Sunday, November 29, 2020
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BALLROOM CULTURE

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APPROPRIATION VS APPERICAION

“I’m so into voguing right now.”

When Vanessa Hudgens said these words while a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, she created a ripple felt throughout certain populations of the queer community. Almost instantly, Hudgens received backlash for her comment. Was Hudgens paying homage to queer culture? Or did she steal this important element from the LGBTQIA+ community without considering the community itself?

Where is the line between cultural ‘appropriation’ and cultural ‘appreciation’? Where should we draw the line? And who, exactly, draws that line in the first place?

Queer culture has slowly gone mainstream with the success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose. This is new territory for the LGBTQIA+ community. However, what is not new is the thievery of queer culture – particularly of Ballroom Culture.

All credit to Jennie Livingston, Janus Films, and ‘Paris is Burning’

Ballroom Culture has existed for decades, originating with Black and Latinx queer communities. Having been rejected by ‘mainstream’ cultures and society, Balls were – and are – a way for queer individuals to express themselves without judgment from heteronormative societies.

Perhaps the most famous example of the cultural influence of balls on mainstream society comes from Madonna’s Vogue. Voguing is a vital element of Ballroom Culture, existing long before Madonna claimed it as her own. Voguing was a way to battle without causing any physical harm – it is a stylized form of storytelling through dance, as defined by the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Even since Madonna’s Vogue dominated the music scene, there has been a raging debate about her right to take voguing to the mainstream herself. Did her music video benefit the communities that created it? Or did she steal voguing for personal gain? In other words, was Madonna engaging in cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? 

Shortly after Madonna’s song came out, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning was released. Her film documented New York ballroom culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Paris is Burning assisted in bringing Black and Latinx queer culture into the mainstream film scene, but Livingston’s documentary is still heavily debated decades after its release.

Livingston is a member of the queer community, identifying as a lesbian, but does that give her the right to Ballroom Culture? Was she telling the story of Balls and the communities who invented them, or was she exploiting these individuals and the communities? The effect of Livingston’s film is still very much felt. She is currently a producer on Pose, which is strongly influenced by Paris is Burning.

Pose itself has been making history with its cast, made up primarily of transgender actors. Most of these performers are people of color. Pose, like Paris is Burning, primarily focuses on the ballroom culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The program features many of the quintessential ballroom culture elements, such as Balls, houses, and voguing.

When RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009, it ushered in a new era of queer art going mainstream. RuPaul’s Drag Con functions as a yearly gathering for fans of the show. With sometimes millions of followers of their social media profiles, the show’s alumni are fully-fledged stars.

All credit to CNBC

Multiple seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race have included a ‘Ball challenges’, heavily inspired by Ballroom Culture. The show also features voguing, ‘reading challenges’, and fashion design. All of these were, and are, present in Ballroom Culture. In fact, Paris is Burning has been referenced by RuPaul.

The echo of Ballroom Culture has affected pop culture for a number of years, yet the communities who originated these trends continue to be marginalized. Indeed, elements that have been taken into Ballroom Culture are not limited to voguing.

 In the culture section of Into, Matt Willie analyzed Sam Smith’s Promises as appropriating Ballroom Culture. Although Sam Smith is a member of the queer community, he is a white, cis-gendered man. He is taking from the traditions of Black and Latinx queer cultures. Is it thievery, or does Smith have the right to the Balls and  Ballroom Culture? Because Smith is such an influential figure in the pop scene, his use of Ballroom traditions is significant.

Matt Willie goes on to state, “As Sam Smith continues to sing about himself, the video becomes a hodgepodge of dance scenes…before we can even take in the magnificent voguing, it’s replaced by Sam Smith, who is most certainly not voguing. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to call it dancing at all; in most shots, he sways ever so slightly, or maybe raises an arm in the air to mix things up. Not once does he showcase ball culture in his own movements, and yet the camera keeps returning to them.”

Queer trends going mainstream extend far beyond the music scene. Terms like ‘throwing shade,’ ‘reading’, and ‘work/werk’ have become popularized slang. Other terms like ‘fierce’ and ‘realness’ have been in the mainstream consciousness for many years now. Is the political and cultural impact of these words lost in mainstream society?

RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009. Over the last decade, the show has consistently included elements from Ballroom Culture, especially voguing and Ballroom terminology. The far-reaching influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race also means that viewers who were previously unfamiliar with certain aspects of queer culture are suddenly being introduced to these cultural realities without any real background.

One small example of this can be seen with the mainstream popularization of the ‘death drop’ or the ‘shablam’ – a quintessential dance move in queer culture. However, this move has consistently been called a ‘dip.’ This illustrates the plasticity of the mainstream perception of queer traditions.

But, have we finally gotten it right with Pose? Have we finally found the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? This show features real members of these communities telling their stories and the stories of those who came before them. However, it is worth mentioning that Billie Porter,  a queer, cis-gender Black man, is the only one from the cast with an Emmy win for the show. Even though Pose has been recognized by mainstream media, the transgender cast has not.

Photographer: Justin Bettman, all credit to TimeOut

So, who has the right to Ballroom Culture? Who has the right to tell these stories, use these trends, and speak in queer slang? Inevitably, the individuals in these communities must be listened to and heard. When queer cultures speak, our voices must be acknowledged.

As Taylor Hosking writes for Vice, “For now, insiders say these opportunities to share the culture on their own terms are a good thing, and ballroom isn’t under threat of losing its core culture to commercialization.”