I think that, like a lot of people, I knew Paris Is Burning before I saw it. Parts of the New York Ball culture captured in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary had already percolated into the work of others.
To the uninitiated, “ball culture” was one of the names used to describe a largely unknown subculture within the drag scene; a subculture that, in the end, punched above its weight and left a significant cultural legacy. Balls were formed out of necessity and became places where those on the margins of a number of different communities could come together and live freely. The balls chronicled in the film were created by Black and Latin-American drag performers who’d experienced prejudice in the wider, mostly white, drag community, where drag queens of colour were expected to lighten their appearance in order to increase their chances of winning competitions and where racism was commonplace. They were also sanctuaries for many of the city’s gay and trans youths of colour, who were facing hostility from within their own communities because of their sexual orientations and gender identities.
As Paris Is Burning meticulously showed, the balls became insular little worlds, with very specific ways of walking, talking and dancing. Over time, many of these elements were co-opted by bigger artists, often without credit or acknowledgement for the movement’s founders. This meant that many of the scene’s cultural signifiers crossed over into the mainstream and reached much wider – and often much whiter – audiences than their creators would have expected or intended. But it also meant erasure: the signifiers lost their significance and their meaning.
In recent years, everyone and everything from Beyoncé to the Kardashians to RuPaul’s Drag Race has been credited with coining terms such as “fierce”, “throwing shade” and “clapping back” – when, in actual fact, they were all uttered in the film thirty years ago. Madonna was my gateway into ball culture, when she released ‘Vogue’ in 1990. The song took its name from the elaborate dance style found in the clubs. In the music video, she was joined by a group of multiracial male backing dancers, a number of whom had been in Paris Is Burning and a couple of them chosen to choreograph Madonna’s routines.
Even though Paris Is Burning chronicled and celebrated the lives of gay and trans people and communities of colour, Madonna didn’t do likewise when when she introduced voguing to the world. Her reimagining was very white and straight and, in the video, she presented herself as an object of desire to the men around her. Her audience thought she had created this new dance craze and they all danced along, without knowing its origins.
I think it’s a shame that, thirty years later, many people still don’t know how progressive so many aspects of our popular culture are – nor that they came from a really radical place.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill