Drag balls, long-term pillars of New York LGBTQ+ culture, provided a unique place of refuge for many queer individuals who at the time were shunned by society. Participants took part in competitions, danced and played around with ideas about gender. These spaces were a place of celebration and freedom, where for one night, people could forget their problems in an unforgiving world.
In this article we explore the history of drag ballroom culture, from its post Civil War beginnings to developments brought by the Black and Latinx community to its eventual break into the American mainstream.
Beginnings at Hamilton Lodge No. 710
The story of drag balls reaches further back in time than one may expect. In 1869, the first known example was organised in the Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge No. 710, New York as a masquerade charity gala. Both men and women dressed in clothes usually worn by the opposite sex. Attendance quickly grew as it was seen as a safe space for queer individuals to meet and express themselves. The competition aspect would play an important role, with prizes such as ‘most perfect feminine body displayed by an impersonator’ being given out.
Harassment from authorities were frequent because of numerous anti-crossdressing laws. Matters were not made easier by the moral reform organisation known as the Committee of Fourteen publishing a report in 1916 laying out the ‘scandalous’ behaviour displayed at these drag balls. But this increasing public awareness did not stop people congregating and exploring the art of drag. By the 1920s the ball not only drew in LGBTQ+ attendees, but also heterosexual artists and writers. The event was drawing thousands of spectators, with the 1936 ball boasting an audience of 8,000.
The emergence of drag houses
It was not only frequent police raids and a generally homophobic society that plagued the drag ball scene of the early 20th century. Even though the event at Hamilton Lodge was a racially mixed, white participants were favoured, while black queens were encouraged to whiten their faces. Class division also payed a role, with middle class homosexuals looking down on the mostly working class participants.
By the 1960s Black and Latinx drag performers splintered off from the existing ball culture, creating their own events in the process. Drag houses started to emerge, which served as a surrogate family for young queer people of colour who were estranged from their families, struggling to get by or living on the streets. The first of those was the House of LaBeija, founded by Crystal LaBeija who served as the ‘mother’. Through the 1970s and 80s a plethora of houses emerged – the House of Dior, the House of Dupree, the House of Corey, the House of Xtravaganza, etc.
Strike a pose
Like the great noble houses of Europe in days gone by, the New York based drag families would throw their own extravagant events to outdo each other and show-off their splendour. In the 1980s categories started taking centre stage at these balls. Participants would show-off their ‘walk’ and display the outfits of their drag persona in the hopes of winning one of the coveted prizes. ‘Realness’ became a popular category, with judges assessing each participants ability to pass as a heterosexual man or woman. They could range from ‘executive realness’ to ‘butch queen realness’ and everything in between.
But it was not all about cross-dressing, some categories allowed men to show off their masculinity and women their femininity.
You cannot cover the topic of drag balls without discussing the history of Voguing. The dance developed as a sort of battle between the participants. In its earliest incarnations during the 1960s it consisted of posing and mimicking the movements seen in fashion magazines. In the next two decades more acrobatic and athletic elements were added. Even though Madonna did not invent the dance, her smash hit ‘Vogue’ helped bring it to a nation wide audience.
During the 1990s the dance style adopted hyper feminine posturing, intricate hand moves and the addition of the famous death drop. Willi Ninja was known as the grandfather of Voguing, with the House of Ninja becoming synonymous with the dance.
Break into the mainstream
1990 saw the release of the now famous documentary Paris is Burning. It presented the last moments of the ‘Golden Age’ of New York’s drag balls, while also exploring issues relating to race, sexuality, class and gender identity. To say modern drag culture is still influenced by the documentary would be an understatement. Phrases like ‘throwing shade’, ‘you own everything’ or ‘kiki’ were not invented by Paris is Burning, but the documentary has made them a staple in the drag community. The documentary went on to gather great critical success and brought the underground culture to a wider audience.
With RuPauls’s rise to stardom in the 1990s and the success of his TV show Rupaul’s Drag Race, which went on air in 2009, the art of drag has exploded in popularity, becoming part of mainstream culture. Drag balls can not only be found in US cities, but across the world. But it would be a mistake to think that all drag is the same and that all drag balls are similar. Even though the art form has gathered unprecedented popularity, it is not a uniform monolith and there are many subcultures present which are spearheaded by societies most disenfranchised groups.