Strictly Ballroom: At Smithsonian, A Gay Black Counterculture Meets African Art

By Ally Schweitzer

Keith "Ebony" Holt performs in a Baltimore ballroom event as depicted in the video "Voguing for a Cause."
Keith "Ebony" Holt performs in a Baltimore ballroom event as depicted in the video "Voguing for a Cause." Screenshot/Great Big Story

February 24, 1928

About 12:30 a.m., we visited this place and found approximately 5,000 people, colored and white, men attired in women’s clothes, and vice versa. The affair, we were informed, was a “fag/masquerade ball.” This is an annual affair where the white and colored fairies assemble together with their friends, this being attended also by a certain respectable element who go here to see the sights.

This is an excerpt from a 1928 report filed by investigators with the Committee of Fourteen, a citizens group that fought to crack down on illegal alcohol sales inside New York City hotels. The investigators had stopped by a club in Harlem one night in February, unwittingly dropping in on a gender-bending bacchanal: the Hamilton Lodge drag ball.

Affairs like the Hamilton Lodge ball were a precursor to the modern ballroom scene, a performative, queer and largely African-American counterculture that still thrives in many U.S. cities, including Baltimore. The documentary Paris Is Burning captured the scene at its height in 1980s New York City, and Madonna — riding a wave of house music that soundtracked ballroom performances — got everybody voguing like a ballroom star with her 1990 hit “Vogue.”

Oct. 15, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art celebrates ballroom culture with a half-day event dedicated exclusively to the art form. The featured guest is Keith “Ebony” Holt, a veteran ballroom performer who’s also a youth outreach coordinator for Baltimore’s health department. He represents the Baltimore chapter of the House of Ebony — essentially a clique, or a family, of gay black men who perform in ballroom competitions.

Bandwidth spoke to Holt and the Smithsonian’s Nicole Shivers in advance of Saturday’s soirée. The event promises to borrow a grandiose aesthetic from Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare’s short film, Un Ballo in Maschera, on view now at the museum.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Bandwidth: Keith, can you talk about what ballroom means to young, gay black men? 

Keith “Ebony” Holt: Ballroom, basically, was created for [them]. It was a place that we could call our own [where] we felt safe. [In ballroom,] you could be whatever it is that you wanna be. As we all know, when a lot of young, black gay males or transgenders come out to their families, sometimes their families are not with it. They may out them or they may be like, “We no longer want to communicate with [you].” And for a person that may be 15, 16 years old — or basically whatever age you are — that really hits you hard. So the ballroom scene … gave you another family outside of your biological family.

“With this event, we’re in one of the biggest museums in the world. Now our form of underground art is being welcomed into the mainstream.” —Keith “Ebony” Holt

OK, so the film Paris Is Burning documented the ’80s ballroom scene in New York. When we talk about ballroom now, what are we referring to?

Holt: We’re talking about the whole entire scene. Voguing, of course, gets the most attention because it’s fun to watch and you have people like Madonna that came out with it, or you have Vogue Evolution on America’s Best Dance Crew. However, it’s so many other categories — such as runway, or realness, which is basically how well a transgender person may be able to blend into society. Paris Is Burning … is kinda outdated. The younger generations definitely took it and made it their own. So it has completely, completely changed. It’s not the same underground scene that it once was in Paris Is Burning.

Do you still do a lot of performing?

Holt: I do perform. I still walk. Voguing really isn’t my category. My main category is actually runway. You can kinda look at it like Project Runway mixed with America’s Next Top Model. Runway at the Smithsonian [requires you to take] a piece of African art. It can either be a painting or a sculpture, and you have to make your outfit basically represent whatever art that you chose to create. It really takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of brain energy for you to really sit and really create something such as that. Then… you actually have to walk like a model would.

Nicole, why did the Smithsonian want to do a ballroom event?

Nicole Shivers, National Museum of African Art: As the curator for performing arts, I’m always looking for something new, innovative and engaging to dispel the myths, the clichés of Africa. Being a big fan of Yinka Shonibare and especially this video piece, Un Ballo in Maschera, which looks at the grandness of things, what better fit than to look at the ballroom scene, where they can show off and show out?

Can you talk about the African influence within ballroom?

Shivers: The traditional masquerade, or the traditional theater-in-the-round [are African influences]. Also, it’s a way of conveying a message [and] honoring someone, so I think those are the two main similarities.

Holt: And I think that with just the LGBT community, we wear so many masks on a daily basis, especially when we go out. So many people look down on the LGBT community for various reasons, so we have to put different masks on when we just walk outside our house. With this event, we’re in one of the biggest museums in the world. Now we can finally take our masks off and say that we are finally being accepted. Now our form of underground art is being welcomed into the mainstream. Even if it’s just for one night, it’s still the beginning.

The Voguing Masquerade Ball begins with a panel discussion at 4:30 p.m. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The ball starts at 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Shown at top: A still from Voguing For a Cause, produced by Great Big Story