Bruno Destombes
© Bruno Destombes

Here's everything you need to know about the ballroom scene

From pop and R&B hits to RuPaul’s Drag Race, vogue and ballroom's cultural visibility in the mainstream has come a long way from the 1980s New York City underground scene.
By Max Mohenu
11 min readPublished on
In the 80’s, being a marginalized queer person meant you couldn’t simply find community, you had to make one all on your own. As it’s chronicled in Jennie Livingston’s famous 1990’s documentary Paris Is Burning, ballroom culture is rooted in necessity. This world was forged by queer and trans people of colour, those in need of love and safety, all banding together for strength and acceptance. As these networks grew, people gathered with their chosen families at large events to compete and showcase their skills, fiercest outfits and ability to tap into parts of their gender and sexuality that were only celebrated in the bustling underground. These families are called “houses” and the event that brings this glamorous spectacle to light is what we know today as “the ball”.
In essence, this is one of simplest ways to describe the foundations of ballroom culture, a movement that’s risen from the underground and helped inform over 20 years of pop culture and identity. While Livingston’s depiction in the documentary looks at the subculture's roots mostly in 80’s New York, the ballroom scene spans over 15 cities in the United States, including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C, Oakland and San Francisco Bay Area, to name a few. In pop culture today, drag pioneers like RuPaul draw influence from the culture, having began his career right in the thick of New York’s blooming nightlife, eventually making drag queen culture and ballroom language a global fixture through the hit series RuPaul's Drag Race.
Ballroom's underground ethos is still very strong in developing scenes who’ve used the history of it’s predecessors to create the next wave of jaw-dropping competitors. While still in its infancy, the Canadian ballroom scene has established itself a slew of formidable dancers, judges and killer MC’s. In Toronto, Montreal and parts of West Coast Canada, the creation of various balls throughout the country has seen the culture reignite and give new life to the scene at large. It’s important to know your way around the “house” (pun intended). Beyond it’s basic history, there’s sub-divisions, important language and overall cues about style, performance, competition and etiquette.
Catwalk at Red Bull Music Festival Toronto's vogue ball

Catwalk at Red Bull Music Festival Toronto's vogue ball

© Bruno Destombes

How the “house” is built

Within the ballroom community, the “houses” enter and throw balls, and are meant to serve as a system of support. A traditional house is headed by a mother and father, which are genderless roles. As the leader of the house, they have an important role in providing support, knowledge and camaraderie to the house’s “children.” The houses often name themselves after prominent fashion labels or icons. Depending on the house, the performers can have various skill sets. It’s not unordinary for houses to recruit “007’s”, which is the name used for performers who are free agents in the community. With the evolution of the Kiki scene in recent years, performers have been known to split their time between their mainstream house and their Kiki houses.

Understanding the “Kiki scene”

The “Kiki” scene originates from social gatherings at health outreach organizations. A Kiki, by definition a low-key function, sometimes includes dancing and friendly competition – always fun, never serious. The Kiki scene is focused heavily on community, and events are often run by up-and-comers. Members of the ballroom community use these Kiki events to practice for the mainstream balls, but also form smaller houses and balls within the group. The Kiki scene has allowed younger performers to harness their craft in a smaller setting. These houses are forming everywhere now and it’s given lots of opportunities for younger queers to compete and showcase their skills.
Competitor in the Runway category at Red Bull Music Festival Toronto

Competitor in the Runway category at Red Bull Music Festival Toronto

© Bruno Destombes

The Ballroom Bible: A list of terms you need to know

The Ball: An event where competitors face off against their rival houses for money and glory.
Battle: When a performer challenges another in and out of the ball.
Butch Queen: A gay man. Performance categories with this description are usually for cis-gendered gay men only.
Butch Queen In Drag: A gay man who is presenting a female illusion. This description is used for categories in balls for men who dress in drag.
Category: Categories are created based on various themes, skills and techniques. Some are open to all performers to compete in, depending on the type of ball. (Kiki balls are known to sometimes have open categories.)
Chants: Clever rhymes and raps used to hype up a performance. Some of the most legendary MCs use a unique mix of references and word play over a house beat to create the soundtrack for the battle.
Chop: To be eliminated in a ball as a contestant. Judges will often say, “Thank you, but that’s a chop”.
Clocked: To be called out or have emphasis put on something you’re wearing or doing (ie. “I’m glad you clocked Tasha for that hair. It looked terrible”).
Effect: A prop or set of items that maximizes the impact of your visual performance. These vary depending on your aesthetic or the category you’re walking.
Femme Queen: A trans woman. Categories with this description are for trans women only.
Legend: A highly recognized competitor with history in the ballroom scene. These veterans are usually multi-trophy winners with a host of prestige and accolades.
Live: Immense joy. (ie. “Did you see the new Beyonce video ? I’m living for it”.)
LSS (Legends, Statements, and Stars): The opening portion of the evening where local competitors are introduced by the MC.
Open To All (OTA): When a category does not designate gender. However, there may still be other requirements to compete (ie. props or costume).
Ovah: A variation of “over”. Usually used to describe excellence.
Pay It: Ignore and move on. Often used when dealing with something negative or unfavourable. (ie. “Who cares what she said about your moves. You did amazing. Pay it no mind”.)
Realness: In ballroom culture, realness is the ability to pass as a certain gender or sexuality.
Reading: The art of insults. A good read should never be overtly bitchy. You find a flaw in your opponent and verbally exaggerate it.
Serve/Serving: Bringing 110% attitude and confidence to your performance. If you’re “serving” an outfit, you’re strutting your stuff and living your best life.
Shade: An underhanded jab that’s slightly insulting and usually an inside joke. (ie. “Did you catch that shade Rob was throwing at Vicky?”)
Tea: In pop culture, the “tea” is the news, the scoop, the latest gossip. (ie. “I'm waiting for Kelsey to spill the tea about what happened at Victor’s party”.)
10’s: Receiving perfect reviews from the judges in a ball, which means you’ll proceed to the next round of the competition.
Turn It: When a performer stuns the audience with their performance at the ball. (ie. “She turned it with that outfit on the runway.”) Words like “serve” and “work” can also be used here.
Virgin: A first-timer, who’s never walked or performed in any category before.
Vogue Femme: A dance style that adds a twist to femme queen technique. Execution can be very soft or severe.
Walking: Is simply the act of competing in a certain category at the ball.

A brief history of legendary categories walked at a ball

Realness in the form of a category can look like many different things, depending on the individual walking. For Butch Queens, categories are designed for them to pass as straight men. Alternatively, Femme Queens and Butch Queen In Drag categories are designed for them to pass as women. The judges are looking for you sell the illusion so well that you could never be clocked. Every part of your presentation (look, attitude, swagger) needs to convince them you're serving it flawlessly. There shouldn't be any doubt once you walk down that runway. At the ball, a category like "Executive/ Thug Realness", for example, is designed for Butch Queens and Trans Men. The end goal is passing as straight, but the judges are critiquing based on how well your effects are used to deliver the overall package. There are many famous sub-categories that play on this idea of realness (Femme Queen Realness, School Boy Realness, Drag Realness, ect.). Performers will only compete if they meet the criteria needed.
Sex Siren
When a competitor walks “sex siren”, the mission is to hit the runway and ooze sex appeal. Showcase your body, your walk, your face. Give it everything you got! The key is to be sensual, not sexual, through tease and suggestion. A flirty hair flip, bedroom eyes, showing off your abs, a light strip tease and even a little booty clap are all fair game when it comes to winning the judges over. Bringing your props and effect together in a way that entices everyone in the room, including the judges, is the mark of a true sex siren. Hotness is nothing in this category if you don’t know how to sell the entire package.
Face is a category that can be very tricky. Judges want it all. Eyes, cheek bones, teeth, head tilts. If that’s not enough, both your entire outfit and props all work as an effect to heighten your performance. You won’t make it through with just a pretty face. The mission is to sell from head to toe, but mostly head! Fix your face and bring it to the runway.
(Some variations could be: Butch Queen Face, Femme Queen Face)
Hands Performance
In this category, performers can only vogue with their hands and nothing else. The key is to focus on intricate wrist movements, hand tricks and illusions. Performers with great dexterity and coordination will most likely do very well in the category.
Best Dressed
When this category opens, your only goal is to showcase your “best dressed”. Don’t come out in a fancy Halloween costume. You need to sell it like it’s runway couture. Whether it’s an artsy weirdo look, otherworldly glam, or that vintage gem you’ve dressed up to look high fashion, the judges want to see your ingenuity and conceptualization brought to the runway.
American Runway/European Runway
American and European Runway are both categories where masculine and feminine presentation is key. Both categories are often designed for Butch Queens, Studs and Trans Men, but the runway walks are meant to sell different things. American Runway is a runway walk designed to be masculine and European Runway is designed to be a more feminine runway walk. European Runway may feature outfits and effects seen at a European fashion show, but it's less about that and more about selling femininity when you pump down the runway. American Runway is about selling masculinity. The garment may not be the selling piece, but don't be afraid to get creative with your looks. If it makes sense with your performance, it's all fair game.
Virgin Vogue
Virgin categories are reserved for performers who’ve been walking for less than a year. This is an opportunity for newcomers to bring everything they’ve learned to the runway and serve it up for the judges.

Etiquette for the ball: Some tips for performers and audience members

Lady Ice Miyake-Mugler, winner of the Sex Siren category

Lady Ice Miyake-Mugler, winner of the Sex Siren category

© Bruno Destombes

Keep the same energy all night
The performers and MC’s are the heart of the performance, but the audience needs to give the runway life too! Let the performers know you are present throughout the night. Applaud, snap, cheer. Give the children all your energy and they’ll return it tenfold.
The judges have final say
For performers coming through for the first time walking open categories, please know that the judges can be relentless. Like any competition, some will love you and others will hate you. Don’t take it personally, don’t lose your cool. Just bring your best performance and keep it moving.
Respect the performers
As audience members, it’s important to watch and engage without being disruptive. Give the performers space to move and vibe. Be a spectator, never a back-up dancer. It may feel like a party, but it’s still a performance.
Do your research
For anyone attending the ball, knowing the history, the categories and the music isn’t super urgent, but it’ll make for a better experience if you have some idea about what you’ll be seeing. If you’re feeling really adventurous, it never hurts to scroll through YouTube and get familiar with how the legends have stormed these categories at different balls over the years. It’ll only inspire you, spark your creative juices and maybe help you get into walking balls in the future.
Respect the categories
For performers walking categories that are open to all, it's very important to only hit the runway if you meet the criteria. Stay off the runway unless you're 100% positive it's a category you're allowed to walk and prepared to walk. The judges don't have time to waste.
Practice makes perfect
The dips and intricate hand movements you see at the ball may look really cool, but they require a lot of skill, practice and dedication. If you leave the ball with a newfound fire to one day join a house and perform, that’s cool! However, it’s probably best that you ask around to see how you can begin to learn the craft. In most cities with a solid queer scene, there’s at least a few Kiki houses that host open practices for anyone looking to hone their skills and learn more about how to properly vogue. Do some research and see how you can connect with people in the community.