New York City, 1987. In certain corners of the city, men in suits board elevators and go to work in high rise buildings, like the four-year-old Trump Tower. In other corners — uptown corners that came alive at night — groups of people compete in glamorous dance competitions called balls. Ryan Murphy’s new show, Pose, takes place in that city of extremes, and focuses on the way the sectors of the city interact.
While Pose and its characters are fictional, the show draws on the realities of New York’s ball scene in the 1980s. In 1991, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning pulled back the curtain to the golden age of ballroom in 1980s New York. Alternating between interviews of ball participants and footage from the actual balls, Paris Is Burning was the first major work to delve into balls, voguing, and the families that marginalised LGBTQ+ individuals made for themselves in house culture. Pose begins with the same black background, white lettering as the groundbreaking documentary Paris Is Burning begins: New York City, 1987. It’s a clear homage.
Harlem’s ball culture actually began in the 1920s, during a period called the Harlem Renaissance (though generally, drag competitions have existed since the mid-1800s). Early Harlem balls were different in format to the structured competitions seen in Pose. The extravagant pageants were held on Halloween and New Year’s Eve in places like Rockland Palace on 155th Street or the Elks Lodge on 138th, and were attended by an interracial, elite crowd. Drag balls were happening elsewhere in the city, too, like Webster Hall downtown. The Harlem events, which were organised by white gay men, often excluded or undervalued Black performers. So, by the 1960s, Black ball participants had branched out and formed their own circuit, which is what we see in Pose.
We often associate ball culture with “houses,” but those didn’t actually take shape until the 1970s and ‘80s. Back then, houses like the House of Labeija, the House of Corey, and the House of Xtravaganza dominated the scene. The houses walk (or participate) in balls together. Each house had a certain speciality; people who weren’t in houses were called 007s because they were free agents, waiting to be find their group.
The houses were governed by house parents, who provided guidance and housing to their “children.” Angie Xtravaganza, the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, explained in the documentary how her purpose is dual: As a house mother, she helps her children get ready for the balls and also teaches them “how to survive in the gay world – it’s kind of hard.”
Pepper LaBeija, house mother of the legendary House of Labeija, further unpacked the impetus behind these houses in Paris is Burning. “When someone has rejection from their family, when they get out in the world, they search. They search for someone to fill that void,” Labeija said. “I know this from experience because I’ve had kids come to me and latch hold to me like I’m their mother or father because they can talk to me. That’s where a lot of that ball mother business comes in.”
Pose illustrates just how crucial these houses were to the survival and flourishing of LGBTQ+ people of colour. In the premiere, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) gets runaway Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) off the streets, and fights for his future as a modern dancer. Essentially, after his family rejects him, Blanca becomes his mother. Ball culture is how these community members earn respect and gain status in a world that has no room for them; it’s a place for free expression. As Labeija put it in Paris Is Burning, ball fame “is as close to reality that [they] will get to fame and fortune.”
As seen in the first episode of Pose, ball participants walk in different categories. Some categories called for extravagant costume, like “royalty” (hence why the House of Abundance feels compelled to rob a museum) or Queen. Another popular set of categories is called “Realness,” which scores participants based on how well they “pass” for being a certain sex (in recent years, this category has been deemed problematic for upholding conventional gender norms). Pose features someone competing in the “executive realness” category.
The centrepiece of each ball is the voguing category. Voguing is a dance that features sharp poses and arm movements. The dances are called “voguing” because, according to a subject in Paris Is Burning, “some of the movements from the dance are the poses from inside the magazine." Each moment in the dance is a striking pose. Madonna’s “Vogue,” of course, is an homage to the dance.
Ball culture no longer exists on the fringes of society. Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose popularise this movement. We also use the vocabulary of ball culture daily — phrases like “throwing shade” and “yas queen” originated in the balls. Voguing is now ubiquitous in pop culture, appearing everywhere from Beyoncé's music videos to Paris fashion week.
Is this something to celebrate? Filmmaker Nicholas Jenkins, who created a documentary about ball culture called Walk, is hesitant to cheer the newfound prominence of ball culture. “While the resurgence in its popularity across the globe is fantastic, I’m a little nervous that voguing is crossing over into the mainstream and the ballroom scene may be losing its connection to its roots which were historically marginalised urban Black and Latino gay and trans communities,” Jenkins told Dazed.
But Pose is doing more than just putting the spotlight on ball culture. It's a vehicle for progress in itself. Pose features the largest number of trans actors in series regular roles on a scripted TV show. Murphy is creating opportunities for trans and queer actors of colour where there had been none, much like the balls of the '70s and '80s did for its own marginalised community members.