THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF A SERIES OF FOUR ARTICLES.
Read PART 2: AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON
Read Part 3: The Family That Plays Together SLays Together
ReAD Part 4: The Living Legend of Voguing
Note: This post received criticism from the ballroom community due to how the history of gay ballroom culture was originally written in this article when it was first published on February 12, 2017 and in a later revision on February 14, 2017.
And for that, Faglandia truly apologizes.
The last thing we want is to provide false information, misrepresent a culture, or misinform a reader.
Although we hope that the change in the trivia part about the history of gay ballroom culture has cleared the confusion, Faglandia welcomes all opinions and will not decline any opportunity to be educated.
I first met Isla Cheadle, the brain behind Banjee Ball, in July 2016. I’d been taking vogue femme classes at Movement Lifestyle in North Hollywood for the past five months. One day, she showed up and vogued down, so she definitely knew what she was doing. At the end of the class, she mentioned there would be a ball on Sunday at Los Globos, and I was determined to come.
That Sunday night, Los Globos was warm and cozy. I sat alone in the cavernous first-floor hall of the club, after almost giving up looking for a place to park. Vogue beats were pumping and some people were voguing on and off on the monochrome damask floor. It was a small crowd, couldn’t have been more than twenty people. I didn’t know anyone. There was a Goth/Punk party on the second floor and I felt the urge to flee the voguing scene and head upstairs to go back to my comfort zone. But I wasn’t dressed appropriately (I was wearing a Star Trek t-shirt), so I decided to stay put.
GAY BALLROOM CULTURE as we know it, BEGAN AS A RESISTANCE. twice or three times a year, in the thirties, WHITE MEN would host DRAG SHOWS IN GAY BARS AROUND NEW YORK CITY. In an interview with Michael Cunningham, Pepper Labeija said BLACK DRAG QUEENS WHO CAME WERE EXPECTED TO LIGHTEN THEIR SKIN BUT THEY RARELY WON. IN THE SIXTIES, FED-UP WITH THE RACISM, BLACK DRAG QUEENS BEGAN HOSTING BALLS IN EXCLUSIVE PLACES. THEY SHOWED UP IN LAVISH PRODUCTIONS AND COSTUMES SUCH AS CLEOPATRA. IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, HOUSES BEGAN TO COMPETE IN CATEGORIES SUCH AS REALNESS AND VOGUE.
(read michael cunningham’s piece; THE WireTap article by blacklivesmatter founder, frank leon roberts; and this article from the smithsonian institute’s national museum of american history about the gay ballroom scene in harlem.)
People from voguing class showed up. We hugged and talked. I’m not an introvert, but I’m not good at making friends either. After being alone for hours, familiar faces were a welcomed surprise. Among them were Dolores Parisi, an Italian who’d been teaching the Thursday night classes, and PeiShao Huang, a voguer from Taiwan who also went by the name A-Yao.
The crowd had grown. There were perhaps up to a hundred people now, mostly black and latin. The vogue beat was turned down and an announcer said the party would start soon. People cheered and surrounded the damask dance floor.
The ball started with an LSS roll-call. Enyce Smith, who took over the chanting/commentating reign from Barbie Q since the third Banjee Ball in October 2014, assumed his post as a commentator extraordinaire. He called people’s names and they walked on the dance floor. Some vogued, some strutted, some took their time, some just looked like they couldn’t wait to get away from the spotlight. They were mothers, fathers, legends, those who have established themselves in the ballroom community.
LSS STANDS FOR LEGENDS, STARS, AND STATEMENTS. IT’S CUSTOMARY FOR A BALL TO START WITH AN LSS ROLL-CALL. ONLY MEMBERS OF THE LSS CAN WALK – THIS SEEMS OBVIOUS, BUT CHEADLE SAYS THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES WHEN NON-LSS PEOPLE BEGAN TWERKING ON THE DANCE FLOOR DURING THE ROLL-CALL.
That night, the categories were Runway, Sex Siren, Realness, and Vogue. The winner of each category would receive a cash prize of $100.
The Runway category opened and people walked, including Parisi and A-Yao. Parisi’s classes were always full and A-Yao, who wore short dress and heels and purple lipstick, had enough confidence to power all the lights on Broadway. These two clearly understood ballroom. My face fell when they didn’t win.
Cheadle admits that Banjee Ball is more intimate, since it’s smaller compared to NY’s weekly Vogue Knights, which gives away thousands of dollars. But Banjee Ball does give newcomers a chance to walk and compete.
“BANJEE” MEANS BLACK OR LATIN MEN WHO HAVE SEX WITH MEN BUT DRESSED IN A MASCULINE WAY TO HIDE THEIR SEXUALITY. CHEADLE IDENTIFIES WITH THIS TERM. “I WAS NEVER A GIRLIE GIRL, MORE OF A TOMBOY,” SHE SAYS. THUS “BANJEE BALL” BEGAT ITS NAME.
It all started when Cheadle and her husband Jared Selter (known together as the musician/producer duo Purple Crush), moved to Los Angeles from New York. But Cheadle wasn’t involved in the ballroom community when she was still in NY, which is considered the birthplace and mecca of gay ballroom culture.
“Had I known there was a women’s category, or known about artists like Danielle Ninja or Monique Ebony, I probably would have searched it out,” Cheadle says.
Back then, Purple Crush immersed itself solely within the Brooklyn indie dance music community, performing genres such as Baltimore Club and Miami Bass. They were surrounded by queer kids and even released albums by two young gay artists through their digital record label, Crushed Records.
When Cheadle and Selter first moved to LA, they played at drag clubs. West Hollywood stood as the go-to place for glamorous gay scene, but downtown LA was bubbling with edgier performances. Cheadle calls it “hipster queer.”
Long before she came, LA ballroom scene had seen its fair share of balls. Ebony Lane would throw balls now and then, but that was it.
The first Banjee Ball was held in August 2014 at an outdoor gallery space that belonged to Cheadle’s friend.
“I remember handcrafting a runway out of a long piece of laminate material, and we spray painted it purple with the words ‘Banjee Ball’ on it,” she says.
Cheadle’s first real ball, however, was months later: the Ovahness Ball in October 2014.
“Someone in the crowd encouraged me to get up and walk [at the Ovahness Ball],” Cheadle says. “I just unearthed a video from that moment. Even though the video is embarrassing (the commentator and panel were pretty confused) I’m actually surprised at how many elements I did in my tens, considering I knew nothing about the five elements. I was just mimicking what I saw everyone else doing. After that night I was bit by the bug.”
“TENS,” SHORT FOR “TENS ACROSS THE BOARD,” MEANS THE JUDGES GIVE YOU PERFECT SCORE AND YOU CAN GO TO THE NEXT ROUND TO BATTLE ANOTHER COMPETITOR. IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW MANY JUDGES GIVES YOU A TEN, IF YOU GET ONE CHOP, YOU’RE OUT.
A month after the Ovahness Ball, Cheadle started studying with Enyce Smith and Jamari Amour at Reach LA.
And her training paid off.
In 2015 and 2016, Cheadle attended balls in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, NY, Atlanta, and LA. She made it to the final battle at NY’s famous Latex Ball 2015 and NY’s Heritage Ball 2016 (both in women’s category), and NY’s Unity Human Rights Ball 2016 in open-to-all (OTA) category. Her victory came at Escada Ball in Atlanta, where she won the Grand Prize winner of the OTA category.
COMPETITOR’S GENDER MATTERS IN THE CATEGORIES, WHETHER ONE COMPETES IN REALNESS, BODY, FACE, OR VOGUING CATEGORIES. “BUTCH QUEEN” REFERS TO GAYS WHO IDENTIFY AS MEN; “FEMME QUEEN” IS MEANT FOR THOSE WHO ARE TRANSITIONING TO BECOME WOMEN; “WOMEN” CAN EITHER BE CISGENDER FEMALES OR THOSE WHO HAVE COMPLETED THE TRANSITION. SOME ORGANIZERS EXERCISE FLEXIBILITY, PARTICULARLY IN THE CASE OF NATURALLY ANDROGYNOUS MEN. AN “OPEN TO ALL” (OTA) CATEGORY MEANS ALL GENDERS (BUTCH QUEEN, FEMME QUEEN, AND WOMEN) CAN COMPETE.
Although Cheadle moved to NY when she was nineteen to become a professional modern dancer and found immediate success, she now considers herself strictly a voguer and is a member of the LA-chapter’s Iconic House of Chanel.
Cheadle doesn’t compete at Banjee Ball. She warms up the floor by emceeing and throwing her signature “Butch Queen in Drag” vogue moves and Selter pumps the beat.
That night was no different. Attendees walked and competed as Cheadle ran the show. Those involved in the LA ballroom scene know and respect her, especially now when people are becoming more critical of cultural appropriation. Jennie Livingston (director of Paris is Burning) and Madonna (with her “Vogue” video), the two people who were often credited to bringing gay ballroom culture to a wider and mainstream audience, did not escape the accusation of exploitation and voyeurism.
Like Livingston and Madonna, Cheadle is also a white woman.
“People had good reason to be skeptical, because prior to me there were white women [in LA] who were exploitative [of] [b]allroom,” Cheadle says. “I proved myself by staying extremely consistent with the events, supporting the community by creating employment through events and workshops, and then becoming a bad bitch on the battlefield. No better way to gain respect than going to the East Coast and seating girls left and right in the name of the West.”
Indeed, besides Banjee Ball, Cheadle also produces Baby Banjee Ball, a half-day seminar aimed at young adults to introduce them to the gay ballroom culture. The class covers topics such as runway, drag, and voguing, and ends with a ball where participants show off what they’ve learned.
Then there’s Banjee Mini Ball Deluxe. While Banjee Balls are “for fun,” category winners of Banjee Mini Ball Deluxe get a point that will be tallied at an Awards Ball. Those with most points win the “Of the Year” (OTY) title in their category.
“Banjee Ball has now become the home for the community out of necessity,” Cheadle says. She feels a deep responsibility for keeping the ball alive because so far, it’s the only monthly ball in LA (Ovahness Ball is thrown every year). She admits that she has persevered, although with the current state of the economy, producing balls is getting more and more challenging. Cheadle credits her decade-long experience throwing underground parties as her secret to Banjee Ball’s longevity. And after many years of soul-searching for creative fulfillment, she has found a home in the ballroom community.
Voguing, since it draws the largest crowd, is always the last category. And on that warm Sunday night, people had traveled far and wide to either walk or watch the Banjee-Ball voguers.
Parisi had traded her Runway stilettos for a pair of calf-length boots. A-Yao’s eyes were filled with steely determination. We knew they meant business. They played to win. They both got their tens and were qualified for the battle rounds.
Banjee Ball may be intimate, but that doesn’t mean competition wasn’t tight, at least not that night. I felt as though I was watching Paris is Burning. The vibe was both supportive and intimidating and the energy that filled the vast room made me dizzy.
The crowd cheered and waved and snapped their fingers as each competitor tried to outdo one another. Smith chanted feverishly as Selter played vogue beats after vogue beats.
Both Parisi and A-Yao only came close to the final battle, though not without putting on a performance that must’ve taken years to refine. My friends and I shouted in disbelief, but the judges had made their decision, and the cash prize went to someone else.
Before I left the ball, Parisi came up to me and said, “You should walk. You’re ready.”
I told her she was crazy. After watching her and A-Yao in class and at Banjee Ball, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t win. And if they couldn’t win, I probably wouldn’t stand a chance. But it was nice to have a goal to work on, so I finally relented and said, “One day.”
I came home hoarse, but hopeful.
Featured photo of Banjee Ball by Gia Azevedo.