Emerge Impact + Music is created and produced by ABP Media’s parent company, A Beautiful Perspective. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring some of the musicians and speakers who’ll be performing in Las Vegas April 6-8.
You know the story: a lonely girl with a heart of gold, a pair of evil stepsisters, a promising invitation, a community ready to come to her aid, a torn dress, a fairy godmother, a charming prince and the search for the wearer of a glass slipper who holds the key to happily ever after.
But you’ve never seen Cinderella like this.
This is “The Fairytale Ball,” Emerge Impact + Music’s opening night performance presented by The Tenth Magazine, which employs the classic fable as a metaphor to explore the black LGBTQ house ballroom scene both as a pop-culture force and a response to discrimination.
“‘The Fairytale Ball’ is our first foray to present what is perceived from the outside as a bit of an underground scene, which is the house ballroom community,” says Khary Septh, co-founder of The Tenth, a print magazine that documents the culture, ideas, aesthetics and characters of the black queer community. “But inside the community, obviously, it’s not underground. It’s a mainstay of our culture and has been one of the longstanding arts collectives of the black LGBTQ community … All we’re doing right now is taking the work that we’ve been doing internally and sort of off the radar of the mainstream, and presenting it to the world.”
Born in New York during the Harlem Renaissance and fostered during the 1970s and ’80s by the black LGBTQ community in New York, the house ballroom scene revolves around family-like “houses” and balls—fierce dancefloor battles where performers throw down in vogue, waack and runway walk before a panel of judges.
If the scene itself is unfamiliar, its influence should not be. “So much of what you see in the world, so much of the aesthetic of Hollywood, so much of the visual effects that you see from the top starlets from Beyoncé to Rihanna to Katy, they’re all sort of being developed by black queer talent, aesthetics and lens,” Septh says.
It’s important, he adds, to turn that lens inward, to spotlight the people behind the styling, choreography and design, and let black kids grappling with their gender identity or sexuality know that “this machine that we consider pop culture is being shaped by people who look and come from places just like them.”
“The Fairytale Ball” (April 6, 9 p.m., Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas) will do just that, drawing on Broadway performers and house ball legends to translate the cultural movement into a thrilling theatrical moment. Followed by one hell of an after party, of course.
ABP caught up with Septh and Michell’e Michaels, Cinderella in “The Fairytale Ball,” to learn about the origins of balls, why they’re like an Olympic sport and how it feels to slay onstage.
The roots of house ball
Trace the history of house ballroom, and it will pull you back 100 years to the Great Migration, when millions of blacks left the rural South for cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West. In New York in particular, the community that developed was at the heart of a wave of artistic and literary growth.
“We all know it as the Harlem Renaissance,” says Septh. But surrounding this creative explosion was a deeply traditional black community rooted in religion and churches unwelcoming to the artistic vanguard and alternative sexualities.
An underground formed—drag balls where LGBTQ performers, revelers and members of the artist elite indulged in lavish parties and pageants. The house ballroom community grew out of this world, developing as a cultural movement in response to racial inequality, discrimination and a lack of safes places for black LGBTQ self-expression. “Houses,” which formed during the ’70s and ’80s, offered a place to belong, with house “mothers” and “fathers” providing love, leadership and vital aid to “children,” who sometimes couldn’t seek assistance in their own families or neighborhoods. Balls put that kinship on display, allowing performers to be their truest selves or live out fantasies before an enthusiastic audience of their peers.
“House culture has always spoken to and met the needs of unserved folks,” says Septh. “Ultimately what house ballroom is nowadays is always opening its arms and its doors to kids, adults, all of us who were looking for that family.”
Finding your place
Cinderella in “The Fairytale Ball,” Michell’e Michaels is a multi-hyphenate artist—a dancer, hair stylist, makeup artist and performer known for impersonating Beyoncé so well you have to look twice to be sure it isn’t Queen Bey herself.
“In a way, she is the vehicle and I drive it,” Michaels explains.
Discovering the ballroom community, she says, both answered questions and created them. “It was something that I had been looking for. … I was just finally able to connect with people who were like me.”
Michaels had been dressing in drag undercover in her bedroom, but in the balls she found people proudly and fabulously expressing their identities. “There were these beautiful women who were actually genetically born male, and then you have the gay men who are just beautiful and gorgeous and styled unbelievably, makeup and hair. It was like a unicorn threw up all over a room and glitter was everywhere.
“[T]o see these people living their authentic selves amongst each other was just amazing,” she says, “and the way they accepted me was even better.”
How a ball works
A ball isn’t a party. It’s a competition, performance and celebration rolled into one.
“It’s all about houses. The houses are basically like teams,” says Michaels. Performers compete based on their gender identity with a panel of judges ruling on the most captivating displays in sub-categories like face, runway, voguing.
Septh compares the intensity to an Olympic-level sport.
“It’s a different feeling if you’re spectating,” says Michaels. “It’s a great show to watch, but it’s very stressful if you’re actually competing, because it’s a sport. There’s a lot of time invested, a lot of money invested, you train for it. Your body has to look good, your skin has to look good, everything has to be in tip-top shape.”
But it feels so good
“Oh my god. Have you ever done drugs?” gushes Michaels of the feeling of performing in front of a house ball crowd. “It is exactly like that. It’s a high that is unexplainable. For however long a category lasts, from the entrance, I kind of get this nerve. Even before I perform onstage you get this nerve like I have to pee. But as soon as I get onstage, it all goes away. It also happens so quick, that I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s over? I want more.’”
On crediting black LGBTQ creators
Pop culture has long pulled from the house ball scene, tapping into its creativity and aesthetics, often without giving proper credit, if acknowledging the source material at all.
“Madonna was hotly contested. Is it cultural appropriation?” asks Septh, referring back to the singer’s 1990 hit “Vogue.”
“She did have the top voguers like Willi Ninja and [Jose and Luis] Xtravaganza as a part of the video, because she had to learn it from somewhere, but that wasn’t really paid attention to,” adds Michaels.
Now, she says, [the scene is] “absolutely becoming a part of pop culture, because people want to be a part of it openly now. It’s not so underground anymore.” Where balls were once relegated to the wee hours of the morning, now they’re thrown in the daytime, in the spotlight, in some of the biggest halls in New York. Ryan Murphy’s Pose TV series will debut on FX later this year, set in the ballroom culture of the 1980s, and celebrities now sometimes act as hosts or judges.
“Frank Ocean just threw his own personal ball,” says Michaels, nodding to growing scenes in London and Paris. “They had a ball there, and I just started a chapter of my house. It’s everywhere now. Everywhere. It’s a little different than how it is in the U.S., of course, because it’s in a different space, but nevertheless it’s still a community coming together and just having a great time.”
“It’s beautiful to see the proliferation of the culture,” Septh agrees. “It’s also great now that we’re able to show up and to create our own opportunities … It’s not so underground, so there are more opportunities to turn this into, what the Olympic athletes have done, turn this into careers. And that’s what we want to see happen in the community. We want more people creative directing the top acts, more people creating the cultural zeitgeist and being more in control of it.”
And more people from the community telling its story. “This story has been told a lot of times, but it hasn’t been told enough by us,” Septh says.
Through The Tenth and “The Fairytale Ball,” he and his cast are doing just that, sharing their story with nuance, respect, love and passion—and plenty of pride, too.
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