and emphasizing an angular look), struts, and popping (when the walker freezes as if standing still for a shutter release).
As tightly regulated as vogue is in some ways, the King of Arms ball demonstrated ballroom events are actually awesomely loose. The performances were scheduled to start at 7 p.m., which is like the crack of dawn for the ballroom community (most balls take place well after midnight), but the competition itself took what felt like ages to get going.
But we were well taken care of in the meantime. The judges’ entrances alone caused people to nearly lose their heads. Many legendary figures from the ballroom scene appeared, slicker than ever and all of them announced along with honorary titles: Iconic Tyra A. Moss, Legendary Erica Kane Lanvin of House of Lanvin.
One by one the judges hit the floor, strutting their stuff. While some immediately took to their spots behind a long table, most of them popped out impressive routines to fanatic applause. The tropes were on full display: savage stares that demonstrated complete immersion in their craft, with absolutely no breaking of character or concentration, rigid arms, high fashion puckers and poses, feet that fluttered with equal weightlessness and power, and of course sex appeal.
Katrina Ebony from the House of Ebony emerged from the crowd like a flash of lighting. She moved around like a tiger, at once incredibly powerful and graceful, controlled but completely unhinged. People screamed and jumped out of their seats. She threw her body around wildly and teetered on eight inch hills without so much as a moment of hesitation, fully conscious that her ferocious convulsions were shaking her clothing loose until her breasts were completely, proudly exposed (apparently it’s her signature move).
At the end of her graceful spaz, she calmly collected herself, whipping back her hair to reveal a face that had remained as chiseled as a marble sculpture, her million-mile model stare intact. The crowd went absolutely berserk.
Despite the requisite stiff posing of the judges, the MCs honored them and expressed their adoration– many of them seemed to know one another. And even though the room was packed, you could still spot moments of warmth amongst people within the scene– children leading the mothers to the catwalk, slickly dressed seasoned elders locking eyes with each other and nodding.
It was clear the ball was about so much more than the spectacle of the performances, or even the event itself. Nevermind the materialistic obsession with high fashion and looks, that’s all red herring, and the result of a deep sense of irony. And though everyone looked stunning, that wasn’t really the point. Instead, it was about the close bonds between the people within the community, the relationships between the performers who comingle within the houses, and the sense of strength against the outside world that anyways is a drag compared to what was happening right here.
While much of the event mirrored a traditional ball, Rashaad also designed King of Arms III with the purpose of shaking things up. For example he combined “Face” and “Hair” categories to push people beyond relying so much on their looks. “I did that so people don’t rest on pretty privileges– they have to use their creativity,” he explained.
And as a reflection of on ongoing project, Rashaad created a category “Vogue Afrik” in which competitors are asked to choreograph original routines inspired by West African dance. Rashaad described another category, one that played on the traditional ball. Whereas “Sex Siren” is usually about who has the best body, his adaptation nodded to the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls to an end of the abuse of black bodies by the police. The category tapped into this same emphasis on corporeality by asking participants to “creatively use their bodies as a symbol of protest.”
The vogue community has always been closely tied to activism. The formation of “Houses” in the early ’70s in New York City– at the height of the heroin epidemic, blockbusting, and redlining– functioned as a support network for young queer people of color who were suffering from endemic poverty and had sometimes been shunned by their families and communities to boot.
During the AIDS crisis, the ballroom community was hit hard, but also responded in kind, and in 1990 the House of Latex was formed. The Latex Ball was an annual event that functioned as an awards ceremony to recognize the efforts of vogue community members who also helped in HIV prevention efforts and provided support for people suffering from AIDS.
Now, as the trans movement has gained steam, the ballroom community’s longtime recognition and support of trans men and women has come into clearer view. Before the real competition began, the MC asked the crowd to join in a moment of silence for “our trans brothers and sisters” who had been murdered– “this violence is still happening.”
Rashaad ensured the event itself stayed true to its activist rhetoric. The open call for registration reads, “OPEN TO ALL: Butch Queen; Femme Queen; Female Figure; Trans Men; and Butches & Studs.” And in practice each category saw all kinds of people competing, regardless of gender identity or sexuality.
“I keep everything open to all because I want to break down the lines between people,” Rashaad explained. “If gender is an illusion then everybody should compete against everybody, in that way they really rest on pure creativity.”