Refashioning Space

The performers discussion of The Ballroom scene creates an opportunity to reimagine space. Specifically, the performers refashion our understanding of space by engaging with the performers’ larger lives outside of the ballroom scene. Their understanding of themselves as part of a larger Black queer community and history allows the performers to transcend space, time and death in order to leave their advice to the next generation of Black queer people. By recording the scenes from various balls and performer interviews, Livingston gives The Golden Age of the Harlem ballroom a chance to be relived and reimagined by people who would have never gone to a ball. For example, I was a fan of Paris years before I ever attended a ball. The film allowed me to see into another world and in turn provided the tools to refashion and survive my own.

While Paris is Burning and the Harlem Ballroom scene are read as queer spaces, occurrences inside and outside of the scene complicate static designations of space as Black, queer, straight or safe. The lives and performances of the performers complicate and refashion these static notions by putting Black queer life in conversation with White or normative life outside of the scene. The most explicit examples are the performers discussions of working and class. The performers aspiration to transcend poverty and live in the lap of luxury is a feeling in which most people can relate.

Dorian Corey warns the viewer not to misread the performers as lazy because living in New York City required that they have jobs. “A lot of them have little jobs now. They work. Don’t think they’re lazy. In New York City, you work or you starve. You work or… Some kind of work…Legal or otherwise. But you have to work to sustain yourself.” While the ballroom scene has been discussed as living the fantasy. The performers make it clear that even their fantasy is rooted in the material world. Sex work amongst ballroom performers was discussed in the film, primarily through the tragic narrative of Venus Xtravaganza. Venus is one of the many performers who had to leave home in order to live as a transwoman and was adopted by the ballroom scene. Venus walks in the femme realness category. According to Venus, her ability to read as a woman allows her to make money as an escort. She points to her blonde hair, light skin, green eyes and the little features as coveted by Johns. One of the ways she resists possible judgment about being a sex worker is comparing her situation to that of a housewife.

If you’re married… A woman in the suburbs, a regular woman, is married to her husband and she wants him to buy her a washer and dryer set. In order for him to buy that, I’m sure she’d have to go to bed with him anyway, to give him what he wants, for her to get what she wants. So in the long run, it all ends up the same way.

Venus deliberately compares her sex work to that of a housewife to encourage the audience to rethink negative opinions they may have about sex work. She implicitly makes the argument that how she has to make money to survive is not so unlike how some women have survived traditionally. She deconstructs the idea that the work that she does is any different morally inferior from that of a wholesome housewife. Venus’ death at the end of the film speaks to the dangers of living as transwoman and working as a sex worker. As Anjie discuses Venus death, Anjie’s maternal love for Venus is clear. “I always said to her, ‘Venus, you take too many chances.’ ‘You’re too wild with people in the streets. Something is going to happen to you.” Anjie discusses finding out that Venus had been murdered and left underneath a mattress in a cheap hotel. Anjie was the one who had to identify Venus’ body and tell her family. My heart breaks every time I watch the film as Anjie talks about their relationship. She states,

We used to get dressed together, call each other and say what we were gonna wear. And, you know, she was like my right hand, as far as I’m concerned. I miss her. Every time I go anywhere, I miss her. That was my main… the main daughter of my house, in other words.

I can feel the hurt in her words about Venus, while clips of a living and laughing Venus are shown during her comments. Her next statement is what brings me to tears. Anjie goes on to say, “But that’s part of life, as far as being a transsexual in New York City and surviving.” Her statement place Venus’ heartbreaking narrative within a larger narrative of transgendered people in New York City and the larger world. Anjie discusses dealing with Venus’ murder as a part of the larger and common experience of living a transgendered person.

The performers’ desires for material possessions speak to an infatuation with wealth and the larger capitalist system that many would argue creates the circumstance within which they live. However, their comments also represent hope, an optimistic desire for life outside or the trappings of racial and sexual oppression. Junior Labieja’s ballroom announcing style is an aspect of the film that fans often attempt to recreate. Many of my friends can be heard screaming “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E, opulence! You own everything,” while walking down a hallway or greeting each other. Junior’s comments capture many of the performers’ desires to perform and live wealthy.

Many of the performers hopes for the future are tied to having money because it offers them more flexibility to live their lives on their terms. For example, Venus imagines herself as a rich White girl because he perceives them as not having to struggle like many members of the ballroom scene. “I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. And they don’t have to really struggle with finances and nice things, nice clothes…” She goes to say that she wants to have her full sexual reassignment surgery so that she can be a complete woman. Octavia wants to have gender reassignment surgery as well and sees it influential in changing her circumstances. “I want to be a complete woman. And I want to be a professional model, behind cameras in a high-fashion world. I want so much more. I want… I want my name to be a household product.” It is clear that Octavia is seduced by the idea of fame, but I also detect a desire to be loved on her terms when she expresses a desire to hear “There goes Octavia,” while walking down the street. Venus and many other performers’ privileging of Whiteness, wealth and womanhood speak to the pervasiveness of White supremacy and Eurocentric values even in Black queer spaces. It is also clear that Venus and Octavia’ appearance and performances in and out of the ballroom scene allow her the ability to temporarily to transcend the oppressions that meet her gender, race and class specific to living as a transwoman in New York City.

By placing themselves in conversation with Black queer ancestors and descendants, the performers write themselves into a larger Black and Latin queer community and experience that binds time. Throughout the film, they performers critiques of a larger capitalist system that disenfranchises Black, poor and queer people. My larger argument is that the performers know how racial, gendered, class based and sexual oppression function so they leave survival tips for Black queer people. The performers critically engage with White supremacy and privilege within a larger conversation of Black survival. For example, Junior Labieja discusses White America or the American dream as an aspiration for minorities.

This is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this till the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority -to live and look as well as a white person is pictured as being in America.

He discusses the American dream as shown in the media, complete with a house, lawn and pool. He goes on to discuss how minorities have had assimilate to survive.

And when it come to the minorities, especially black, we as a people, for the past 400 years, is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us and yet we have all learned how to survive. That is why, in the ballroom circuit, it is so obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking… or dressing or speaking—you is a marvel.

In these comments, the performer writes Black queer people into a larger history of minorities that have had to survive White supremacy. In this way, he binds the stories of Paris ballroom performers with the stories of countless Black queer people who lived both before and after the Golden Age of the Ballroom. His comments also speak to how entrenched these problematic understandings of race and class are in the literacies that many of us practice.

Dorian, Pepper, and Anjie also work as mothers and griots to contextualize the golden age of the ballroom within a larger history of Black queer people in New York City. For many, the housemothers steal the movie due to their grand charismatic personas and their extensive knowledge and expertise about the scene. As the elders or grand dames of the scene, they are called on throughout the film to explain the history and different aspects of the scene. In the opening of the film, Pepper introduces herself. “I am Pepper LaBeija, the legendary mother of the House of LaBeija. Not the founder. Crystal was the founder. I’m… I just rule it now. With a soft glove.” In this statement, Pepper’s introduction does the dual function of introducing herself as a grand legendary ruling mother while still telling the history of the house and ballroom scene. Corey states that the new ballroom kids would not recognize a ball if it “knocked them in the head” and discusses the original balls as being very different with less prizes and fewer categories. Pepper discusses the change in the ballroom scene from the 60s to the late 80s. He states,

When I first started going to balls, it was all about drag queens and they were interested in looking like Las Vegas showgirls ­—back pieces, tail pieces, feathers, beads and all that. But as the ’70s rolled around, the things started changing. It started coming down. They just wanted to look like a gorgeous movie star—like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor. And now, they’ve went from that to trying to look like models—like Iman and Christie Brinkley and Maud Adams and all those children.

Corey echoes Labieja’s sentiments about how the scene has changed. Corey states that with time the mood went from what you could create to what you could acquire. “I come from the old school of big costumes and feathers and beads. And they don’t have that anymore. Now it’s all about designers.” Through the telling of their narratives, the audience is able to understand how the ballroom has evolved and how the larger culture and system informs how the ballroom functions. Another aspect of the film that played a large role in constructed the space of the ballroom scene was the music. Disco and House music classics, such as Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” Cheryl Lynn’s “To Be Real” and Marshall Jefferson’s “The House Music Anthem” are heard throughout the film. As the performers walk and vogue to the music, the spirit of the space is undeniably fun, Black, femme, queer and free.

Concluding Thoughts