I’ve officially gone to my first ball.
I am a transgender woman of color; my queer identity was shaped not by the influences of gender-bending musical icons and the cult classics that so many of my white friends cite as the genesis of their queerness. My initial foray into the world of non-binary expression began with images of people who looked like me. I never found any reassurance for my inherent femininity through the faces of Annie Lennox, Bowie, and Andy Warhol’s superstars. Sure, I appreciated the beauty and innovative spirit of these people, but never once did I ingest their images and think, “This is who I am.” It wasn’t until I watched Paris is Burning—a film I can quote backwards from memory—that queer narratives began to resonate with me. Turns out what was missing from my education was the presence of people of color. Initially, I considered Paris to be a sad portrait of brightly burning people of color who fizzled out too soon. Every featured cast member has died since the film was released; most from AIDS-related illness, others from diabetes and cancer. This is an association that would pepper my journey to embracing the queer woman that I have come to be. So the opportunity to attend a ball—one of the biggest “Atlanta has seen in twenty years”—was the closest thing to a blessing I’ve ever received.
The ballroom scene is incredibly underground, almost impossible to navigate if you haven’t been inducted into the house system. I know a lot of drag queens, but surprisingly many of them have no ballroom connection to speak of. When I discovered the House of Escada’s twentieth anniversary ball by way of thorough social media investigation and a deluge of messages from me to potential sources, I could hardly believe what was happening. I can only liken my excitement to that of a child receiving a pet for the first time, trite as it may be. The WUSSY staff and myself were warmly received by the Iconic House of Escada—Atlanta’s premiere ballroom house and the first to bring the scene to the Southeast. The house originated out of Morehouse College; what began as a “carry” and an attempt to infiltrate an already thriving community (though not in Atlanta) transformed into a full-scale operation in community engagement.
The Escadas used ballroom as a means of attracting and mentoring Atlanta’s at-risk youth, eventually using the house name to run a 501(c) non-profit. They’ve been around for twenty years and have since established chapters throughout the Midwest and East coast. So if you’re looking for an Atlanta ballroom legacy, the House of Escada is it.
Descriptions of ballroom events never mention the bloodlust and camaraderie that exist side-by-side during a night’s competition. Typically, the aspect of the battle between multiple houses stands as the defining characteristic of these events. The problem with this practice is its ignorance of the extension of family beyond one’s affiliations. There were many houses present that night: Mizrahi, Garcon, Chanel, St. Laurent, Ebony, and Prodigy, to name a few. One might expect that each house would be just as divided as the sections in which they sat; fortunately, that is the assumption of someone who has never been to a ball. It was like being at a big ass family reunion, one rife with a palpable competitive energy. Further, they were all so beautiful. There were so many people there that I—a grown ass woman—observed and thought, “I want to be you when I grow up.”
But my favorite part of the night was not the costumes, beautiful people, or the spectacle of it all, but the chants of each house. Rooted in a modern oral tradition defined by queer POCs of the past, these short cadences were demonstrations of each house’s collective personality. The House of Ebony’s chant was tribe-like and welled up from a visceral part of each member’s throat, ringing through the auditorium like an ominous warning that any competition was about be slayed. My personal favorite came from the House of Mizrahi, as it was the one chant to utilize the aggressive boisterousness often heard exclusively in hip hop songs. It was a hyper femme-positive challenge provoking anyone battling a Mizrahi to look and just fucking deal with it: “Look at me, look at me, look at me bitch!”
Since I walked through the door into the House of Escada’s arms, the impression it left on me has informed so many of my choices. It made me, for all intents and purposes, beyond proud to be a Black transwoman.
I doubt this ball will have the distinction of being my last.
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