When I mention “Ballroom” to people it’s always the same response: “Oh, like Dancing with the Stars?” Though ballroom dancing and Ballroom share the same namesake, they live in completely different facets of arts and culture. In the past few years, mainstream media has had its fun dabbling in the community of Ballroom – from Beyonce’s Renaissance album to the hit show Legendary. But in fact, Ballroom has been here for much longer and has been an integral part of how the industry of hip-hop, fashion and pop culture has evolved.
Growing from the 1970s, Ballroom became a place for queer folk to come together and celebrate their queerness (while throwing a bit of shade). Led by the Black and Latinx trans community, Ballroom has grown to become a global sensation with chapters in cities like Seoul, New York City, Paris and even Toronto and Montreal.
But if you’re still unfamiliar with Ballroom, let’s start off with the fundamentals. Ahead of the Toronto’s World AIDS Day Ball (which, as you can see in our Slice.ca TikTok below, took place on Dec. 3), I had a chance to chat with the Overall Mother of the House Louboutin, Jazmine Carter (she/her) and Mother Raven Louboutin-Milan (they/them) on their experience in the Canadian Ballroom scene.
@slicedotca Ballroom for a great cause? Count us in 🌈✨ #worldaidsday2022 #worldaidsdayball #lgbtqevent ♬ bejeweled sped up – bia (taylor’s version)
The Ballroom scene in Canada
On Dec. 3, Toronto hosted the largest Ball in Canada’s history. This was a monumental moment for the Ballroom scene in Canada, and a milestone for queer people across the country.
“[Canada] Is a growing community,” Jazmine mentions. “Mainstream houses in New York are the best of the best and are looked at as an end goal for people in Ballroom.”
Some queer people don’t identify with the ‘gay village,’ which is why they find refuge in Ballroom.
The “kiki” scene – which is typically the entryway to Ballroom – in Canada is very active. Toronto, in a lot of ways, has become the epicentre for Ballroom culture in Canada, with the majority of the houses calling it home.
In the mainstream scene, it’s typical to hear of successful houses such as Balenciaga, Miyake-Mugler and Labeja. Whereas in the kiki scene, there are up-and-coming houses such as Louboutin, Telfar and Imperium. Ballroom has always been a place for many young queer people to find safety and acceptance.
“So many young kids come fresh out of high school looking to find out where they fit in,” says Jazmine. “Some queer people don’t identify with the ‘gay village,’ which is why they find refuge in Ballroom.” Jazmine goes on to mention that “everyone finds Ballroom at different stages in their queer life.” In Ballroom, age isn’t a factor in how much love you receive from the community, it’s about your commitment and passion to the culture.
Related: Interview: ‘Pose’ star Hailie Sahar talks Ballroom and trans visibility.
In Ballroom, there are a variety of “categories” one can participate in, like face, sex siren, realness, runway, performance — just to name a few. These categories were created and developed by Black and Latinx trans women as a way to highlight their beauty in performance and styling. The Ballroom scene was largely based on the pageant scene in NYC, where trans women felt disproportionately underrepresented. Every house has a speciality within these categories. For house Louboutin, they focus on face and realness, and continue to dominate those categories in the kiki scene.
“I got involved in Ballroom in 2018 when the house of Louboutin was first founded,” Jazmine says.
Raven found their way later on during the height of the pandemic. “I started with vogue femme, and it wasn’t really clicking – so I started watching YouTube videos on “Old Way” and it stuck.” As mothers of the houses, both Raven and Jazmine hold a ton of responsibility in fostering the growth of their kids and their house for future generations.
Related: Black Canadian talent on the rise.
The French connection
While Toronto has developed a well-established kiki scene, pre-pandemic, Montreal is still on its way in growing a larger community of its own. Montreal’s Ballroom scene started in the ‘80s and has had new waves of kiki houses throughout the years. “During the pandemic I started hosting online classes and outdoor practices, and even functions once a month with other Ballroom people,” Raven remarks. “Montreal is very young and still growing – I like to think of it as a playground to practice and start exploring the categories.”
Mother Raven worked hard to continue the momentum within the Montreal scene. They continue to take a lot of inspiration from other leaders in the Montreal community, like Wayne 007, Elle Barbara, Cora 007, Cuarta Mulan and Ali Old Navy, just to name a few.
There are a total of eight kiki houses in Montreal, with four of them having roots in international mainstream houses. “We’re not quite there yet with the mainstream scene,” Raven mentions. “That is why I believe Toronto is so vital to Montreal – we’re heavily inspired by what is going on in the [Toronto] scene.” Raven built their chapter with the love and encouragement from Tamar 007 and n9ne 007, as well as with the overwhelming support from the Montreal community. Raven’s goals are to continue inspiring all newcomers to Ballroom in Montreal, further growing this vibrant and talented Ballroom community.
Related: The 10 cutest spots in Montreal for a first date.
Nuances in pop culture
A personal pet peeve of mine is “noguing.” For those who don’t know, noguing is just another way of half-a**ing vogue – almost as if it were a mockery. This is none more present than on TikTok. With the success of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, fans and casual onlookers have continued to make a joke of Ballroom culture through TikTok dances or even the misuse of terms originating from Ballroom.
…there’s a level of respect that needs to be recognized when watching these types of shows.
“Everybody that nogues, please stop (LOL),” Jazmine says. “It’s just disrespectful to all the Black and Latinx trans women that died trying to get us to where we are today.” Jazmine goes on to point out, however, that there is a community of people on TikTok working hard to educate the young folk on the etiquette of Ballroom.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with loving Drag Race (I enjoy it as much as the next gay), but there’s a level of respect that needs to be recognized when watching these types of shows. Pop culture as a whole can sometimes be irresponsible with the way it appropriates terms rooted in Ballroom culture. I tend to hear a lot of “you slayed mama” or “you ate that,” but also used in weird contexts – where are y’all getting this from?
“There are times when Ballroom does feel like it’s being respected in mainstream media,” Jazmine notes. While speaking on Beyonce’s Renaissance album, Jazmine reflects on how deeply important the Ballroom-inspired tracks were to members of the community. “The album in a lot of ways paid homage and gave visibility to the Ballroom community.” Jazmine recalls attending the album release party and remembered seeing how happy people within the community were about the clear inspirations from Ballroom integrated into songs like “Pure Honey” and the inclusion of trans icons like T.S Madison.
You may also like: Interview: ‘Canada’s Drag Race’ winner Priyanka wants viewers to support local drag.
The future of Canadian Ballroom
The biggest piece of advice from Jazmine and Raven when thinking about joining a kiki house is to “come alone, spectate, ask questions and open up to people,” as Jazmine explains. Though it may seem intimidating – I can attest to this – people in the community are welcoming, kind and nurturing. Personally, I haven’t found a category that fits me, but I’ve also found community in being an ally and spectator while my friends perform.
…people in the community are welcoming, kind and nurturing.
The World AIDS Day Ball offered the opportunity for many of the kiki and mainstream houses to show their talents on a Canadian stage. The Ball took place on Dec. 3, with many sponsors backing the event. The Ball was expected to have over $10,000 in cash prizes with notable legends, icons and stars of Ballroom from the United States expected to be in attendance. Raven and Jazmine’s hope is that with more exposure, members of their House will have the opportunity to showcase their talents on a larger forum.
If Jazmine, Raven and the entire house of Louboutin are anything to show for the progression of Ballroom in Canada, the future’s looking bright. Don’t be surprised if chapters start up opening in your city near you.