Vogue: A Seven-Part Guide to Ballroom Culture
Photo by J. Pierce Dancers will do anything to impress the judges at Catwalk, once a month Sunday at the Garret.
In post-Internet society, things don't stay hidden for long. But there is a subculture with more than three decades of relevance that has inspired its own documentary, been co-opted by Madonna, and yet, remarkably, remains 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 Infiniti, mother of the House of Infiniti and ballroom culture 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," he continues. "When you actually go to the balls, there's so much talent. It's like Cirque Du Soleil, but all this talent is so hidden. The rest of the world never gets to see it."
Photo by Dale Stine Power Infiniti is Mother of the House of Infiniti in the state of Florida.
Gays, straights, and everyone between have attended the Sunday shindig to experience the talent of these dancers and walkers, but the rich culture behind the moves can be elusive to the uninitiated. So we got on the phone with Power Infinity to discern the ins and outs of the scene.
"The ballroom scene to the gay underground is different than mainstream ballroom," Power says. That's really an understatement.
It all started 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," he explains. "They formed these families. The older ones took care of the younger ones, and it became like a house. There are different houses that sprung up, and when they would meet, they would compete at these balls in different categories and competitions."
Often taking their names from fashion icons (Mizrahi, Revlon, Balenciaga), the houses of ballroom culture offer their "children" a sense of belonging, as well as mentors who can provide advice and guidance.
"It's probably a perfect utopian system if the house has both a mother and a father. It helps for the house to have both, but it's not necessary," Power says. "Us mothers have vaginas and the fathers don't," he 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."
Some houses are known nationally for their skills as dancers or maybe in runway, though Power says these "specialties" aren't set in stone, and really depend on the talent from year to year. Members are invited to join by house leaders, and those without houses are known as free agent, or 007s.
"Usually the reason somebody is a 007 is because they haven't really found a house that suits them," he says. "If you're going to be a 007, then be a 007 and wait and vet the houses that are after you. Do your research, take your time, and properly know what you're getting into, so that when you do commit to your house, it's a commitment that you intend to keep."
"Being in a house is supposed to be like being in family," Power continues. "The problem these days is that a lot of kids look at houses as a team and not a family. If you look at your house as a family, then it's not very easy to quit that. Family is family. If you look at the house as a team, then it's easier to jump to them every other day, and then you're never really going to have a firm commitment with any house. That's not good."