After a silent and steady rise in the city’s gay scene, ballroom culture is ready for its close-up.
During Fashion Week, on the Thompson Hotel’s rooftop patio, blogger Jay Strut introduced The Ball, a night to celebrate “absolute nothingness” during the city’s high tide of style. Aspiration was in the air as young men flirted with drag, fashion girls flaunted their most vintage furs, and suits sought bottle service.
The Ball is the latest Toronto happening to pull inspiration from the ballroom scene, a movement that was celebrated in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, which tracked an underground drag scene that grew out of Harlem during the late ’80s. Livingston chronicled the lives of the doyennes, examining how the scene offered ostracized gays—primarily African-Americans and Latinos—both refuge and adoration. Community balls presented an opportunity to dress up in elaborate, often handmade re-imaginations of haute couture in order to model and be judged on artistry and performance. Although there had been a scene dating as far back as the 1920s, Paris was the first exploration of this vibrant yet hidden world.
Strut is merely one of the many outsiders who continue to pay homage to ballroom and bring it closer to home, where Toronto’s own burgeoning scene is spilling over into the mainstream, whether partygoers know it or not.
But first: a brief explanation. Balls are part pageant, part community gatherings, part party—at one time predominately an outlet for the disenfranchised to mimic and satirize the rich. Competitions are made up of participating “houses” whose members walk off against each other. From Harlem, ballroom spread as far as London, and its floors fostered the art of Vogueing before the dance style hit the clubs and inspired Madonna to devour it and sell it back to us. In the two decades since Paris Is Burning, ballroom culture has surged in prominence and is trending hard in the niches of everything from television to pop music to Tumblr, whether it’s the “realness” of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Scissor Sisters’ references to “kiki,” or, hell, Gaga’s Born This Way Ball.
Ballroom isn’t a foreign concept in Toronto. From Queen West’s hip-hop monthly, Big Primpin’, to Fritz Helder’s House of Helder crew, its elements continue to inform the city’s queer culture. Yet the country’s only “official” house is Toronto’s own House of Monroe. This year, it will be celebrating its fifth anniversary with two November events: the The Time Traveler’s Ball, on Nov. 3 at the Church Street Community Centre and an offshoot, the fourth annual Almighty Ball, on Nov. 23, inspired by New York’s legendary Latex Ball.
Houses like Monroe serve a purpose beyond showmanship—they’re modern families, with a clan-like structure that includes a mother and father. “The ball was a place for you to express yourself when you were ostracized from your family or friends because you were gay, or even trans,” says Charmed Monroe, a.k.a. Blackcat, a local DJ who, as the oldest member, calls himself the grandfather of the House. The House paved the way for the Kiki Ballroom Alliance, a group founded by a Monroe member for those between the ages of 15 and 29 interested in being schooled. (Think of it as a ballroom boot camp.) The Alliance recently won the first annual Spirit of Will Munro Award, a $10,000 grant for queer, youth-friendly community projects.
Where the activities at House of Monroe safeguard the traditions of ballroom, Strut’s soirée is loosely inspired by Livingston’s film and our current cultural love of affectation. “I see this as young kids who love fashion, love music, and love fun, who may not completely have a grasp on the origins of the ball or know Paris Is Burning.” Local party mavericks Mansion—famous for dim sum dance parties—are also supporting the scene: On Nov. 16, they’ll debut Tokyo Twerk, a new party that aims to borrow elements of Ball culture and reconstruct it by adding a musical angle and an Asian twist. It’s inspired by their summer collab with Yes Yes Y’All, nu-vogue DJ MikeQ, and anthem maker Zebra Katz. That night saw spontaneous eruptions of vogue battles, so now they’re mounting a full runway for anyone daring enough to take advantage of it.
For now, though, it’s still House of Monroe siblings walking off against one another, or free agents called 007s. “We’re working on becoming a ballroom house to be reckoned with,” says Charmed. “But we want another house or two to come up in Toronto. Then it’s a battle.” To add to Monroe’s regular charity work, Charmed hopes to grow his Almighty Ball series to be as big as recently departed HIV/AIDS fundraiser Fashion Cares—a goal that’s never seemed more possible. How’s that for realness?
Toronto Is Burning
Big Primpin’: Nov. 2, Wrongbar, 1279 Queen St. W. Doors at 10 p.m.
House of Monroe Presents: The Time Traveler’s Ball: Nov. 3, Church Street Community Centre, 519 Church St. Doors at 7 p.m., $20.
Tokyo Twerq: Nov. 16, Moskito, 423 College St. Doors at 10 p.m., $10.
The Almighty Ball: Nov. 23, Club 120, 120 Church St. Doors at 8 p.m., $15.