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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Ballroom culture: hidden in plain sight

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When people hear the term “ballroom,” they think of a large room where two or more people perform various styles of dance. However, for the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ community, ballroom, or balls, is a way of life.

Ballroom allows Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people to express themselves without prejudice. Many members of this community have been ostracized by their community for being queer or trans. They can join a house, compete in categories at the balls and build their own families. 

Categories include “realness,” where contestants give the illusion of being able to pass as cisgender or heterosexual, and “runway,” where you are judged on your supermodel strut. 

Notable members of ballroom culture include Willi Ninja, founding mother of the “House of Ninja,” who had many chapters throughout the nation, including Indianapolis.  

Tre’Mont Prodigy, father of the Indianapolis House of Ninja chapter, was mentored by Ninja. 

“Willi taught me the ways, the moves and basically how to co-exist in ballroom culture and not get caught up in the shenanigans,” Prodigy said. 

Ballroom is more than just the glitz and glamour of competing and winning a trophy or prize money, it is about family and support. 

Ninja believed in building a community with his house, and if you wanted to be in the house then you had to go to school and have a job in order to compete in the balls, Prodigy said. 

He had about 30 children once the chapter was formed in 2004 and existed until Ninja died in 2006. Once he started his own house — the “House of Imperial” — Prodigy continued what he learned from Ninja. 

“I made sure my kids finished high school, went to meetings with their teachers and took on the role of being their parent because many of them were kicked out by their own parents,” he said.

In Indianapolis, ballroom culture didn’t begin until the early 2000s. The first ball had about 300 spectators and icon Opey Ebony and Amey Glory Clinique taught many about the local ballroom scene, Prodigy said.

Now, ballroom has become much more of a spectacle since it first began. Prodigy recalled at one ball a contestant arrived in a chopper on top of a building in Chicago and walked “European Runway.”

Shows and documentaries such as “POSE,” “Legendary” and “Paris is Burning” have reached mainstream attention and highlight the origins of ballroom but don’t tell the full story. 

“I tell people that ‘Paris is Burning’ is the Bible, but even with ‘Paris is Burning’ there are cuts and so many pieces missing,” Prodigy said.

Joseph Coleman, founding treasurer of Indiana Pride of Color, said these depictions only give a surface level view of what ballroom culture is. He believes learning the true history of ballroom is important during Pride Month because much of the history taught is whitewashed. The Black and Latinx trailblazers of ballroom play an integral part in understanding LGBTQ+ culture, Coleman said.  

Contact staff writer Terrence Lambert 317-924-5243. Follow him on Twitter @_TerrenceL_.

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