The Oft-Overlooked ‘Drag Balls’ of Harlem [HISTORY]
Bet that got your attention. The year was 1931 and “Fag Ball” was the newspaper equivalent click-bait of the decade. Certainly made me wonder what all the fuss was about, and how it all began. And by “it,” I mean Drag Balls. Don’t let your Mothers down, children. We must leave the Lower.
In 1869, Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge, also known as Rockland Palace, was the queerest place to be. Founded by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Lodge 110 on 155th street and 8th Avenue was about a block long and initially founded by the Odd Fellows as a home for affluent African Americans. It housed political events, banquets, church sermons, lectures, pageants, and most notably, the Drag Ball, an oft-overlooked piece of Harlem history.
Despite exhaustive efforts by the police and reformers, Drag Balls became a mainstay. One moral reform organization known as the Committee of Fourteen religiously investigated the event and released several (roughly 130) reports detailing the scandalous behavior they purportedly witnessed. I haven’t read anything else for days; these are hilarious.
From the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History blog:
The balls were crucial in the creation and maintenance of LGBTQ culture. Historian George Chauncey has pointed out that Harlem “enhanced the solidarity of the gay world and symbolized the continuing centrality of gender inversion to gay culture.” Powering through harassment and arrests, Harlem became a “homosexual mecca.” Police, politicians, and mainstream society found themselves simply unable to suspend the famous ball scene. Rather than abandoning the scene, the participants fought for change and opportunity. From the early days of the balls, remarkable persistence of patrons and ball organizers in the face of adversity made the drag ball scene unstoppable. It is this fighting spirit that allowed balls to thrive, and that spirit lives on through today within the LGBTQ community.
Harlem Renaissance social activist and writer Langston Hughes proclaimed the Drag Balls to be the “strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem’s spectacles in the 1920s” and described them as “spectacles in colour.” Noting the presence of “distinguished white celebrities” during this period, Hughes concluded that “Harlem was in vogue.” And so they did. “Vogue” that is.
Inspired by the style of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the famous images of models in Vogue magazine, voguing is characterized by striking a series of poses as if one is modeling for a photo shoot. Arm and leg movements are angular, linear, rigid, and move swiftly from one static position to another. This style of dance arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s through the 1980s. Dance competitions often involved throwing “shade,” or subtle insults directed at one another in order to impress the judges and the audience. The competition style was originally called “presentation” and later “performance.” Over the years, the dance evolved into the more intricate and acrobatic form that is now called “vogue.”
Until FX’s POSE (now in its second season) came along as an epic retelling of a subculture that persists to this day, the only chronicling of this world came from a film student 34 years ago. Jennie Livingston was in Washington Square Park and became captivated by some dancers and their pose-oriented movements. Her interest piqued, she decided to attend an event with them, known as a ball, subsequently informing her quintessential doc, Paris Is Burning. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, the film chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latinx, gay, and transgender communities within it. Restored and re-released on Friday June 14, it is now available on Netflix.
Prevailing through the decades, from what was once revelry and visual splendor, Drag Balls had turned to bedazzling competitions attended by the fiercest (sexy, fabulous) of competitors: The Houses.
The House of LaBeija, the House of Corey, the House of Dior, House of Pendavis, the House of Ebony, the House of Wong, the House of Dupree, the House of Omni; and for inclusiveness of the downtown white Voguers, amongst others, the House of [Patricia] Field aka the Pat Field Kids.
One of the most well-known houses is that of XTRAVANGAZA. Now say it like u mean it- Ex-trah-vah-gahhhnza!
They’ve been in the news as of late with the death of Layleen Polcano Xtravaganza (House members take the house as their surname), a transwoman incarcerated at Rikers Island.
Ms. Polanco was a member of one of the most storied groups in New York City’s drag ball scene, the House of Xtravaganza. Indya Moore, a fellow Xtravaganza and a transgender and nonbinary actor in the FX series “Pose,” was at the rally on Monday and said Ms. Polanco’s death was a reminder of the challenges faced by transgender women.
Rest in peace, Layleen.
I have no segue…
Every single day, either you or someone you know uses House slang daily speech. From the white-picket suburb to the semi-gritty city and every corporate office social media marketing manager in between:
Child. Realness. You betta. Work. Werq/werk/workit. Yes, girl. Slay. YASSS! Pose. Vogue. Fierce. Kiki (not, do you love me) and my all time favorite- Shade. Throwin’ some. Okay? (Oh-kurr!)
Check out some phrases from House Mother, Pepper LaBejia, may she also rest in peace:
Moral reform societies be damned! Drag Ball culture has influenced our mainstream daily life. Period.
You need more convincing? How about RuPaul.
Once a go-go dancer at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A to internationally known Emmy award winning actor, the Committee of Fourteen could never! Ru Paul is a household name.