Following the success of the Emmy award-winning show Pose, ballroom culture has found itself in the mainstream once more. Its first introduction to the mainstream is often attributed to Madonna’s “Vogue,” which sparked the vogueing dance craze, and the cult classic documentary “Paris is Burning.” While it first gained popularity during the AIDS epidemic, ballroom in 2019 faces a presidential administration that is notably silent on the issues faced by Black and Latino LGBT people, the same demographic that pioneered the ballroom scene over 40 years ago. O.T.A., short for Open to All, is a weekly mini ball hosted in Brooklyn by Leggoh LaBeija and Tim Lanvin, who hope to set politics aside in order to foster inclusivity in the true spirit of ballroom. Reporter Artan Ljukovic hit Bushwick to find out what ballroom and O.T.A. are all about.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to motherf*cking O.T.A. Clap just a little bit, clap! Clap just a little bit, clap!”
I’m at the 3 Dollar Bill nightclub where the crowd is dressed to the nines, ready to leave it all on the floor tonight. That’s Leggoh Labeija getting the crowd pumped up for a competitive night. O.T.A. opened its doors this past July. Every week, members of houses compete against each other in categories like runway, executive realness and vogue. In attendance tonight are members of the House of LaBeija, the House of Makaveli, the House of Mizrahi and the House of Mugler. The House of Mugler showed out tonight, just listen to the chants.
“Mugler! Mugler! Mugler!”
Back in the 80s, houses were established as chosen families in order to give Black and Latino LGBT youth a sense of belonging. Dai-Dai LaBeija explains their importance.
“Ballroom is a place where Black young, Latino young kids would come back in the 60s and 70s because they had no other place to go. It was a place where you could be an executive, you could be a supermodel, you could be a performer, you could be a dancer for that night, you know?”
Ballroom can easily become an escapists paradise; it’s a means to get out of the real world for a bit. But the competition can get very intense sometimes, leading to tension within the community. While commentating, Leggoh LaBeija took a moment to address the issue.
“One thing we’re not going to do is treat someone of our own, when we already have a world that treats us a certain kind of way. Don’t look for someone to die, then say ‘Oh.’ No, we’re not doing that.”
To him, ballroom should foster friendly competition, harmless shade and positivity. Here’s what said to me.
“Shady stuff is, you know, fine, being mean and evil, you know, I don’t tolerate that. I think that’s what made me different from other commentators at first. I like to consider myself a really good commentator, and that I’m in the House of LaBeija, but I think it’s the fact that people really want to have fun. So when you’re leading the event, as long as you feed off of that want, you’re always going to have a positive vibe, as long as you make people feel seen.”
But being seen is something that the Black and Latino LGBT community struggles with in regards to politics and society in general. So far this year, 21 transgender people were murdered, 18 of whom were Black women. President Trump and politicians countrywide have been criticized for failing to address the issue. LeFrierce LaBeija offered a hopeful outlook on the issue.
“Right now if we stand together and fight, then we all can achieve something. Like if we go and protest, as a whole, against everything that this presidential, the person that is in the seat right now, is throwing at us, we can overcome it – that man. If we stand together, we can overcome it. His time is ticking, it’ll be shorter than Vine vids.”
American politics aside, the political nature of favoritism plays a large role in determining who leaves with trophies and who doesn’t. When founding the House of LaBeija in 1977, this is something that Crystal LaBeija was adamant about fixing. Unfortunately, she died of liver failure in 1982, before realizing her goals. Current house father, Freddie LaBeija, hopes to carry that torch.
“You have individuals that may pick their girlfriend when it comes to the judges, you know. The fairness is being taken out of ballroom. Ballroom was built on exactly what’s going on in ballroom now, which is the negative stuff, the politics. That’s what Crystal fought for not to happen in ballroom, so what we do is we stay together as a family, we go through struggles, um stuff like that.”
But politics are just the underbelly of what goes on in ballroom. Habibi Makaveli, who’s just watching tonight sees OTA to be a safe spaces. He says a person can expect more than just politics and competition.
“They can expect, like, the troublemakers in class to, like, win in this narrative if that makes sense. Like the ones that are getting told that they’re doing the most, like, that’s what makes this so great and fun just because we’re getting praise for being expressive, for being ourselves, yea.”
Reporting from 3 Dollar Bill’s OTA Weekly mini ball series, this is Artan Ljukovic.