Ovahness! - The Evolution Of The Ball Scene In Toronto

Arguably the Ball Scene can be traced back to Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge which staged its first queer masquerade ball in 1869. By 1889, 500 same-sex male and female couples could be seen at yet another ball that was taking place Walhalla Hall on the Lower East Side.   During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's balls attended by thousands took place regularly at venues such as the Rockland Palace and the Savoy Ballroom, with prizes awarded for the best costumes. Renowned author Langston Hughes once described such events as “spectacles of color.”  The New York drag ball scene enjoyed a revival in the 1970’s, and reached the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s. This era witnessed the creation of legendary “houses” such as Dupree, LaBeija, Omni, and Xtravaganza. During these years, Pepper LaBeija started the annual Harlem Fantasy Ball, while Paris Dupree created the Paris Is Burning Ball. Erstwhile punk impresario Malcolm McLaren highlighted the ball culture in his 1989 music video, “Deep in Vogue”; but the scene really burst into mainstream public consciousness a year later with the release of Jennie Livingston’s documentary film Paris Is Burning. At its core Voguing was inspired by Vogue magazine, voguing is characterized by model-like poses integrated with angular, linear, and rigid arm, leg, and body movements. Over the years, the dance evolved into the more intricate and illusory form that is now with improvised elements borrowed from mime, gymnastics, and martial arts.  Participants are judged on the quality of their “voguing,” The most famous voguer to date, Willi Ninja, parlayed his appearances in McLaren’s video and Paris Is Burning into a career as a dancer, choreographer, and instructor of professional models and socialites.  The 90s house ballroom scene took the old notion of “throwing shade” – one queen giving attitude to another – to a whole new level. The self-styled “ball children”, primarily gay or transgendered black men escaping hard-knock lives, battled each other on the dance floor for the glory of their house (in the spirit of a model representing a fashion house on the catwalk). A different way of voguing began to come up. Like most styles of dance, vogue fem is more about a look and feel than a hard-and-fast set of rules. It can encompass ultra-feminine, ballet-like "soft and catty" movements on the one end, and hyperactive, stunt-driven "dramatics" on the other. Wild hair tosses; heart-stopping drops, and angled twirls became the vogue fem hallmarks, however. With the new style, dancers began to gravitate towards nervier, more anxious music with sharp orchestra hits, cascades of percussive crashes, and super-choppy samples. The gracefulness and glamorous poses of the Old Way have made room for more attention - grabbing moves, and the amped-up speed garage sound. By the end of the 90's the AIDS crisis damaged the scene irrevocably in many ways, just as it was hitting its stride. A new Guard would pic up the mantel. 

Fast forward to 2007 the Ball Scene has migrated throughout the major cities in the US as well as Canada via visiting Americans and the House of Monroe is born.  In many ways the Ball DNA has evolved to include a unique Afro-Caribbean textures such as dancehall and Canadian multicultural twists including inclusion of other cultures and races.  Over the past five years House of Monroe has staged several balls that have introduced the scene to thousands.   With a single house balls depended on 007's or independent agents to keep the battles competitive.  The emergence of the Kiki ball scene has introduced groups like House of Omega, House of Pink Lady, House of Polaris, House of Pucci, House of Xprada.  Kiki Balls are like formal practice events featuring fierce competitions.

My interest started in the mid 90’s as part of the House of Charles in Detroit’s nascent Ball Scene… Events were held in afterhours clubs like Heaven and Bookies. In Toronto I learned of the House of Monroe and I wanted to inject myself back into the scene in a different way, through my photography. The title Ovahness! was drawn largely on its definition of Ovah!  Which the Urban dictionary defines as: “a gay term when something or someone is Ovah they are fabulous.  Over the top. They are gorgeous and beautiful. They can also be sassy and sometimes fierce especially in a vogue competition on the pier or at a vogue ball.  Sometimes they vogue fiercely and fall to the floor and someone yells Ovah!”  The photographs here attest to the Ovahness! of the participants and speak to the collective accomplishments of the House of Monroe and the Kiki Ball Scene for bringing to and perpetuating the Ball Scene in Toronto.

Copyright 2013

Publish Date/ 2015 

Using Format