Ballroom contests have been accepted and rewarded by many who have grown up feeling lost – or worse. We spoke to members of the Toronto Ballroom community as they modeled a selection of the season’s most comfortable knits.
In March, members of the Toronto ballroom community, including Tamar Miyake-Mugler and Aura Louboutin West, were in Chicago for the 19th Annual Midwest Awards Ball when news broke of the Canada border closure. American. The event was halted as they rushed home to Toronto.
This early period of the pandemic, with all the heartbreak, anxiety and isolation associated with the lockdown, has been unsettling for many. The cracks in our society – issues like systemic racism and police brutality – had widened. But under the pressure of the pandemic, these cracks, which disproportionately affect our poor, elderly, migrant and racialized populations as well as those living with disabilities or addictions, have been highlighted. Although often invisible to white, middle-class, heteronormative society, their existence was no revelation to anyone in the ballroom.
“Welcome to what it feels like not being able to be where you want to be, where you feel like you deserve to be, because it’s just not safe,” says Miyake-Mugler, member of the iconic House of Miyake-Mugler. “I feel like the world gets a taste of what it’s like to be a visible minority… It’s the same feeling of isolation.”
After being raised in a conservative Seventh-day Adventist family, Miyake-Mugler found the ballroom at the age of 20 and is now, at 28, known as “the Queen of Canada.” She wants to be a visible presence for kids struggling with identity – to create a plan for how to live shamelessly and authentically and maybe even find themselves in bright light at Yonge-Dundas Square, one of the locations where the Absolut Changemakers campaign it was chosen in aired.
“There aren’t a lot of stages or communities where people like me – who are black, queer, underprivileged or whatever – can come together,” she says. “You feel you belong, you feel seated at the table, you feel you own the space.”
Ballroom was, in fact, created in response to social inequalities, oppressive systems, and the mistreatment of queer and trans people of color. Its very existence was an act of resistance.
The roots of the ballroom can be found in the extravagant drag balls of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s held in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago and Baltimore, the most notable of which were the Harlem festivities. Filled with pageantry and transvestites, these drag balls were elite, cosmopolitan affairs that mimicked debutante balls and other high society events. But their status and popularity were not enough to save them from the growing concern of moral purity campaigns for homosexuality.
The drag circuit survived underground, but it was the racism inside those balls that prompted trailblazers like Black trans woman Crystal LaBeija to create a new scene in 1970s New York City. The categories in which artists could participate or walk evolved with the aesthetic. No more showgirl act in Las Vegas. Performers imitated Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and later models like Iman, Christie Brinkley, and Maud Adams.
Another pioneering icon, Paris Dupree, invented voguing, a new style of dance that incorporated poses from high fashion magazines as well as ancient African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics. She has helped shape competitive categories such as fashion, runway, face (beauty) and reality (the art of posing as a traditional member of the archetype attributed to gender and status). When much of the world is closed to you, walking is a way to regain power. In the ballroom, if you work hard you can win, even if only in this arena.
“Being from a Jamaican Christian home, it’s very difficult to live in the skin I’m in,” says Matthew Cuff, also known as Snoopy Lanvin of Maison Lanvin. “It wasn’t until I discovered fashion that I could be truly free in my own skin and didn’t have to worry about gender boundaries or looking in a certain way.
Today, Cuff teaches at a leading studio, The Underground Dance Center, and last year he performed on stage with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. But as a founding member of the Canadian House of Monroe in 2006, he also remembers the struggle to establish community here. Back then, he says, the dance hall and calypso were the most important sounds in the black and gay club scene and even getting venues to play their music was a challenge. Finding allies like DJ Blackcat (aka Charmed Monroe) and opening key international chapters from home in Canada have helped cement the ballroom here.
The house system, founded by LaBeija in the 1970s, was more than just a way to organize teams for competitions. Led by a “mother” or “father”, who serves as a mentor and surrogate parent, the “children” take the name of their house. Divided into mainstream and kiki (the training ground), people can join houses and march in different categories – sometimes with or against their “brothers and sisters” – in each scene. When the world expects nothing from you, having people to be held accountable can be a matter of survival, says Miyake-Mugler, who first attempted suicide in elementary school and never expected. never to turn 18. She believes that if she had been exposed to more stories like hers growing up, she might not have had the same issues with her mental health. As a mother at Maison Louboutin in Canada, she considers supporting her children to be the goal of her life.
“What I need to bring is going to complement what your birth mother couldn’t,” says Miyake-Mugler. She wants the children to know that it is better. Today, she has a close relationship with her mother, but with the first-hand understanding that not all parents or communities are equipped to raise a queer or trans or even questioning child. Even the most accepting of them may not have the life experience to be the guiding force or role model their child needs.
Louboutin West, whose first name is Nikolaos Théberge-Dritsas, is the youngest and newest member of the ballroom on the set of the knitwear set of FASHION, but he is already the father of the Toronto chapter of the House of Louboutin. and has co-hosted and hosted balls at venues such as Artscape Daniels Launchpad and Soho House Toronto. Yet he always carries with him a historical conscience and is careful not to step on anyone’s feet. “I’m still a guest,” he says.
Miyake-Mugler, who recruited Louboutin West as father, believes there is room for everyone in the ballroom as long as they come in as allies and behave with integrity and respect . “It’s really important to have a space for LGBTQI people to be and exist, to let go, to feel welcome and to feel included,” acknowledges Matthew Chiu, known as Dynasty Milan, who helped bring the Canada categories like Track, Best Dressed and Handmade Performances. . “Today more than ever, it’s amazing to hear people in Montreal or Vancouver say, ‘I’ve never seen a trendy Asian person before I’ve seen you do it. “”
Milan discovered the ballroom after moving to New York City at 18 to attend the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It would follow the rehearsals of the House of Ninja, founded in the 1980s by Willi Ninja. Known as “the godfather of voguing”, Ninja took the dance style to new heights, becoming a sought-after choreographer. He died of AIDS-related heart failure in 2006 at the age of 45, but the iconic house lives on in his name.
For a community that has suffered so much, it is a sense of belonging that has helped them maintain them. “Creating something out of nothing is really the tenacity of the human mind,” says Milan. “That’s really the beauty of inclusion.”
Photograph by WILLIAM UKOH. Creative direction by GEORGE ANTONOPOULOS. Styling by ELIZA GROSSMAN. Hair by JASMINE MERINSKY for P1M.ca/SheaMoisture. Barber by CHADWIN BARTLEY for P1M.ca. Make-up by NATE MATTHEW for P1M.ca/Dior Beauty. Fashion assistant: TARA OCANSEY for P1M.ca. Production: COEY KERR for Rodeo.