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Bad Bitch, I’m the Bar

Sydney’s Ballroom Culture and Beyonce’s Renaissance

Move out the way, Beyonce has released her seventh studio album. Her 16-track album is full of energy that celebrates the rich history of Black and Latin ballroom culture, infused with house, disco, and afrobeats influences. Even through her visuals, Beyonce tells us she’s that girl, using fashion and aesthetic inspiration from ballroom legends Pepper LaBeija and Octavia St. Laurent.  

America has a problem, including the racist origins of drag shows that only permitted white performers, resulting in the creation of the ballroom and voguing scene we know today in New York in the 1980s. Pioneered by Black and Latina trans women, the ballroom and voguing scene provided an outlet for queer people to channel their frustrations into a space that uplifts and acknowledges queer, trans and intersex people of colour. 

Later voguing competitions grew out of this collaborative safe space, where individuals are able to walk in different categories ranging from ‘femme queen realness,’ and ‘male figure sex siren’. Competitions can get quite heated, but in the end, love and appreciation for each other outweighs competitive behaviour. 

When biological families feel unsafe, ‘houses’ (as they’re called in  ball culture) provide a place where queer people can foster nurturing communities and express their gender and sexual identity without fear. Houses are often led by a mother or houseparent who provides mentorship and support for their ‘children.’ Houses often compete together, creating their own unique style. 

Ballroom culture in Australia is relatively new. The first, Sissy Ball, was held in February 2018, a collaboration between artist Bhenji Ra, mother of the Western Sydney-based House of Slé and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG).

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to talk and discuss the experiences of a few creatives from the ballroom scene who live and work from Eora, Naarm and Meanjin. 

When the Queens Come Through, Part like the Red Sea

Meet Navindra Alexander, a Sri Lankan Australian femme queen from the House of Alexander based in Meanjin. She first became involved with the scene in 2019 after forming a deep connection with Mother Ella on a collaborative runway project. 

“Once you enter ballroom your whole body gets into it,” explains Navindra, who often performs in the runway category due to her passion for modelling.

“When you’re stepping into a space that your people did not create, there’s a certain level of respect and consideration that needs to be shown.” 

For Navindra, the House of Alexander is a space for her trans sisters to help her navigate her transition journey whilst also having her brothers to look after and protect her. The house and ballroom culture itself is a “sacred space… especially for trans women of colour, we experience such a high rate of violence.” Ballroom has provided Navindra the opportunity to heal and gain peace “in terms of [her] womanhood,” due to years of “shitty experiences and trauma growing up”. 

For creatives from diverse backgrounds in particular, the ballroom scene allows for “communal healing” in an environment where you are “around people who uplift you and have the best intentions for you and want to see you improve and want to see you evolve” into alien superstars

As much as ballroom may provide a loving space, Navindra wants it known that the point of the ballroom scene is to prepare you for the real world’s ability to break your soul. “It’s prepping you for the toughness and sharpness you’re going to experience in the outside world,” she says. Although artists have a thick skin, ballroom ultimately teaches you to soften up as “it’s all love within our Australian ballroom community” and “when push comes to shove, we look out for each other, no matter what’s being said, because we know what it’s like for us girls.” 

In comparison to the thique American mainstream scene, the Australian ballroom culture is much more of a Kiki scene; a more intimate subset to the mainstream as everyone ultimately learns together. Sydney is considered to be the birthplace of ballroom culture in Australia and, as Navindra says, is “definitely an underground culture.” 

Despite its growing popularity, Navindra believes that as long as “LGBTQ+people of colour are at the forefront of it, it’s always going to be something that’s going to ride under the surface for the most part.” The more concealed that the scene is, the more authentic it is.  

Come and Feel My Technique

Meet Shin, also known as Shinobi, from the Naarm chapter of the House of Silky, whose headquarters is based in Sydney. Their journey into the ballroom scene began when house mother Mira reached out through Instagram, inviting them to meet and train with the rest of the house, in a slow and gradual process. Shin says that when you are invited to join a house, it’s to “ingrain” something meaningful into the house as well as the house “offer[ing] something to that person.”  

In order to prioritise wellbeing, houses consistently teach that the spaces “prioritise… the safety of the femme queens, especially trans women of colour.” Additionally, houses provide opportunities to develop and broaden one’s creativity. Shin said that they were able to hold a workshop in Naarm for trans mascs and butches who wanted to walk ballroom, and could create a space that introduces them to ballroom “in a way I would have wanted to.”  

Despite having had a welcoming introduction to the scene, Shin says that “there were some things I would have needed and wanted at the time which I couldn’t have as the first trans masc within this house.” House parents ensure careful consideration for who they bring into the house as that person must hold respect for the house’s values. 

“I would like to think that is one of the reasons my house parent brought me on because that’s the kind of work I can do to help the community feel safer,” says Shin. 

The ballroom scenes in each Australian city “definitely [have their] own personality.” Shin explains that Sydney is seen as more “turbo,” as the pace of the scene is much faster in comparison to Naarm. In contrast, Shin finds that Naarm is more “considering of socio-political dynamics in terms of fostering spaces for trans mascs and using the right pronouns which is already difficult for some in the queer community to do.” Meanwhile, American ballroom differs in how gender is perceived. Binary categories remain more strongly embedded in the United States, whereas Australia has non-binary categories which, astonishingly, are not common within the scene in America. 

Though ballroom has grown quite substantially last year in Naarm, it remains a very young community, with Shin believing that Naarm is “at the start” of its journey. Ballroom culture in Australia has a long way to go, and cannot continue to grow without constant acknowledgement for those that came before, especially the Black and Latina trans icons and legends that pioneered this culture. 

Ultimately, ballroom must centre a philosophy that wishes to hurt nobody. Shin admits that “at the end of the day, everyone is appropriating… me included, I’m not free of that. But the whole point is to be constantly aware… without putting the labour onto someone else, we got to take the education on ourselves.”

The Category is Bey

Despite criticisms of unfair sampling of Kelis’ Milkshake, and use of ableist language, which both have since been removed, Beyonce’s Renaissance is an album that is largely appreciated and celebrated by the ballroom community. On her website, she thanks “all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognised for far too long,” creating an album that celebrates the “music and culture that serve as an inspiration for this album.”

Beyonce’s Renaissance features collaboration, sampling and interpolation from Black queer artists that continue to be prominent within the scene. From Big Freedia, Honey Djon, Grace Jones to Kevin JZ Prodigy, Renaissance is filled to the brim with these artists. Beyonce’s reuse of iconic chants and elements of ballroom culture creates a summer renaissance, bringing the scene to the forefront of media interest. 

Navindra notes that “a lot of people in ballroom in general, love to reference Beyonce,” and as a result this album feels like “a real love letter” that “appropriately connects with the scene.” Shin adds that they are glad that “she is giving opportunities and highlighting creatives in the mainstream ballroom,” hopefully reflecting a genuine appreciation, given her ties to the queer community through family and black identity. Yet, Shin reminds us that tokenism remains rampant in popular culture, with one example being Madonna’s Vogue, which did not wholly credit icons and legends from the scene, providing a distorted impression of the culture following the release of her single in the 80s. “Let’s just hope that the people she’s referencing are also being compensated,” says Shin. 

Mainstream media is gradually catching up and spotlighting the ball scene, from Netflix’s Pose and Heartbreak High to Beyonce’s latest album. Beyonce references ballroom culture in a way that appreciates its pure history of icons and legends. Shin highlights that “ballroom is always appropriated, it’s everywhere. Sometimes it’s so subtle you don’t notice unless you’re in ballroom.” In balancing this line between appropriation and appreciation within media, Navindra encourages “hiring people from [the] ballroom [scene] and taking the time to listen to what they’re trying to teach you and tell you,” and to be “appropriately paid for their time and given the credit.” 

Renaissance is an album that gets you out of your comfort of being cozy, allup in your mind and off the sofa, freeing yourself to the groove of the rhythm, celebrating the rich history interwoven between each song. Renaissance is a celebration of queer culture, a culture built on the backs of Black and Latina trans women, that continues to thrive today.