Icon Freddie LaBeija Presents: Ultravation Destruction Ball, 2019

We’ve sent a voguing ball virgin Mike Sullivan to cover his very first Ball with the house of LaBeija, in the historic neighborhood of Harlem.

My First Harlem Ball

I’ve been adventuring around NYC for around 3 years now. It’s wild to look back at my first year, and to think of all the changes the city and the queer scene has gone through. Three years is a very short amount of time, and yet I’ve already noticed how quickly things can ebb and flow here. I’ve heard seasoned New Yorkers describe how it used to be, how the city has lost its unique shine. The individuality, the spirit, the essence of what makes this city incomparable. I must admit, hearing that breaks my heart. New York is just a watered-down version of what it used to be? I can’t, I won’t believe it.

I started rummaging around NYC in 2016, right when the election was taking place. I was bemused at how dreamlike the city was, and it quickly became a haven from the jarring state of our country. I immediately sought out the queer community, and like following a trail of candy I went from party to party, taking pictures and making friends along the way. How could people think that the city has lost its spark? To me, it seemed thriving.

However, with only 3 years under my belt, I can see what people mean. Venues close, parties end, and people decide to stay in. We feel the loss. On the flip side, we see new shows in different places. Old friends come through and new participants come forward. There is a constant shift in focus, and I can only imagine what changes this city will have gone through when I hit my 10-year mark, and beyond.

With all of that being said, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was gearing up for my first Harlem Ball experience. We’ve all seen Paris is Burning. Billy Porter was recently awarded an Emmy for his performance in the notable TV series Pose. These two impactful pieces of work give us a window into the lives of queer people of color in NYC in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Paris is Burning is a historic time capsule, capturing people at their most vulnerable. The documentary is rather short, only a little over an hour, but in that time we are exposed to an expansive and triumphant world. We get a feel of the community’s dynamic; the strong sense of family, the entrancing creativity, and the undeniable strength the community took to survive. Now, around 20 years later, I can only assume  the ballroom scene has been through massive changes. However, to my surprise, I stepped into a world that felt untouched.

The documentary and TV series do talk of change – they describe that shift in focus that we still see in NY today. Of course, there is no denying that the ballroom scene has gone through inevitable changes since the early ‘90s, but it is clear that icon Freddie LeBeija, the curator of this weekend’s ball, had a clear vision to uphold the essence of ballroom. I stepped into a well-lit school gymnasium, with tables lined up and scattered with snacks and decorated with colorful balloons. A stage at the back of the gymnasium had more tables set up for the judging panel. I got there early enough that the ball hadn’t started yet. Music was playing. Friends and family were mingling and eating the hot food that was provided…it felt like I had walked into a Thanksgiving dinner.

I must admit I felt a little self-conscious, being a cis white boy at a function predominantly attended by QPOC. The last thing I wanted to do was intrude…I was there to take pictures, and I did have a fear in the back of my head that I might be perceived as someone who was there to capitalize on a beautiful culture that I wasn’t a part of. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been photographing my friends and peers in NY for around three years now, which includes trans, non binary, queer folks of color. However this experience was already so different than the club, or a drag bar, where drinking and mingling with strangers is encouraged. Here it was well-lit, exposed, and the friendships were clearly already established. I was asked to attend the event thanks to Lexy who couldn’t come, so I ended up flying solo. I texted Lexy when I got inside and mentioned I wasn’t sure what to expect. They simply responded with “now watch and learn.”

A familiar scene started to take place…the crowd gathered and formed a runway in between the tables. The ball began with several prominent members of the community walking the floor, accompanied by cheers and applause. I quickly scooted my way to the end of the makeshift runway, kneeling to stay out of view but close to the action. The first category was virgin to the runway, someone who’s never walked a ball before. I was shaking in my boots, very tempted to walk…but I chickened out and remained a fly on the wall for the evening. The ball continued, and the energy in the room began to rise like water in a sinking ship. I quickly fell into autopilot and started to take as many pictures as possible. I don’t feel that I can describe the exceptional creative energy with any sort of justice, so I will let the captured moments speak for themselves. Frankly though, the photos I took don’t even hold a candle to the experience of actually being there. 

No matter where we go, especially in New York, we are painfully conscious of the present, the state of the world. However the people attending the ball danced adjacent to that pressure, protected and timeless. It rings true to the roots of ballroom, a community that gathered to remain above the criticisms and adversity of the white straight normative. Although balls are competitions, the event felt collective, celebratory, and inspired. My favorite environments to photograph are ones that are victorious. Not victorious as in a win over a loss, but as champions of self-expression and achievement. This event honored the pioneers, the legacies cemented in the ballroom family tree. They are an integral part of the foundation of our community.  We must attend these events, pay the cover fees, tip our queens, uplift their stories, and keep the tradition alive. I’ve heard New York City has lost its flame, but this weekend I photographed proof that the torch is ablaze, patiently waiting to be handed to those who follow.