With The Mirror Ball, World Stage 2016 makes room for ballroom
My homegirls and I are developing a new tradition. Each month a different member of the crew is assigned the task of coordinating an evening out. This month's outing was ice-skating at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. As I got dressed on Saturday evening, I ransacked my closet for a fleece-lined crewneck sweater and baggy jeans so that I could fit thick stockings underneath. My purse was packed with tissues for the inevitable runny nose from the cold.
As we entered the main building at Harboufront, a dazzling figure adorned in a curly wig, sequined mini-dress and full beard squealed, "Darlings! You must know where the ball is!" We exchanged looks and telepathically agreed that skating would have to take a rain check.
A dazzling figure adorned in a curly wig, sequined mini-dress and full beard squealed, 'Darlings! You must know where the ball is!'
Combining the winning elements of fashion show catwalks and aggressive dance battles, the ballroom scene (not to be confused with people in formalwear doing the foxtrot) was born during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s "where men and women in elaborate costumes, transgendered people and other members of the LGBT community, most of them black, strutted their stuff (or "walk") in an intensely competitive yet hugely supportive environment," according to the Globe and Mail.
The scene continued to evolve through the gay black underground community in New York and New Jersey in the 1970s. It received mainstream prominence thanks to the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, and Madonna's hit single "Vogue" whose video was choreographed by legendary ballroom dancer Willi Ninja.
The scene arrived in Canada in 2006 through the creation of House of Monroe. "Houses" in the ballroom scene have been compared to rival teams, but at their root is the concept of family, complete with house "parents" who give suggestions for dancers' ballroom names, guide them in training for competitions and provide support and mentorship for members beyond the scene. Currently in Toronto there are two major houses: House of Monroe and House of Nuance (born in 2012), alongside several Canadian chapters to American Houses: the Houses of Paciotti, Miyake-Mugler, Ninja and Lanvin. In Toronto, there are currently two ballroom scenes — the 'real' ballroom scene and the "kiki" scene, a lower-stakes training ground for newcomers to the ballroom culture.
On Saturday, thanks to Bon Bon — our bearded. sequined greeter and fairy godmother of the night — we stumbled onto The World Stage Mirror Ball: the 'real' ballroom scene celebrating the launch of Harbourfront's World Stage season. Feeling uncomfortable in my fleece-lined crewneck, I berated myself for packing tissues instead of lipstick. I gulped down my complimentary champagne, considered standing in line for the make-up station and gazed in awe at the bejeweled eyebrows, glitter adorned heels, sequined bras and colourful tutus all around me.
The night was hosted by Mother Trouble Nuance (House of Nuance) and Mother Tko Monroe (House of Monroe), incredible commentators who kept the energy up and made sure the audience knew the rules: keep the clap going, and the drinks for the hosts coming.
Vogue categories of competition at the Mirror Ball included "Bizarre," "European Runway," "Hairography," "Face" and "Sex Siren." Each category was evaluated critically by a panel of judges, and the winner was awarded a cash prize. It was a "just bring it" ball, meaning that anyone from the audience could walk in the categories. I quickly forgot my baggy-jean woes, lifting a hand of praise and snapping my fingers while establishing numerous life goals including learning how to do a "death drop."
The ballroom scene is traditionally rooted in black queer culture. Saturday's ball revealed how much the scene has spread to a wide range of demographics hungry for the courage, fierceness and magic inspired by the culture. The fact that such an event could even be held at a mainstream venue like Harbourfront Centre prompted some observers to question whether the subculture is being coopted. However with hashtags dominating Canadian media such as #oscarssowhite #canstagesowhite and #racisminmusic, I reveled in the artistic landscape curated by ballroom culture and felt surprisingly moved emotionally. Here in this subculture was the clear illumination on what diversity can yield: normalized inclusion, unapologetic celebration and all the imagination-expanding creativity that difference inspires.
Harbourfront Centre presents World Stage 2016. To Jun. 11, 2016.
235 Queens Quay W., Toronto,. Tickets $15-$54 from 416-973-4000, box office, harbourfrontcentre.com/worldstage. Discounts available for youth, full-time students, seniors, groups, arts industry professionals.