By Jess Fuerst
When it comes to balls, there are mini balls, big balls and major balls. The 12th annual Dorian Corey awards being held on this evening in West Philly is a major ball--named in honor of the legendary Harlem queen from the golden age of drag.
Emannuel "Mann" Prodigy, 35, father and founder of the House of Prodigy (think gay fraternity minus the frat house), is putting the finishing touches on the red-and-gold table decorations in Lancaster Hall at 51st and Warren streets, the spacious but not-so-glamourous venue for tonight's totally glamorous ceremony.
It's nearly 2 in the morning, and the ballroom community is just starting to make its way through the doors and thorough security pat-downs.
Men with braided hair and hoodies lead their voluptuous transgendered girlfriends around the room by the hand, while butch lesbians remove their fitted hats to reveal crisp barbershop shape-ups. Young divas of all genders with flawless skin and perfectly arched brows strut their sex appeal. In the language of ballroom they're here to "bring it" and "serve the runway"--showing off their "fierce" outfits, "fabulous" figures and "cunty" attitudes in honor of the legends who've walked before them.
"This is like the gay Grammys," says Prodigy. "It's the fantasy life of being a celebrity."
This West Philly scene may be familiar to anyone who remembers Madonna's 1990 hit single "Vogue," or Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning documentary from the same year.
But the roots of this artistic ghetto performance extend much further back, to the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance.
Back then Harlem was an epicenter of gay activity, one of very few places where black gays and lesbians weren't alienated from their community. Sexual orientation was secondary to shared skin color.
Grand ballrooms like the Rockland Palace at 155th and Eighth or the Savoy at 141st and Lenox hosted glamorous drag events called Faggots Balls. Cross-dressers donning elaborate evening gowns and jewels competed in various talent categories.
The balls continued into the '60s and '70s, and many drag queens perfected the art of looking soft and feminine without ever undergoing gender transformation surgeries or any of the hormone therapies available today. Back then a man wearing a dress in daylight was reason for arrest. Drag queens didn't dare leave the club before taking off their clothes, wig and makeup.
When the House of LaBeija--the first ballroom house as we know them today--formed in 1970, the ball scene was still a drag queen-dominated spectacle.
But before the decade ended, the first male category--Butch Queen Mod Face--was introduced, allowing non-drag gay men to compete for the most beautiful runway face. The category was so popular that several butch queen categories soon followed, including Butch Queen Body, Butch Queen High Fashion and Butch Queen Realness--for gay men who appear straight.
The golden age of ballroom came in the '80s when (now-deceased) legendary icons like Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, Avis Pendavis and Pepper LaBeija ruled the runway.
"When they said they brought everything but the kitchen sink--that's a lie. They brought the kitchen sink too," says Kevin Omni, a ballroom educator with nearly 30 years in the ballroom scene. Omni remembers the icons of drag pulling up with U-Haul trucks stuffed with outfits and performance props.
"The memories are just so interesting from the early and mid-'80s," says Omni. "We held on to that cabaret style and that vaudeville effect. Miss Avis, Dorian and Pepper were seamstresses. They hand-beaded and hand-painted and bugle-beaded and rhinestoned ... Oh baby, they was carrying!"
Omni says the grand prize category was the crowd favorite because you never knew what was going to happen. "I'd be on the microphone going, 'Miss Avis? Miss Avis, are you coming? Category going once. Category going twice. Miss Avis get out here now!' By the time she hit the beginning of the runway to the time she got to the judges' panel, she had peeled [off a different outfit] 20 times. She'd pop off the sleeves, rip off the bottom of the dress, pull the pant legs down and change the outfit inside-out ... "
Omni calls today's ballroom scene a watered-down version of what it once was, and wishes the original ballroom icons had received mainstream recognition.
"They'd come in with comforters and bedroom sheets, honey, and make the most overwhelming gown," he says. "They had talents that were so unreal. Them dying and only having a ballroom career really just pisses me off."
|Men in (and out) of uniform: A recent West Philly event drew a variety of looks, including the dapper Wall Street ensemble modeled by the winning catwalker above.|
Queen for a Day
Legendary vogue femme diva Pony Blahnik, former member of the House of Blahnik, says the ballroom scene was created for gay people to express themselves and be accepted.
"If you look at the categories--like Butch Queen up in Pumps, where men walk around in poom-poom shorts and heels--society wasn't ready for that. People can walk down the street and be nobody, but they walk a ball and they're like God--everyone knows them, everybody loves them. The ballroom scene is an exit for pain and suffering--because [the participants'] parents throw them out, and people in the street throw bottles at them for how they express themselves. That's why people live their lives for the next ball."
In the late '80s the ballroom scene worked its way from New York City to Philadelphia when Michael Gaskins opened the House of Onyx. The first Philly ball was held in 1989 at the YMCA at 20th and Chestnut streets.
Ballroom culture soon began to sprout up all around the country, with Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles becoming major ballroom destinations. Today a ballroom community exists in nearly every major city.
Though Gaskins debuted the balls in Philly, Alvernian Prestige kept them going.
Prestige, then 17, had been in the House of Onyx only a few months when he branched off and created his own house--the House of Xavier--in 1990. Shortly after, he closed Xavier and opened the House of Prestige, now the oldest ballroom house in Philly.
More houses followed--the House of Excellence, House of Jahdu and House of Cartier. Prestige began hosting mini balls at clubs like the Nile, an underground gay black club at 13th and Locust streets known for playing deep, sweaty house music all night long.
By the late '90s ballroom had peaked in Philadelphia.
"Philly had become the ballroom mecca. The scene originated in Harlem, but Philadelphia kind of took the ball and ran with it," says Jay Manolo Blahnik, father of the New York- and Philly-based House of Blahnik.
But with the proliferation of houses, branches and competition, egos soon collided and rivalries flared, breaking the very unity the scene had been created to foster.
"With the high prevalence of violence that occurred [within the ballroom community] for a while in Philadelphia, people just stopped coming into the city for the balls," says Blahnik.
But even with the number of balls dwindling, ballroom houses and culture didn't disappear from Philly completely--perhaps proof that the ballroom community isn't solely about winning trophies. More important is the surrogate family it provides young gay men and women of color, a family that accepts their sexuality and nurtures their development on and off the runway.
The community has always been a refuge for kids rejected by their biological families. Often compared to fraternities and sometimes even gangs, the ballroom scene is both a social and support network. Young men and women who don't have gay friends, family members or role models can meet people dealing with the same issues.
A house's mother and father (chosen regardless of gender) become the members' physical, emotional and spiritual leaders. If a ball kid is depressed, struggling financially or having trouble in school, the mother and father are there to help.
This can be particularly important in light of hip-hop culture, which sometimes flaunts hypermasculine ideals and unapologetic homophobia. Ballroom is a safe place where butch queens, femme queens, drag queens and transgenders can talk, walk and snap their fingers however they want.
"Being from the projects, I had to hide my sexuality a lot," says Father "Mann" Prodigy, founder of the House of Prodigy.
|A dancer vogues.|
Mann of the House
Mann grew up in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes, attending Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School and John Wanamaker Junior High before graduating from William Penn High School in '92.
In his senior year of high school he was introduced to a family friend he describes as "flamboyantly, openly gay." Mann felt comfortable opening up about his sexuality. The friend introduced him to some ballroom kids, and soon Mann was bringing home trophies.
He quickly found a confidence he never felt growing up.
"I was always picked on because I have really dark skin, never because I was gay," Mann recalls. "They'd call me tar baby, every name black people call each other. That used to hurt me real bad when I was younger. But then I walked in a ball and everyone was clapping for me. The ballroom circuit really boosted my ego."
He became the undefeated winner of the Butch Queen Realness category.
"I've always been real rough, real loud," he says. "I never cared for baggy pants--I still don't--but I've always liked Timbs."
After short stints at the House of Ultra Omni, the House of Ungaro and the House of St. Clair, Mann joined the House of Ebony in 1994. "That's where I blew up," he says. "I only had a little name at the other houses, but while I was at Ebony, I started winning more."
Mann also began competing in different categories, like Banjy Realness (urban or street look), Vogue (dance) and Runway (fashion).
In 2002 Mann branched off of Ebony and opened the House of Prodigy.
As house father he tries to keep his members "more family-oriented" than some of the others by organizing picnics, bowling nights and sleepovers.
If a kid in the house is having problems with schoolwork, Mann will find him a tutor. If it's problems at home, he'll speak with the parents.
"A lot of young kids think they're grown at 18," he says of his parenting role. "I have to tell them, 'You're not grown until you're on your own and have your own lease.'"
Despite growing up surrounded by drugs, Mann never smoke, drank or used drugs. "I was my mother's good child," he says.
And he doesn't tolerate underage drinking or drug use in his house either.
"Mann is what you call an all-around-type father," says 24-year-old Jacen Prodigy, who left Ebony to join Prodigy. "He's your father, he's your brother, he's your friend. He can even be your mother at times. It's about more than just a trophy to him. Even right now when I'm telling you all this stuff, me and Mann aren't even speaking," he laughs. "But he's a very good father. And he's the main male influence I have in my life."
The category: Realness With a Twist.
A panel of nine judges--representing the Houses of Infiniti, Khan, Prestige, Karan, Revlon, Lacroix, Ebony, Milan and Evisu--are each given a small gold trophy and an airhorn.
If they like what they see, they hold up the trophy, and the person walking gets to stay in the competition.
If they don't like what they see--if the person isn't dressed well, can't dance or doesn't look "real"--they sound the airhorn and the person is "chopped."
"This is for boys who look like real boys, but the minute they hear the beat they feel like cunts," announces Jack Mizrahi.
It's a popular category, and two dozen or more young men--dressed in white T-shirts, jeans, Timberland boots and either a red fitted hat or a bandanna--shuffle down the runway toward the judges.
They're first assessed on their appearance: Do they look straight? Could they pass for a North or West Philly corner boy?
"Is he real? Is he real?" Mizrahi asks the judges, who often answer no--quickly chopping half the competition.
Those who pass the first round line up again at the bottom of the runway. The DJ drops a house beat, and the first pair steps onto the runway, prepared to battle. What happens next smacks all gender stereotypes upside the head.
The Twisters transform from thuggish homeboys to bitchy voguing femmes. They catwalk--sashaying their hips left and right down the runway. They squat down and duckwalk--bouncing on their knees and flopping their wrists in the air. Spreading their legs open for the judges, they seductively crawl like female strippers across the floor. They stand up, spin in circles, then freeze and "suicide" drop down to the floor, landing with a thud on their backs--all perfectly in time with the beat.
"Twister, twister, acting like a sister ... Score, score do you see? Pussy, pussy in me?" Mizrahi chants over the music.
"You're chopped. Thank you, honey!" he calls out to one of the dancers, who rolls his eyes and stomps off the runway.
The chant continues: "Whatevah, whatevah. 'Cause pussy's in the house!"
Trouble in Paradise
While the ballroom scene is a celebration of gender performances and an escape from the judgment of mainstream society, it's not without its vices.
Some issues--depression and suicide, to name two--are common within the young black gay community as a whole, and transfer into the ballroom community as well. Others, such as theft and fraud, stem from the demands of the ballroom scene.
"A lot of people have a lot of personal problems, and they go to the balls as an outlet," says Mann Prodigy, "but sometimes it's not enough of an outlet."
In addition to high rates of unemployment, illiteracy and homelessness, the ballroom community is plagued with mental health issues that result from abandonment, or the guilt or shame associated with being gay. Then there's prostitution.
Traditional outreach methods, such as condom distribution and HIV/STD education, are less effective with disenfranchised populations, who tend to have a lower sense of self-worth and identity.
Even within the gay world there's a stigma attached to ball kids.
"There's classism," says Jay Blahnik, who researches health risks within the ballroom community. "You're the fag because you're the one who vogues on the floor and in the clubs, so even other gay people look at you as lesser than."
Risky and self-destructive behavior is deeply ingrained in ballroom culture, says Blahnik, and HIV is something many ballroom participants subconsciously feel they have coming to them. Compounding that is the community's distrust of medical services, based on what many members believe is homophobia in the healthcare system.
Four years ago the Mazzoni Center, a nonprofit LGBT health center at 12th and Chestnut streets, received funding from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for a one-year pilot program to work with the ballroom community. The program they created, called the Council of Houses, worked with the leadership of the various houses in Philadelphia, offering HIV prevention education and creative solutions to the psychosocial problems that plague the ballroom community.
Since the program ended the Mazzoni Center has sustained its commitment to the ballroom community through the Collective, an outreach program that works with the city's young gay nightlife scene.
Robert Burns, director of the Collective and a member of the House of Blahnik, says HIV and STD rates have always been significantly high among young gay men of color. "But particularly within the ballroom culture," he says. "These young folks are traveling to different areas where balls are happening. Incidents of disease or transmission rates skyrocket in those areas. A lot of that is because it's a small network, and individuals are engaging in sex and partying with each other."
Burns says other areas of concern are back-alley surgeries, hormone therapies and cosmetic changes--both with genital transformations of transgendered populations, and gay men and women who want to present (and preserve) a certain look within ballroom culture.
Besides being cheaper, reports Burns, the back-alley surgeries have fewer restrictions: "When you're going through a transition from male to female or female to male, most medical providers want some type of clearance to make sure you've had counseling. With that guidance you're able to get the drugs and injections you need. But within a black market dynamic you don't have to worry about getting those clearances."
Besides the questionable medical training, many black market doctors will inject silicone (sometimes industrial-based silicone) inter-muscularly. Without a bag to contain the silicone (typically used for breast implants), there's no support around the injection site, and the silicone can move or harden, resulting in disfigurement.
Since there's a reputation for drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and HIV/STD infection, as well as a penchant for theft and fraud, when you say ballroom, "that's what some folks immediately connect to," says Burns. "Okay, ballroom kid--he must be stealing. The ball kids will say 'stunting.'"
|Look the part: Schoolboys and catwalkers pout and pose at a recent ballroom event.|
Certain ballroom categories--like Labels or Fashion--require red-carpet-worthy outfits by high-end designers like Roberto Cavalli and Versace to create the illusion of wealth and power. To land those name brands, many rely on "craft"--identity theft, credit card fraud and check scams.
In the end whether ballroom culture is positive or negative depends on the leadership of each house.
"It boils down to who the mentors are," says Burns. "Ballroom has been a helpful institution for young people who have a major disconnect with their biological family. It also gives them a sense of freedom to be who they are. But it doesn't often build them in a way they need to sustain long-term. Some individuals get lost in the limelight."
Mann Prodigy sits in the living room of his Northeast Philly home, his cell phone ringing incessantly. He finally answers.
A student at Lincoln University is interested in joining the House of Prodigy. He wants to compete in the Schoolboy Realness category.
"What makes you want to become a Prodigy?" Mann asks him, before inviting him to the next Prodigy house meeting. It's like a job interview.
Technology is changing the face of the ballroom community, which some say is getting younger each year.
A young gay man or lesbian in Ohio or Kentucky can order ballroom DVDs online, search for videos of their favorite voguers on YouTube or visit house websites to determine which ballroom family they want to join.
They can skim bloggers' photos from the latest event in New York, Chicago or Atlanta. At the Walk for Me Wednesdays website and messageboard, they can catch up on all the gossip, or "shade."
As the ballroom scene becomes more accessible, there's hope the talent and creativity it nurtures may finally achieve commercial success.
How Do I Look--a documentary about the post-Paris Is Burning ballroom scene--debuted last summer and is still making the film-festival circuit.
And thanks to professional choreographers who grew up in the ballroom scene, voguing moves are appearing in hip-hop and R&B; music videos. Janet Jackson's recent "So Excited" video ended with a vogue dip taken directly from the ballroom runway.
img class="art_img" src="http://media.philadelphiaweekly.com/images/14044-img_14044_sweater_20.jpg" width="200" height="300" align="right"> Although voguing has "always been an underground dance," Pony Blahnik (who will appear in an upcoming Coke commercial voguing Dramatics-style) says it's closer to the mainstream now than it's ever been before.
"I want to take voguing outside the ballroom scene," he says. "If funk can go Broadway, voguing can definitely go Broadway."
Kate Kilpatrick (email@example.com) is PW's senior arts and entertainment editor.