Getting Our Histor(ies)

The history of the 1980s ball scene, and the genealogy of voguing, is a contested one — it changes depending on who you talk to, and what their stakes are in the version they’re telling. For example, voguing originated at Rikers Island jail; or Paris Dupree created it at a downtown club while throwing shade at other queens; or it was a form of dance influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics; etc. Similarly, the competitions between houses, who was on top and who was on the outs, who can lay claim to which innovations — these moments also shift, depending on the allegiances of the person recounting the events. For this reason, our production process is interested in embracing the idea of “histories” rather than “history.” There are multiple truths, multiple genealogies and ways of understanding the lasting influences of the ball scene on modern pop culture.

One fantastic resource we’ve found is the 2011 book Voguing, with photos and interviews of iconic members of the ball scene by Chantal Regnault. (And here’s an interview with her, about her work documenting them.) The book not only has exquisite photography, but the wide-ranging collection of first person narratives — in all their contradictions and moments of shade — give us a sense of the many ways of understanding the historical underpinnings of a subculture built on competition and belonging. Sadly, the book is now out of print, though may be found in libraries and used bookstores.

Of particular interest is the book’s introduction by Tim Lawrence, titled “‘Listen, and you will hear all the houses that walked there before’: A history of drag balls, houses and the culture of voguing.” This long-read piece provides some deep research into early 20th century drag balls, and the shifts of the 1970s that led black and brown ball participants to form their own events and networks. We recommend reading this one if you’re able. Members of our production’s cast and creative team can find a password-protected scan of the essay in the “Art Books” section of this website (located in the “C1 Biz” drop-down menu). …Sorry we can’t provide access to the world at large!

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Photo by Chantal Regnault