The term "ballroom" might conjure images of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire moving gracefully around a dance floor, but to some it has an additional meaning.
Historically, ballroom has been considered an underground subculture in the LGBTQ drag community. But over the years, it's become more mainstream.
With the popularity of the FX series “Pose,” about the start of the ballroom scene, and Viceland’s reality show “My House” about Ballroom dancers, have put a spotlight on the genre.
John Easter, co-founder of True T Pittsburgh, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization, says ballroom, not to be confused with ballroom dancing, started in the late 1970s in New York City as a way for gay and transgender black and Latino teens to express themselves.
“The ballroom scene was a safe haven for LGBTQ youth who were normally kicked out of their house or ostracized from society, and they ended up finding this community that was made up of mothers and fathers and just mentors, who would create theses houses,” said Easter.
Houses are like clubs, or groups, that ball (short for ballroom) participants join. They are led by house mothers and fathers – often men and transgender women, and are often named after their creators, or high fashion brands. Some popular Pittsburgh houses include House of Ebony, House of Ninja, and House of LaBaija. During balls, members of houses compete against each other in different dance and runway categories. True T co-founder Duane Binion explained that the categories are a way for the participants to become someone that society doesn’t see them as.
“So, you come together with these members of this house that see something in you. There’s roughly about 25 or more categories in ballroom,” said Easter.
“There’s definitely more than 25,” said Binion. “But you’re going to fit into one of them.”
Ballroom categories include "Butch Queen Realness" in which gay male participants walk a runway and try to convince the judges that they are straight men. The goal is to blend in as a typical heterosexual male. And then there are the dance categories.
“The most popular one is voguing. And although it is voguing, there’s so many different categories of voguing," Easter said. "You have, drag performance, you have butch queen performance, you have fem queen performance, you have women’s performance, you have old way, you have new way. You have hand performance."
Voguing is DeAndre Gardner's specialty. He grew up in the Hill District and now lives in Lawrenceville. In 2002 he discovered Ballroom, but he says he wasn’t always interested in the scene.
“Coming from the Hill District and being brought up masculine and being around men a lot, I did not see any appeal in men rolling around, touching themselves and pressing their chest together like they had breasts," he said. "I didn’t think that was anything that I wanted to do.”
But things changed after he went to a ball in Cleveland.
“I seen people together in houses, competing against each other, not only competing against each other, they’re actually being dynamic with the way they move,” said Gardner.
Voguing is a type of expressive dance that uses the entire body, dancers often contort their limbs while pretending to walk on a fashion runway.
“There’s two different Vogues; there’s soft and there’s dramatic," said Gardner. "I was introduced to soft first, and I didn’t like that, but I seen dramatic. I seen somebody jump off a table, swing their hair around and hit the floor, they were going at it. I was like, I gotta learn how to do that. I want to do that."
At 31, Gardner, who belongs to the House of Ebony and goes by the name Havoc, is considered a legend in the Ballroom scene.
“A legend in the ballroom scene is something that is acquired and achieved when you put in time, energy and gumption to your category," he said. "You can be a legend for dancing – voguing, for runway, for realness. You can be a legend for any category in the ballroom scene."
Binion and Easter say they are working to create a more active and dynamic Ballroom scene in Pittsburgh and are hosting a number of events during their fourth annual BlackOut Weekend – which promotes positive representation of LGBTQ people of color in Pittsburgh.
“The beautiful thing about the Ballroom community is that when you throw a ball, it’s not just for your city, people travel statewide, near and far from out of the country to come to balls; so, it brings a lot of different people together,” said Binion.
The group’s BlackOut Weekend includes a silent disco party, a black gay prom, a ball and vogue dance workshop that’s open to the public.