An Ode To The Ballroom | Notes On Lasseindra Ninja’s Lecture
In an inspiring an highly informative lecture, iconic ballroom pioneer Mother Lasseindra Ninja traced the birth of voguing and ballroom in the 1970’s US scene, and its evolution. She also explored how the scene can become more inclusive (among other issues) in a subsequent discussion with Eddy Coppet. The event was an invitation to reflect on racism, cultural appropriation, and limits and possibilities of inclusion in the European ballroom scene and beyond.
“The ballroom is a space for fight. A space for flight. A space for confrontation. A place of powerful music. Because we are very powerful,” states Lasseindra Ninja calmly, looking the crowd in the eyes, but responding to Eddy Coppet, Queer, Black and Arab community organiser in Rome, and also moderator of the subsequent talk. What comes afterwards is a cascade of thoughts, historical analysis and objective and non-sugar-coated statements, that we all needed to hear.
Lasseindra is a choreographer, an artist and most importantly a mother. She is the mother of the House of Ninja. She inherited and cultivated the US ballroom culture and created such space in Paris, for Trans, Queer and racialised communities. Her work as a dancer and a performer is based on pan-African and transatlantic perspectives within a contemporary reflection on the history of bodies, and on the traces and reminiscences of collective dance experiences.
For the sake of accessibility Lasseindra starts with some historical contextualisation. Current North-American ballroom culture is rooted in Black and Latin American LGBTQIA+ underground culture of resistance, beginning from the first masquerade balls organised during the Harlem Renaissance. These events, and the bodies that lived it of course, were considered illegal out of the ballroom. The act and the performance of the ballroom questions issues of gender, race and class, between a leap and a abrupt yet rhythmic fall to the ground of the dancers.The first ball as we understand it today, wasn’t however until 1968’s, organised by Crystal Labeija and Lottie Labeija, who had been competing in beauty competitions and white-led balls for years and had reached a moment of saturation and felt the need to create a space for her dissenting form of beauty and subjectivity.
The moment of rupture and regeneration is captured in the documentary The Queen (1968), where Crystal is seen storming out of the competition. She then confronts one of the organisers and says “I have the right to show my colour darling. I am beautiful and I know I am beautiful”. Labeija was tired of always being discriminated against because of eurocentric beauty standards. She hence rebelled to the dehumanising external gaze that such realities propelled, by centering herself and her community in the middle of the camera. Conceptually and choreographically speaking. In ballrooms, the performers emulated fast sequences of posing in front of the camera – with the rapidity of multiple clicks – adorning it with pampering and catwalking, in their own way.
Black and Latino Ballroom system that sprouted out of this historical moment was more than just a dance competition. It was a housing system for ‘children’ of all ages needing refuge and community. It was a support system divided in houses that competed against each other for multiple categories. Houses and Mothers/Fathers, instead of institutions and beauty emperors. “We were competing but there was a category for all identities. The houses were a home for all LGBTQ+ gender nonconforming people willing to struggle together, and to care for each other. Luxury was not a result of capital exploitation, but of community effort,” explains Lasseindra.
“It was a tribe of warriors and outlaws,” as recited poet Essex Hemphill (Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry , 1992).
In a system where the laws oppressed such minorities, pathologizing their bodies and lives, dancing became a form of affirmation of such collective self. Heads were immobile, no matter the insane and hieroglyphical movements of the body. The looks were flawless and constantly changing.
Dancing was therapeutic, and despite the spotlight was reflecting on one single performer at a time, such choreography was the result of communal effort, and the performer would be dialoguing with the audience. To the call of the artist, there was a response.
“Ironic that dance / my ticket to assimilation/ my way of amusing / then winning acceptance by whites/ that the same steps were now my passage back home“ stated Marlon T Riggs, author of the documentary Tongues Untied (1989)
“Nowadays everybody wants Vogue’,’ bitterly says Lasseindra. In fact, since the 90s voguing and ballroom culture had gone through several sinusoidal phases of popularity. The 90s were a watershed moment, when Madonna’s releasing of Vogue, and the release of Paris is Burning (1990), a notorious documentary by Jennie Livingston, Ballroom music, with its steel-like echoing voices and bouncy baseline, became popular. “There is no you without us though, remember,” – she brings back the discussion to reality. “And it’s not just for ballroom music. From House to Techno. It was the marginalised communities in the US to invent such sounds.”
Eddy then points out the difference in participation between the voguing classes held by Lasseindra, and the talk. Lasseindra echoes her thought and says, ‘I find it interesting how a lot of people came to the voguing classes I held this week, but are not here to listen to a talk that will help them understand the history behind it,” she says, underlining the importance of positioning oneself properly when being interest to a subaltern and oppressed cultures. “Is it correct to take something from a culture, and not be present when the people of said community show up to narrate themselves?” She questions the politics behind such a gesture, and how not informing oneself leads inevitably to decontextualising a cultural practice, and hence inevitably to cultural appropriation. Coppet adds, “You can’t take something from a culture and then not be present. You can’t take something from a culture, and not be there when they show up. Changing the meaning of such a thing.”
That does not happen just to voguing, but anything really. Even twerking has been labelled as a promiscuous act when practised by marginalised Black communities, and instead lies on anticolonial practices of bodily reappropriation and rebellion to Victorian standards of behaviour. Similarly, even the good proposition of telling someonelses story, as in Paris is burning was questioned by activist, educator and cultural theorist bell hooks, who questioned the difference between a documentary that analysed a marginalised community from outside spectacularising it in an anthropological manner and a documentary that actually challenges and interrogate whiteness (Is paris burning? – Black Looks: race and representation, 1992).
Eddy confesses his sense of disconfort in Italian lgtbqia+ spaces, that are often inaccessible for marginalised communities, and ultimately violent too. Beginning from her experience, Lasseindra underlines that it is important to responde back to such dynamics, by understanding ones priorities. May that be fighting back, or choosing ones own peace, or creating new spaces for your community of reference. Without forgetting the revolutionary history we inherit.
These events, while developing their own artistic concepts and languages, have established themselves as real phenomena of countercultural and political resistance, questioning issues of race, gender and class despite waves of interests by occasional fans. Ballroom culture is about reforming life whilst protecting the community. And as such it shall remain.
Promoted by | Assesorato alla Cultura di Roma Capitale and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Curated by | SPAZIO GRIOT
Co-produced and co-organized by | SPAZIO GRIOT and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Main Sponsor | Gucci
Supported by | British Council
In collaboration with | American Academy in Rome, Fondazione Polo del ‘900, EXP
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S. Himasha Weerappulige
Opero nel cinema, tra casting, sviluppo, ricerca archiviale e programmazione nell’ambiente festival. Il mio background è però legale, e mi ha permesso di sviluppare un metodo di analisi decoloniale che mi porto appresso nell'audiovisivo e nelle arti. Curo diverse piattaforme diasporiche, e per GRIOT sono una contributor.