The ballroom scene changed the life of Marco West Grey and saved the lives of countless others, he believes.
“Being in a house does help a lot of people — and their family dynamic,” said Grey, a 37-year-old South Baltimore native who now lives in Mount Vernon. “Everyone does not have the same story. Some will come from broken homes and have lived in poverty. I do not come from a broken home. But the overall goal of ballroom is to be a family. Period.”
More than 300 people are expected to attend the third Peabody Ballroom Experience, a celebration of the ballroom scene in Baltimore. The event, which will be held in the picturesque George Peabody Library with its soaring atrium, tiers of cast-iron balconies and black-and-white marble floor, is an opportunity to commemorate the city’s near-century-old ballroom culture while also getting a history lesson.
Library curators worked with the event’s organizers and participants to present them with selections from the Sheridan Libraries’ collections during workshops and gatherings. Those books, which were interpreted by ballroom performers and organizers, were used to produce the event.
“The idea was to bring brown and Black members into a space where they were not accepted into, and to showcase Baltimore ballroom talent and the library,” said Grey, who goes by Marco West in the ballroom scene to honor the House of West, his chosen ballroom family.
Expect the ball to be “vivid, bright, colorful and beautiful,” according to Grey, who was surrounded by the towering gold-accented stacks of the library, which is one of the region’s most popular wedding and events venues. Grey, one of five organizers of Saturday’s event, said he would attend the ball in a gold suit.
Although aspects of the ballroom scene have crept into popular culture since release of the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” or through the award-winning television drama series “Pose,” many have been hiding in plain sight. From the death drops on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the reality TV competition series, to Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” and the shady “reads” on Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives of Potomac,” the influence of ballroom culture is undeniable.
Ballroom gets its name from its origins, which were masquerade balls known as “drags.” This is also the origin of the term drag queens.
Founded by Black LGBTQ people in Manhattan in the 1890s, the ballroom scene has been a way for that community to have a family-like support system. The community has also been a source of support for a demographic that has been disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic and crime.
Ballroom culture has also given Black participants a reprieve from the discrimination they faced from society as well as from other white gays. In fact, balls and pageants were formed in part because Black people were often prohibited from participating in white gay events.
Now the ballroom scene is much more diverse and global, according to Grey.
“Even though there will be a lot of Black and brown people, there will be a lot of Latinos and Asians. It’s the color of the rainbow. That’s what the ballroom scene is all about,” Grey said.
The private, free event for the ballroom community will have dance elements, but also competitions where people walk against one another in different categories. It is closed to the public.
More than $7,000 in prizes will be awarded in more than 20 categories, with participants competing in everything from physical appearance to fashion and runway walking abilities. And of course, there will be plenty of vogueing, the jaw-dropping dance composed of hand movement, catwalk, duckwalk, floor performance, spins and dips.
Baltimore’s ballroom scene dates as far back as the early 20th century. In fact, the Baltimore Afro American wrote about the city’s drag balls during the “pansy craze,” a period in the late 1920s and 1930s that featured a surge in popularity among sexually non-normative clubs and performers. Participants in these balls were known as “pansies.”
Although the origins of ballroom had a more significant feminine presence, one of the Peabody Ballroom board members, Rhonda Carr, said she is not bothered by the fact that there are fewer women in the current ballroom scene — about three for every 10 men.
“It’s a little more accepted with straight society,” said Carr, who has achieved legendary status in the ballroom scene. Carr added that the scene has allowed her to feel comfortable while transitioning into a woman.
“It felt great,” the 41-year-old said of her first ballroom experience in 1999. She entered the competition and won. “I wasn’t treated like I was exotic. I didn’t feel extra in my clothing and my sex appeal. I was celebrated for my sexuality and body. My body is a work of art.”
The history of ballroom is as much a part of Saturday’s event as the opulence, pagentry and drama, according to organizers.
Members of the scene join “houses,” which are typically named after famous fashion designers, style icons such as models, and top fashion brands. These houses, which are not physical structures but instead a social construct, become a support system for participants in ballroom. Those houses are led by a “mother” or “father,” which typically is a person with leadership skills and experience and who commands respect within the scene.
“Kinship networks are essential sources of emotional and economic support,” said Joseph Plaster, a curator in public humanities for the Sheridan Libraries and Museums, adding that these networks are oftentimes intergenerational. “It’s a way of passing down cultural knowledge over time. Queer people do not typically grow up in queer families. They serve a lot of functions.”
Even though Eric L. Jenkins Jr. has a strong support system within his biological family — his birth mother, 73, regularly attends balls and hands out trophies at the events — he still values his ballroom family.
“Ballroom is not all based on tragedy. It’s not all about people being put out on the street and people not having a successful life. It [ballroom’s portrayal in popular culture] always seems to focus on the darker side and not the positive side,” said Jenkins, who goes by the name Enrique St. Laurent in the ballroom scene. “There are a lot of success stories in ballroom.”
Jenkins’ ballroom journey began 36 years ago when he was in Baltimore on spring break from West Virginia State University. He went to a now-defunct gay club where he saw his first ball and met for the first time a transgender man and “femme queen,” which is ballroom term for a transgender woman.
“I was there for the very start,” said Jenkins, 56, a a trainer for a national restaurant chain. “The great thing about ballroom is that we are starting to get fab places to throw venues. [The Peabody Library] is historic and beautiful. It takes your breath away. There were times when Black folks were only there to clean it and not there to read the books. Now you have Black people reading and throwing balls.”
Plaster created the board that oversees the annual ball at the Peabody Library.
“As a white queer person with a Ph.D. and educational privilege who is now working for Johns Hopkins University, which has historically inflicted harm on Black communities and Black and trans communities in Baltimore, being aware of those power dynamics is part of my role. And being aware of cultural appropriation is also part of that,” said Plaster, who also teaches a course called “Queer Performativity” at Hopkins.
Among those attending the ball will be students in Plaster’s class who are learning the history of the ballroom scene.
“They will be able to participate instead of being voyeurs,” Plaster said.
Renowned choreographer Marquis Clanton will perform the opening dance number Saturday with 20 dance students from the Peabody Institute. The group has been practicing for the past two months.
“Teaching them the vogueing and teaching them about the community, it’s amazing,” Clanton said.
The ballroom scene works with a hierarchy based on experience and skill level.
Competitors are assigned different statuses as they build more experience. For example, if you come to a ball as a newcomer and compete without being part of a particular house, you are considered a “007.” Once you join a house, you become a “star,” followed by a “statement,” “up and coming,” “legendary,” “icon,” “hall of famer” and “pioneer.”
The board only hires members of the ballroom scene for the ball. The security, caterer, and DJ (DJ Lucky) are fixtures within the ballroom world.
Clanton has the distinction of being named an icon in Philadelphia, Virginia and Baltimore. He likens the status to that of a community leader.
“You have to know how to navigate. You have to remain humble. If you can be able to take a win, you have to take a loss,” said Clanton, who was introduced to the ballroom scene in 1999 by the House of Revlon.
Clanton then joined the House of Revlon and has won numerous titles. He’s considered an icon and hall-of-famer in the ballroom world. His work has appeared on shows like “Pose” on FX, “Legendary” on HBO Max and the 2020 film “Dark City Beneath The Beat.”
“It’s family. Also, it’s like-minded people who understand your struggles, sexuality and who you are as an individual,” West said. “It’s unity, family, love and peace. But it’ also chaotic. With competition and competing for large amounts of trophy prizes and money, that creates ego, attitudes and personalities. Everyone wants to be No. 1. But only one can win.”
Ultimately, the goal of the ball’s organizers is to raise awareness of their culture.
“I want them to get a little knowledge. I want them to have a really good time,” Carr said.
Grey added: “We’ve come really far from a dark place.”