Last year, The Network tabled at Creating Change, and while that provided a really great opportunity for me to talk to almost every person who attended the conference, I didn’t have much of a chance to attend sessions. This year, our tactic was different, and I found myself pouring over the conference book, completely overwhelmed by the diversity of sessions, and the fact that every single session I REALLY wanted to attend was at the exact same time as every OTHER session I REALLY wanted to attend.
“Ballroom 101: Calling All the Children to School” was one of the sessions that I instantly circled in my booklet. And then set like, three alarm reminders in my phone so I wouldn’t miss it. Since watching Paris is Burning a few years ago, I have been completely fascinated by Ballroom culture and it’s role in queer communities of color. Last July, the LifeSkills team at Fenway Health hosted a ball as a community outreach event to spread awareness about their study (for young trans women), other studies at Fenway, and the health services available at Fenway. The event was a HUGE success!
Commonly called “Drag Balls”, balls are competitive dance and performance events based on categories that highlight the talents, creativity, skills and attributes of participants.
Bursting into public consciousness between 1989 and 1991, the culture of drag balls and voguing can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century. Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge staged its first queer masquerade ball in 1869, and some 20 years later a medical student stumbled into another ball that was taking place in Walhalla Hall on the Lower East Side. He witnessed 500 same-sex male and female couples ‘waltzing sedately to the music of a good band’.
Balls however, are much more than just “events”. Balls represent cultural pride within queer communities of color. Balls are organized and hosted by the heads of “houses”, which are chosen-family kinship networks that provide both community (in the form of safety, stability, and sometimes housing) and mentorship to community members (and especially youth), not only for the balls, but for life as a queer person.
The Ballroom 101 session at Creating Change focused largely on the use of Balls to facilitate conversations about safer sex and HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s and early 90’s. I kept thinking about Lifeskills’ Skillz Ball and what an innovative throwback to public health outreach techniques used during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Outreach at Balls, which by definition are attended by traditionally disenfranchised and high risk communities, is the perfect opportunity for community engagement in public health campaigns.
While outreach at Balls has often been about sexual health and HIV (which is greatly needed and so, so important!), the expansion into other areas of health as well, such as tobacco use in LGBT communities, and healthcare access for those without insurance, could be seamlessly incorporated.
So much of creating healthy individuals and communities is about empowerment, and Balls, which have always represented safe spaces, free expression, acceptance, and creativity, are ideal opportunities for public health outreach and targeted health campaigns!
If you have not yet seen Paris is Burning, you can watch the full film here: (andddd you should get on that right away.)
Check out LifeSkills on facebook!
For more information on Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of NYC 1989-92 and Harlem’s Drag Ball History