Pittsburgh is Burning

A Glimpse into Pittsburgh’s Ball Scene

Ball culture, the house system, and the ballroom community are terms used to describe an underground LGBT subculture in the United States in which people “walk” or compete for trophies and prizes at events known as balls.

Founded in NYC during the 1970s, the ballroom scene was meant for children who were disowned by their parents for their sexual orientation and lifestyle. They began to form groups or “Houses” that supported each member like families or fraternities often led by a single leader. These House families, which often have fathers, mothers, kidz, and other titles, compete throughout the year at different balls in many different categories. Besides providing a support system for their members, the main functions of houses are to compete against other houses to gain respect and status within your category and at the same time keeping the legacy of one’s house alive.

Those who walk often also Vogue. Voguing is a form of dance that started from linear movements, poses, and stretches. Today Voguing has evolved to a point where there are so many different styles that one can choose to master. Vogue is the most popular and arguably entertaining of categories which encompasses many different sub categories of competition. Other ball-walkers compete in various genres of drag often trying to pass as a specific gender and social class. There are various categories based on dance skills, lifestyle, beauty, costume, general appearance, and attitude. Participants dress according to category in which they are competing and are expected to display appropriate “realness.” While these competitive walks may involve crossdressing, in many cases the goal is to accentuate a male participant’s masculinity or a female participant’s femininity so as to give the (almost always false) impression that the walker is straight.

All of the categories are carried out live in front of crowds of spectators and all ball-walkers are judged by a panel of judges. Judges are normally respected leaders within the scene and usually are nationally known with many ballroom accolades. Usually each house has a house leader represented on the panel. Judges can choose to give participants a “10” or a “chop.” Each participant whether they are Voguing or “selling realness” must receive 10’s from each judge on the panel. Even if one judge chooses to chop, the participant must exit the battle zone.

Houses across the United States function similarly to one another, with the majority of houses found in major cities on the east coast, midwest and south. They adopt a family name, usually swiped from a fashion designer. Some legendary houses include the House of Mizrahi, the House of Revlon, the House of Ebony, and the House of Chanel, among others. In 1989, The House of Latex was created as a call to action in the ballroom community to bridge the gap between HIV/ STI prevention and the underground ballroom culture. Led by the Legendary Arbert Santana Latex/Evisu, who died on March 3, 2011 (Big Boys Runway) and Mother Aisha Diori Latex/Prodigy (Legendary Women’s Face), the House of Latex provided a safe space to educate and inspire creativity for LGBT youth of color involved in the ball scene.

In the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning, the ball culture of New York City was showcased along with the African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America. It is the ballroom bible! Ballroom is constantly changing… kidz are voguing different, houses are leading different, and people are joining houses for different reasons today then they did in the 80s and 90s. But ballroom will always be a creative, safe outlet for the LGBT community and it will always be unique and original.

Pittsburgh has its own unique experience with the underground ball scene. The city is still considered relatively new in comparison to other cites. Inklings of a ball scene in Pittsburgh began to emerge in the 90s throughout specific low-income neighborhoods including the Hill District. In the 90s and into the 00s, houses in Pittsburgh still weren’t known on a national level nor did they have strong connections to connecting ballroom cities. Houses were literally raising gay, disowned children, and competition was secondary.

Prior to 2008, Pittsburgh was considered a remote scene that was not integrated into a national or regional circuit. It only existed to Pittsburghers and the few who traveled here randomly. Transportation wise it’s a lot harder to travel for ballroom to Pittsburgh then to NYC, Philly, or Baltimore. Geographically we are in the center of many ball circuits (Midwest circuit, East Coast circuit, DMV circuit, Western New York circuit or the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Circuit) but not included in any of them.

In 2008, True T Entertainment was formed and sought to expand and effectively network Pittsburgh’s growing ballroom scene into a positive national spotlight. Its mission is to promote Pittsburgh’s vibrant ballroom scene and to reverse the negativity that had been on-going for many years. How can one leave a legacy within the scene when one’s own city is not even recognized nationally? How can new kids of a city gain experience from house leaders who are not recognized nationally or regionally?

Compiled of members from different houses, True T has worked to speak out against naysayers, and advocate, organize, and brand numerous events on behalf of Pittsburgh. Young leadership seems to be working in getting people to buy into Pittsburgh’s new found scene. It’s been a period of ballroom renaissance and enlightenment. National and regional participants began to support True T and Pittsburgh. Venues are filling up and people are starting to travel from many different regions because of the new experience happening in Pittsburgh.

Today, Pittsburgh’s ball scene has gained national respect and admiration. People love to come to balls in Pittsburgh because of our hospitality and energy. There’s something special about the kidz in Pittsburgh that makes people want to keep coming back. Any chance to participate in ballroom is a privilege and the anticipation greater and greater leading up to each event.

Moving forward, the new motto is to work to conduct ourselves as a whole versus individuals, and to be unified as a community. Realizing that although we have had individual accomplishments, we know that when we come together as a whole, our presence is much stronger. In unity we hope to overcome the everlasting odds of one day bridging the gap between our “underground” scene with our mainstream communities through education of ballroom culture and entertaining events.

QBurgh is your source for LGBTQ news and community resources in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Want to write for us?