Pittsburgh Ballroom Scene Will Sparkle at the Galaxy Ball

Ballroom culture has long been a fixture for queer people of color, with accounts dating back to the early 20th century. It inspired Madonna’s Vogue album and video, and is the subject of the film Paris is Burning as well as the new show Pose. One of the most glamorous events in the Pittsburgh Ball scene is the annual Galaxy Ball, which will be held on April 20th at Clear Story Studio, where the Burgh’s great houses will battle for fame, fortune, and fabulousness. QueerPGH sat down to chat with Duane Binion, co-executive director (with John Easter) of True T PGH, which hosts the ball.

QueerPGH: Could you tell us a little bit about the Pittsburgh Ballroom scene? What attracts you to it?

Binion: The Pittsburgh Ballroom scene has been around for many years, the exact date of inception is still unknown. However, evidence proves it certainly dates back past the early 1980’s. Since 2012, our Annual Galaxy Ball series has invested more than $50,000.00 back into our local ballroom community in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a thriving underground ballroom scene where socialization takes place and culture is exchanged. Numerous historians and cultural commentators have traced the origins of today’s house ball scene to the notorious culture of Harlem drag balls in 1920s and 1930s New York. Black queer people were not welcome or accepted in the local drag queen circuit due to racism and segregation. Thus, we made our own space and culture which has lasted for decades and has spread all over the world. Ball Culture is like a secret society of LGBTQIA+ people of color to embrace each other and themselves while making everyone feel important.
Today’s house ball scene features over 100 active “houses” in more than 15 states across the country. In Pittsburgh alone, there are at least 10 recorded houses with memberships of a dozen or more: The House of Elite, Devine, West, Khan, Ebony, Revlon, Mizrahi, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Valentino, St. Clair, Khan, and Infiniti. While every individual ball can often have dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of specific criteria, all of the categories are still organized around six major concepts: realness, face, sex appeal and body, runway, performance, and fashion.

QueerPGH: Who are the major figures in Pittsburgh Ballroom?

Binion: The Pittsburgh Ballroom community has grown quite a bit since my first venture into the scene. Today we have many community stakeholders and figures in the scene including Dalen Michael, who is the self-proclaimed “Mayor” of Pittsburgh Ballroom and often referred to as our community gatekeeper. You have Legendary participants of the scene such as Pittsburgh Ballroom Hall of Famers; Sheek Elite (ex Ebony), Summer 007, Jamila 007, Demond Mal, who have all been key figures in the community since before the early 2000s, as well as newer folks such as Legendary Christopher Balenciaga, Legendary Kenny West (ex Revlon), Legendary Havoc Ebony, and Legendary Barbie 007. I’m sure I’m missing a few people but these are just some of the folks who come to mind and who have left the city with such a rich Ballroom history.

Attendees including Dalen Michael, the Mayor of Pittsburgh Ballroom, and Eugene West of the House of Ebony

QueerPGH: How does the Pittsburgh scene compare to those in other cities?

Binion: The Pittsburgh Ballroom scene is a lot smaller and some might say less consistent than those of larger cities. NYC is the Capital of Ballroom and for good reasons. NYC is where it all began and still, to-this-day is where most participants find their inspiration. Today Pittsburgh roughly has about 100+ active Ballroom participants, our larger Ballroom events typically see visitors from outside of Pittsburgh traveling from near and far. Having a smaller scene hasn’t affected our local community as much because as a participant of the Ballroom scene you’re encouraged and/or sometimes mandated to travel outside of your city and/or state to compete in your respective categories and make a name for yourself. In order to one day become Legendary you must have walked, competed, and won Grand Prize trophies (or money) for 10+ years!

Brince Demond

QueerPGH: Is there anyone you particularly admire from Ballroom culture, here or in another city?

Binion: In Ballroom the Women of Trans Experience (or “Fem Queens” as we call them) are our golden gems. They are often viewed as royalty within the community, playing roles such as “House Mothers” and aiding in nurturing and/or inspiring the newer generations. My number 1 Ballroom performer is the Legendary Leiomy Maldonado of NYC whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with during our 2017 Blackout Weekend. Leiomy is a trendsetter in the community, her character, and trademark Vogue moves have crossed over into the mainstream spotlight, even seeing her as a spokesperson for the NIKE #BeYou campaign, as well as a signed model to Willamina Modeling agency in 2017. Leiomy breaks barriers and reminds us all that VOGUE is DANCE and DANCE is ART!

QueerPGH: I love this year’s theme of “Humans vs. Artificial Intelligence”. How was it chosen?

Binion: Every year we try to take our participants minds on a journey of “What If…?” Technology has been and will be a leading topic of discussion for quite some time. The cool thing with technology is that though it solves many voids and gaps in our world, it also opens doors for new questions such as “When will our curiosity kill us?” Each year we strive to present an original concept that will set moods and bring characters to life. This year we explore the possibility of a future where fantasy meets technology. Artificial intelligence has been changing our lives for decades but the future remains to be unseen. AI could either make our dreams come true or destroy society as we know it.

QueerPGH: What else does the future hold for True T?

Binion: True T Pittsburgh has secured our first official home base located at the newly renovated True T Studios based in Bloomfield. This new studio space will serve as an LGBTQIA+ creative hub, bringing communities together through Queer Arts, Entertainment, Resource Sharing, and Social Activism. True T Studios will be known as one of Pittsburgh’s first LGBT+ POC owned and centered organizations. All staff members will be people from the local LGBT+ community already doing great things in the world. Our public opening is scheduled for June 2019!

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.