Olivia Frieson was walking out of her ballet class at the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center (T.U.P.A.C.) three years ago when she and her mother spotted a flyer advertising vogue and kiki classes at the center. They both squealed excitedly.
For years they loved watching people dance, vogue and walk the runway at balls on YouTube. So Frieson immediately signed up. Now, 11, Frieson is a member of the House of Monet and a three-year veteran in the Seattle-area kiki ballroom scene.
Created by Black trans leader Crystal LaBeija of New York, who was fed up with racial discrimination in white-dominated LGBT pageants in the 1960s, ballroom is a competition in which LGBTQ+ people of color perform, dance and model in celebration of queer identities — this is not the waltz-and-tango black tux-and-ball gown dance of “high society” that might come to mind. Competitors walk the runway or dance in different categories, including vogue performance, realness, best dressed and runway performance. Judges score those who “walk” in the competitions on talent, looks, confidence and presentation, and winners walk away with trophies, cash prizes and glory.
Just a few years ago, ballroom culture was mostly unknown beyond the underground LGBTQ+ communities of color who participated in them. Now, with social media and the popularity of TV shows and programs like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Pose” and “Legendary,” the curtain has been thrown open on ballroom culture in the U.S. This rise in awareness has contributed to increased participation in Seattle’s up-and-coming ballroom scene.
At the Haunted Nights Masquerade Ball held last month for Pacific Northwest Black Pride, a conference hosted by the health equity agency POCAAN (People of Color Against Aids Network), queer folk of color came from all over the state to get a taste of ballroom culture in the Seattle area.
For some, it was their very first ball. Several audience members cited YouTube videos and shows like “Pose” for getting them interested in the ballroom scene.
In the Seattle area, that scene began less than a decade ago (an annual celebration of house and ballroom culture called “Legendary Children” celebrated its sixth year this year), and is more accurately referred to as a “kiki” scene, the name for a smaller and less competitive scene than mainstream ballroom. Although still in its infancy, Seattle’s kiki scene has been injected with new energy in the past three years and is already impacting conversations on the mainstream level.
As the local ballroom scene becomes an important place for Black and brown LGBTQ+ people to feel safe, supported and celebrated, many opened up about what ballroom means to them and what’s next for Seattle’s nascent scene.
A place to belong
At the Haunted Nights Masquerade Ball, the only thing louder than the music was the cheers. The brown-tiled floor in the middle of the room was transformed into a dance floor, a runway and a battlefield as competitors performed and modeled and out-shaded each other.
In the purple-tinted dark of the ballroom, body glitter sparkled and bold jewelry shined. Audience members crowded at the edges of the performance floor to deliver their praises.
Commentators circled around the flying hands of dancers voguing (a much more intricate form of vogue than the appropriated version Madonna made popular) as they hyped up the crowd and performers with musical chants that bounced deftly to the beat of the music.
Whether clad in elaborate costumes for the runway categories or barely clad at all for the sex siren category … whether hoping to win by the contours of their face in the face category or by the grace of their spins and power of their dips in the vogue performance category, everyone competed with confidence and left it all on the floor.
That’s what ballroom is all about — competition, confidence and community.
When she’s walking at a ball, “it feels like the world is out of motion and I’m at home,” Frieson said. “You’re living the moment and it’s just so exciting. And when that moment ends at the end of the night, you feel a certain relief and want to do it all again.”
Full of confidence, Frieson is right at home on the runway, but in her daily life, she isn’t comfortable telling her peers that she participates in ballroom. She worries they may not understand what ballroom is and might spread rumors about her. That concern connects her to the historical purpose of the house and ballroom scene.
Balls continue to be one of the few spaces where Black and brown LGBTQ+ people can feel supported and comfortable just being themselves.
“Ballroom was created because Black and brown trans women did not feel like they had a space,” said Chi-Chi Khaos, the creator of the T.U.P.A.C. vogue and kiki classes in Tacoma where Frieson got her start. “I think it’s so needed here [in the Seattle area].”
That’s where the houses come in. Houses in ballroom culture are chosen family groups that practice ballroom skills together, support each other and perform in balls together. Each house has a house mother and/or father, and a “family name,” like Khaos or Monet, which the members of the house assume as a last name — usually alongside a new chosen name that they use in the ballroom scene.
Houses often served as a safe space for many LGBTQ+ youth who had been kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity. Their house families became their real families. That is hardly a thing of the past.
Chi-Chi Khaos, house mother of the House of Khaos, was kicked out of his home at age 14 because of his sexuality. Now, Chi-Chi Khaos calls houses “found families” where queer folk can support each other and have the kind of conversations they couldn’t have with their biological families.
“The real gem of the [ballroom] community is within the house structure,” said Stephaun Wallace, founder of the House of Marc Jacobs and a staff scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Participating in the mainstream ballroom scene for about 20 years, Wallace has served as a mentor and ballroom historian to the local scene. The house structure is what drew Wallace to the scene.
“I saw this community as an opportunity to intersect an interest of mine, which was the work of community and the healing and transformational space that is created by houses,” he said.
In 2013, when Wallace first arrived in Seattle, the scene here was in its earliest stages and there were only a few houses. Now, there are at least a half-dozen, each with different house rules, monikers and missions. What they all have in common is that they aim to be family.
“Every last one of us knows what it’s like to feel like you have no one in the world,” said Tiana “Tinashea” Monet, founder and house mother of the House of Monet — Washington’s longest-running house, and the first house in the Pacific Northwest founded by a Black trans woman.
“I already knew there were things I didn’t get from my family that I wanted to give to others,” said Tiana Monet. “I was always longing for a place to belong.”
That’s why house mothers like Tiana Monet and Chi-Chi Khaos make it their No. 1 purpose to ensure every one of their children feels supported. They do so through regular meetings, social hangouts and, in the House of Monet, a house rule Tiana calls “say so” that insists each member has the right to speak up and talks about any issues freely with the rest of the house.
“They’re people who choose you continuously,” said Luci Monet, a member of the House of Monet.
At a ball, you’ll hear competitors cheering for their own house members, throwing shade at members of other houses on the runway and competing fiercely for the win. But you’ll also see them hugging afterward and giving one another constructive feedback. Listen to anyone’s ballroom origin story and you’ll find that people from different houses helped each other get into the scene or learn new skills.
“Ballroom is competition, but when you’re at a ball you feel this sense of love and family,” said Amiyah Nichelle, a competitor who is not currently part of a house — known in the scene as a “007.” “Even beyond houses, there’s still an element of family.”
Community is at the core of everything, but the house and ballroom scenes also nurture Black and brown queer youth, get them the resources they need, and teach them valuable skills about living in the world as a queer person of color.
“Ballroom has always been a connection to a greater purpose in my gay lifetime,” said Lestat Princeton, founder of the House of Princeton and an early contributor to the Seattle ballroom scene.
Kiki scenes especially were created to engage LGBTQ+ youth and bring them into nonprofit spaces dedicated to health equity, HIV and AIDS resources, and other safety and equity concerns.
“Being people of color but also queer people and trans people and gender nonconforming people, we’re not as respected and as seen,” said Tiana Monet. “I teach my kids, walk into the room like you own the room. Not to say you’re better than anyone, but you have to be able to understand there’s a place for you in this world and it’s what you make of it.”
Ballroom’s realness category reflects the serious issue of safety for trans people of color. The category typically judges competitors on their ability to “pass” as different gender identities like cisgender female, drag queen, trans male.
It originated to emphasize the unfortunate necessity of “passing” for trans men and women who were (and still are) often met with discrimination, physical violence and even death if they do not pass as cisgendered (someone whose gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth).
“These skills and categories in ballroom, they’re not just stuff for trophies. These are ways of life and ways to maneuver in the real world, in the straight world,” said Tiana Monet.
Space for self-expression
Three butterfly-shaped mirrors decorated Michael Saunders’ chest, accenting the all-black costume he wore at the Haunted Nights ball. The butterflies are an homage to his mother’s “Black butterfly” persona, which she adapted as she learned to embrace her dark skin. It’s a symbol she handed down to Saunders.
The mirrors, said Saunders, a member of the House of Monet, were a nod to the “ethereal beings” theme of one of the categories at the ball, and they demonstrate what he sees as his purpose in life — “to serve people” and “to be a reflection of what other people need.”
For many, ballroom is a place where they can be themselves and celebrate aspects of themselves that are often denigrated by society.
“When I walk, I’m being witnessed in my truest self,” said Dannis Thompson, a co-founder of the House of Boba. “It’s very empowering for me to know that people are looking at me for what is actually me and not the façade that I put up in the cis-heteronormative world. I’m being witnessed without any effort from me to put up a front. I feel very safe, I feel very held by community.”
The community in Seattle includes many who identify as nonbinary and gender nonconforming, and a desire to extend the joys of self-expression to everyone in the ballroom is creating new conversations in the ballroom scene.
At the Haunted Nights ball in October, host Kurt Ragin (known as Julian Lanvin in the ballroom scene) was happily surprised when participants called for the impromptu addition of a realness category for nonbinary competitors.
“We had to recognize the people who exist in that space,” said Lanvin. “It was an educational moment for the commentators, the judges and the audience.”
While Seattle is ahead of the game on nonbinary inclusion, the scene here is still small and new compared with other cities.
“The PNW has a reputation of being progressive,” Wallace said. “But that progressiveness has a slant if you’re Black and brown.”
That’s why the ballroom scene here is so important, Thompson says.
“It’s about teaching ourselves to accept ourselves,” they said. “We didn’t know we could express ourselves in this way and be accepted.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.