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Ballroom takes root in Colombia. But who is it for?

  • >> Genevieve Glatsky, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-11-26 16:32:16 BdST

The theme was Met Gala — that is, if the Met Gala had vibrators and whips. On a Friday night in October, hundreds of attendees crammed into a second-floor dance studio near the northern edge of Bogotá adorned with flowers, chains, corsets and long flowing wigs, their carefully painted makeup smearing as the night wore on.

Contestants were vying for a grand prize, and when it came time to compete in the sex siren category, contenders pulled out all manner of props, including lollipops and bottles of liquor to tantalise the judge as they stripped down to near nudity.

Sitting next to the judge, the competition’s commentator, Jhon Dewar Cordoba Valdes, known to most as Papu, chanted phrases of encouragement, interspersing his raps and rhymes and shouting various unprintable expressions for female genitalia at the dancers. These land as compliments in the lingo of ballroom, the queer subculture of dance and modelling competitions founded by Black and Latino gay men and trans women in New York City in the 1970s.

Latin America’s ballroom scene is relatively new. It started in 2013 when a group of dancers began hosting vogue battles in Brazil and has since spread to Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Argentina and Colombia.

In Colombia, a recent viral video of voguers on public buses brought Bogotá’s scene international attention. It also highlighted an important aspect of the culture there: While some events — like the Met Gala-themed evening — are held in theatres and dance studios, ballroom plays out largely in public. Street balls attract parades of participants who strut and dip for cheering crowds. And just about every Sunday, there are practice balls in Bogotá’s Renacimiento park (until recently hosted by Papu), where dancers refine their moves as parents with baby strollers and middle-aged men in basketball shorts look on, intrigued.

But as the Latin American scene has expanded, so too have concerns about cultural appropriation, exploitation and inclusion. How much should ballroom culture change and adapt in a new context? Is enough being done to include Black and trans people?

On the Colombian scene, few people are as outspoken about these issues as Papu, 22, who was born in Quibdó, capital of the province Chocó, in Colombia, but raised in New York City. Since arriving on Bogotá’s ballroom scene in March 2020, he has been vocal about the lack of Afro Colombian representation and insistent on respecting ballroom’s original structures, which he imbibed in New York.

“The Latin American girls don’t respect titles. They don’t respect hierarchies. They don’t follow the guidelines that were set up for ballroom,” Papu said in an interview. “They are rebellious. They want to do whatever they want to do.”

In New York, the ballroom scene was founded by the most vulnerable members of society, including homeless youth and sex workers. But across Latin America, the culture has largely been imported by white, cisgender, professionally trained dancers who encounter voguing through the dance world — and then reverse-engineer ballroom as a lifestyle and community.

Archie Burnett, the grandfather of the House of Ninja in New York who has helped start ballroom scenes in Mexico, Brazil and Europe, said some of these dynamics are inevitable.

“When you have a different demographic — let’s say a white demographic that has more access to monies and resources — it’s easy to put on an event,” he said in an interview.

At a ball that Papu organised in Medellín, Colombia, in October, Sky Vemanei, a 32-year old nonbinary DJ from New York who has worked with ballroom scenes across Latin America, told the crowd, “Ballroom is not a dance contest. And ballroom is not a fashion show. And ballroom is not ‘Drag Race.’”

Instead, Vemanei — whose remarks were met by snaps and murmurs of approval — said that ballroom exists specifically for dark-skinned trans people to be valued and celebrated.

“If your skin colour is not dark like this,” they added, gesturing at their arm, “it is your job to create space for these people first.”

Vemanei, who recently left the House of Labeija to form their own house, said in an interview that many Latin American ballroom communities “did not have much experience with discussing white privilege or discussing whiteness in general — and who actually belongs in ballroom and who this space was created for.”

Papu sings at a ball in Medellin, Colombia, Oct 15, 2021. In New York, the ballroom scene was founded by the most vulnerable members of society, including homeless youth and sex workers. Camo Delgado Aguilera/The New York Times

Papu sings at a ball in Medellin, Colombia, Oct 15, 2021. In New York, the ballroom scene was founded by the most vulnerable members of society, including homeless youth and sex workers. Camo Delgado Aguilera/The New York Times

Latin America has 130 million people of African descent, compared with 42 million in the United States. But higher levels of mestizaje, or racial mixing, have led to national myths of racial democracy that cover up histories of segregation, inequality and discrimination. This seeps into every part of society, including ballroom. Black participants across Latin America say that racism, colourism, hypersexualisation of Black bodies and the valuation of Eurocentric beauty standards persist.

In Colombia, which has the second-largest Afro-descendant population in South America after Brazil, Papu said he felt the racial component essential to ballroom was being left out of the scene. For him, realising he couldn’t escape racism even in his home country was heartbreaking.

“OK, now I’m in reality,” he said he remembered thinking. “Now I’m grown. Now I understand.”

But many on the Colombian scene see Papu as an intruder, barging into an unfamiliar culture and telling people how things should be done without first getting to know them or acknowledging what they have already built.

Mauricio Godoy, 27, known as Pantera, an Afro Colombian, nonbinary member of the House of Yeguazas, said in an interview that while there were “micro racisms” in the scene like being told “you’re cute for a Black guy,” Colombian ballroom remains a space under construction.

“I cannot demand that a newborn baby walk for me because it is not going to happen,” Pantera said. “What we need is patience. A house is not built with shouting and bragging; a house is built with practice, putting down one brick at a time.”

For others, like Scarlett Mizrahi, 19, the founding mother of Colombia’s House of Cataleya, the scene’s newness is no excuse. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m still reading the Satanic Bible, but I’ve only been coming to the Christian church for about a month,’” she said. “It’s illogical.

“There can’t be the slightest drop of racism inside ballroom,” added Mizrahi, whose house has become known as an Afro-house, though she is white.

What Papu calls “rebellious” in the Latin American scenes also stems from a historically aggrieved relationship with the United States and a reluctance to feel colonised. Vemanei pointed out the original categories from American ballroom do not always translate, given the distinctive relationship every country has with colonisation, oppression and queer rights: “They’re responding to a very unique set of dynamics that do not always match what Black queer Americans had to fight against.”

And while Latin American ballroom may have a long way to go on conversations surrounding white privilege and race, it has become a more welcoming space for nonbinary people than the American scene.

Jose Toledo, 28, the founding mother of House of Cobras in Colombia, spent time in New York City learning from the ballroom scene. Back in Colombia, when Toledo, who uses the pronouns she/her, started to come into her identity as a nonbinary trans woman and founded her own house, she realised that certain structures of the New York scene didn’t apply.

Toledo wears makeup, skirts and long nails, but she keeps her hair cropped short and feels no need to medically transition. If she walked as a trans woman in a New York ball, she said, she would get shade with comments like, “You don’t look like a woman: Where is your hair? Where are your boobs?”

Queer people face enormous risks of violence and discrimination across Latin America. Ballroom provides family, community and a space of liberation to celebrate the nuances of their identity. Colombia is a largely Catholic and socially conservative country, and even in relatively progressive Bogotá, which elected a lesbian mayor in 2019, anecdotes of verbal and physical aggression are commonplace.

Many Bogotá ballroom participants see gender as fluid and transitioning as a process without a fixed destination. Facial hair, body hair, long hair, wigs, makeup, dresses, heels, nails and lingerie are all fair game for mixing and matching. Hormone therapy and surgery are not always widely accessible or even desired.

Original ballroom was generally divided into categories like femme queens for trans women and butch queens for gay men. But in Colombia, for the most part, categories are open to all. It feels “aggressive” to separate people, Toledo said.

This also presents a challenge to traditional categories like “realness,” in which participants compete in how well they pass as straight if they’re gay or as cisgender if they are transgender. Realness celebrates and rewards the passing that gay people have had to do. And while some have questioned the continued relevance of realness in New York, it remains an essential part of ballroom.

In Latin America, many resent being judged on how well they conform to traditional beauty standards they may not even be trying to achieve.

Here, too, Papu has ruffled feathers by criticising modifications to the original structures. When he started, he said, walking realness made him feel comfortable and confident in his body. And seeing a majority white-mestizo ballroom scene in Colombia alter that culture, doing away with categories and realness, seemed disrespectful to him; he called it a kind of “white thinking.”

“If I want to change it, I can,” he said of some white-mestizo members’ attitudes toward ballroom. “And if I want to do this, I can. And so I can take whatever is yours and make it mine.

“We all have our space, and I feel like that’s the space for people like me,” Papu said. If they take realness out, he asked, “Where do we go?”

Vemanei said that some of these trade-offs are inevitable. “We want everyone to feel free, but how do you define everyone?”

In October, shortly after the ball Papu threw in Medellín, which was poorly attended, he sent out a note to the ballroom community on social media asking for unity.

“When a mistake is made, you apologise,” he wrote, although he didn’t specify for what. He has stopped hosting the practices in the park, ceding control to others. And he feels positive, he said, that the scene is growing.

“Ballroom,” he wrote, “is a big house where all of us are not always going to agree but we can lift each other up and take care of each other.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company