Glittering pink-and-purple lights illuminate the red carpet the night of June 10. Attendees brim with excitement as they crowd into Julia’s on Broadway, the Capitol Hill restaurant. With Pride month well under way, what better way to celebrate Seattle’s Black, Brown and Indigenous trans and queer communities than a gay AF, cowboy-themed runway?
After a star-studded drag performance inspired by Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” album, the announcer begins calling up local Pacific Northwest (PNW) kiki scene legends and notables, followed by judges for the night’s ball.
One by one, contestants begin performing the various categories: best dressed, face, realness, runway, vogue performance, sex siren and lipsync. The event, part of a monthly kiki ball series called Strike A Pose, stretched well into the night, captivating the audience with fierce acts and a variety of twists, turns and upsets.
This is ballroom: a performance, arts and community space by, for and about BIPOC queer communities that celebrates living your best, most authentic self. In recent years, the scene has become more mainstream, highlighted by shows such as FX’s “Pose” and HBO Max’s “Legendary.”
At a ball, contestants compete in front of a panel of judges in various categories. As a person walks the runway, judges must decide whether they fulfill the category and receive a “10” or if they failed and thus get “chopped.”
After the preliminary round, contestants who make it through perform against each other in a tournament-style bracket for trophies, prizes and glory.
Android Allure Mattel, a member of the PNW kiki scene who has been bestowed the title of “legend,” is co-creative director of Strike A Pose and a frequent judge at Seattle balls. They said the judging process helps people improve their skills.
“One of the reasons why I’m such a stern judge is because I really want people to push themselves and not just focus on doing the bare minimum,” Allure said. “A chop is not meant to make you feel less than — and a lot of people will take it personal sometimes — but it really just means that you just have more work to do. And if you don’t understand why you get chopped, that’s when you ask questions and you talk to people.”
The ballroom scene can be divided between the “main scene,” composed of more veteran and intergenerational competitors, and the “kiki scene,” which is made up of younger folks who have less experience. Ballroom hasn’t been around that long in the PNW, so it trends more toward the kiki variety.
A core component of ballroom is the concept of houses, a sort of chosen family for members of the community. House mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles with years of experience provide guidance and wisdom to house children learning the ropes of performing. House members compete together, work on their craft and find kinship and friendship. Performers who are not affiliated with any house are known as “007s.” In Seattle, there is a growing roster of houses present both in the kiki scene and in the nascent main scene.
“Everyone has different values of what they look for in a house,” said Julian Lanvin, the executive producer of Strike A Pose. “Some people are looking for houses that have a really strong family value. All houses may not have that value. Some houses just may simply want you to be a strong contender within your category and want you to walk all the time you hit the floor. You may have houses that have a mix of both. It just depends on what your focus is and realize that you have complete autonomy and picking your home or your house or where you want to go to. No one can force you to join a house, it’s totally up to you.”
Ballroom’s roots run deep. One of the foremost trailblazers was William Dorsey Swann, a Black queer community organizer sometimes dubbed the first “queen” of drag. In the 1880s and ’90s, he held numerous underground balls despite heavy police surveillance and harassment. Drag performances later became a staple of cabaret shows and theater, reaching their zenith of popularity in the 1920s and ’30s during the Harlem Renaissance and Prohibition.
While Black queer people were at the center of early drag ball culture, they were displaced as more white people entered the scene and took control of it, imposing eurocentric beauty standards. Having experienced the racism of the pageant circuit in the 1960s and ’70s, Manhattan-based queen Crystal LaBeija set out to establish somewhere that prioritized Black and Latino community members. Thus, ballroom the scene was born.
Ballroom took off, becoming a safe haven for trans and queer Black and Brown people in New York, and quickly spread to other major cities across the country.
The first ballroom events in the region were held in Portland, Oregon, in 2014. Community organizer and performer Jade Dynasty wanted to bring the scene to Seattle, putting together a series of balls called En Vogue in April 2016. Some of the big names in the PNW kiki scene met there.
Drag artist and ballroom performer Mooncakes 007 recalled competing there for the first time.
“I was kind of this 18 year old. ... I did pretty badly because I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “But I feel like after that I really got connected with, like, people in the dance scene here and people who were interested in what would eventually become the ballroom scene.”
Tracey Wong, a legend in the PNW kiki scene and member of the House of Ada, reminisced about her early experiences in Seattle ballroom.
“My introduction to ballroom got started in 2016,” Wong said. “And it was actually at a club, I don’t quite remember, maybe it was Kremwerk? And there was someone named Jade who … was about to throw a kiki ball called En Vogue. … And when I walked it, I made it all the way to finals to battle Android Allure.”
Wong beat Allure at that ball, and the two ended up bonding and forming a house together for a couple of years.
“It just felt so right during that time. It felt so right in every way and so nourishing and a sense of belonging,” Wong said.
The scene continued to grow over the next few years, filling a gap for Seattle’s queer BIPOC community. A nonprofit organization called The Playground Kiki connected community members to resources and provided voguing classes and workshops in Seattle and Tacoma.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the ballroom scene slowed down due to public health restrictions. Organizers were still able to hold some outdoor kiki balls, including at Taking B(l)ack Pride in 2020 and 2021.
At the same time, there was fresh interest in the ballroom scene among both new folks and veterans. Lanvin, a longtime member of the Baltimore ballroom scene who moved to Seattle in 2021, became instrumental in growing the scene further by producing regularly scheduled balls.
He helped found Strike A Pose in March 2022, which is now hosted at Julia’s on Broadway.
“I just saw a need in the community for it,” Lanvin said. “Because there is a ballroom community here in Seattle, but there wasn’t a consistent space for queer and trans BIPOC youth and young adults to actually experience ballroom or to consistently practice their craft.”
Allure added that one of the unique aspects of the PNW kiki scene was its focus on gender inclusivity for folks who are non-binary and gender non-conforming.
“The whole reason why ballroom was created was so that we could have those spaces to celebrate each other, showcase our talents,” Allure said. “Ballroom has been around for a very long time. … it gives people autonomy over themselves to be their most authentic self and be comfortable to do that without fear of judgment. And it’s always so comforting to be in a space [with people] who share similar experiences with you — it’s a healing space for that reason. You can find that support that you may be lacking in your everyday life.”
However, not everything related to ballroom has been so uplifting. Like so many other cultural phenomena started by Black people, the white mainstream has been accused of profiting off of ballroom culture and misrepresenting the scene. It’s gotten so widespread in the dance world that some ballroom performers have even coined a term for people who think they are doing vogue performance when they actually don’t have a clue, calling it “noguing.”
Wong said that it’s pretty clear when a mainstream figure is representing the ballroom community authentically or not.
“You can tell if they’re a little bit outside of the community and are trying to sound within the community. It just doesn’t feel as authentic. It doesn’t come from the heart; it doesn’t come from the cunt,” Wong said. “I love seeing the authentic representation of ballroom in mainstream media. And what I appreciate is when people that are actually a part of ballroom having these platforms versus folks not really a part of ballroom having these platforms and acting like they are.”
For organizers in the Seattle ballroom scene, the future seems bright. On July 29, Allure will be hosting a big kiki ball called Crystal Tokyo: The Dynasty Ball. The following weekend, Lanvin will be hosting the For The Culture Ball, which will be the first ball held according to main scene guidelines in Seattle’s history.
“I just can’t wait to see what the future holds,” Lanvin said. “And I just want people to go support all the ballroom events that you can that’s happening in the area. Donate to the nonprofits that are helping sustain the spaces. Be able to share and like anything ballroom-affiliated that’s in Seattle or Tacoma, and just continue to bring positivity and love into the space.”
Read more of the June 28-July 4, 2023 issue.