A hidden world of Sacramento gay ballroom culture redefines sex, skin color and status.
Thirty seconds is all it takes. In 30 seconds, a night out dancing opens Sacramento’s tiny rabbit hole into an underground, mostly black world carving its legacy into LGBT culture.
It’s Sunday night at Club 21 in Midtown, and Rihanna’s “We Found Love” comes on. In the crowd, the body of a gay black boy is telling him, it’s time to go. A circle opens up, and he tries to catch a techno beat. His hands don’t just vogue like Madonna, they flip and flare and apply makeup from an imaginary compact. His abs twist and curve with perfect timing. Drums and pulses pound, and then, in dramatic fashion, he dips supine with the song’s finale. It’s over. The rabbit hole closes.
Those few seconds on the occasional club night are about as close as it gets to ballroom life here.
Otherwise, Sacramento is off the radar when it comes to this party scene.
Which is not to say Sacramentans know nothing about balls—those all-night dance fests where gays of color set out to stake their majestic claims. Sacramentans know about the ball’s fabulous ensembles, about the contests that throw together dance, looks and verve—and especially about the voguing.
They know because they go.
Every few weekends, as individuals or in a group, locals will escape Sacramento in search of a ball where they can see and be seen. They dance and dazzle at rented community centers or bars, starting a little before midnight, ending sometimes at 6 a.m. They pay respect to vogue legends; they throw shade at imitators. Gays, butch queens, transsexuals, cross-dressers work it for the crowd and for the judges, hoping to snatch trophies in their categories: American Runway. Sex Siren. Realness (for those who can best pass off as straight).
Those who would be invisible (or worse) in daily life can, for a night, feel as fierce as Beyonce, or as heterosexual, as white, as wealthy as they want to be.
Their Cinderella transformations happen in the Bay or Los Angeles or Vegas. Occasionally, they escape to Atlanta or New York.
Just never Sacramento.
Here, the ballroom subculture is concealed from all but a small percentage familiar with it, and an even smaller number actually have vogued or gone to balls.
Over the years, there has been the occasional whisper about bringing a ball here. One of the latest whisperers is Dennis Alexander.
The 25-year-old has started to reach out, talking to people inside Sacramento and outside, people who go to balls and people who haven’t been in years. He is recruiting a business partner and assistant and designing a website that he wants to be a hub of a Sacramento ball and voguing scene. In his perfect world, the capital city could have its own ball by this summer.
Right now, though, it’s just a conversation. Before people will seriously imagine a ball here, the believers still have quite a lot to prove. And so does Sacramento.
The house that Sac didn’t build
Lucas Orizaba linked up with Alexander when he heard about the possibility of a ball right in his own backyard. Orizaba, who studies apparel marketing and fashion design, as well as psychology, at Sacramento State, has seen a few balls. He has attended them and seen Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary still held up as a cinematic Bible of the ball universe. Where now are the feathers and gold-sequined gowns from the film? Where are the glamorous, New York-raised divas and dancers?
Like so much else in the world of balls, Orizaba, 20, wants Sacramento’s coming-out party to be grand. The problem is, as he puts it, “You can’t have a ball with no houses.” And we have no “houses,” something like a gay cross between a fraternity and a neighborhood gang.
Black, Mexican and Chinese, Orizaba is among the subgroup who smirk at the suggestion that there are houses in Sacramento. With a little exasperation, his lips tighten as he explains that the half-dozen or so social clans here that call themselves “houses” aren’t real because they don’t compete at the balls. Yeah, they hit the clubs together and call each other “Mother,” “Brother,” “Cousin.”
But a true house would be as many as 50 locals—black or other minorities, few if any identifying as straight—who have chosen one another as a surrogate family. They don’t live together, but they go out as a group, here and (most importantly) to out-of-town balls. They prepare for competitions and have hierarchical titles, all reporting to the house mother, who can be a man, woman or anything in between. The mother should be a ballroom legend who founded her local house as one of many chapters under the auspices of a national house.
In collaborating with Alexander, Orizaba is courting houses in other cities to open chapters here.
Houses probably never reached such great heights in Sacramento, but what remains of them now certainly have seen better days.
In the ’90s, Kima LaRue founded a local branch of the national House of LaRue and changed her legal name to match. One of her former children, Tajay Davis, still pays homage, saying LaRue helped lay the groundwork for the local house community. LaRue, 35, says she has walked just about every major ball on this coast, and at its peak, her house might have numbered two dozen members.
It’s been a couple years since she’s made an appearance on the scene, and her house has declined along the way. She’s down to maybe two people she can trust these days, the rest having left by her choice or theirs. LaRue gives different reasons for each kid, all of them exiting in conflict. Some jumped houses or made false claims to them, she said. Others couldn’t take the sharp critique of a house mother trying to ready them for the ball. The worst, she says, stole from her even after she took them into her (physical) house in South Sacramento.
LaRue wanted her house to stay above the fray and out of the fights that too often end balls. Some here say the violence is what made the parties too ghetto for them to keep making the trek to them. Something about the competition-fueled adrenaline of the night, mixed with larger-than-life egos and impetuous tongues, makes the clashes unsurprising.
And LaRue knows about attitude. She came into the world as a black boy with female hormones, and in her teens, she took more hormones to push the transition, D-cups and all, to live life as a woman. Now, when job interviewers or strangers at parades ask, “What are you?” she doesn’t play nice: “What do you see in front of you, honey?”
“Then that’s what I am.”
Attitude comes with the house and ball territory, and so does crime. Most in the ball community own up that theirs is a lawless one. If balls are about fantasy, then ballgoers must don the air and attire of the rich and famous—even if, for those without fairy godmothers, it means pulling a rut. “Everybody knows a gay person is a booster,” says Davis, a former LaRue who founded his own chapter of the national House of Royalty.
“We have to live above our means.”
Davis, who lives 2 miles away from his former mother, says he spent a couple of years in the G-Parkway Mobb, and the only difference between that gang and a house is that one is gay.
They both have signature signs or calls. They roll out in groups. They share tattoos (in his house: a crown hugging a diamond). They battle for reps. They mix drugs, violence and, yes, crime.
Davis, 28, is a tall man with a long face and drooping eyes. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, he came of age in the birthplace of the ball scene, New York. His height, smooth skin and impossibly slender-yet-broad shoulders primed him for modeling, whether at professional agencies, or in the runway categories (dramatic and European) that he walked at balls. He counts more than 100 balls attended, at one point going almost every weekend.
A few years after he moved to Sacramento, Davis says he created Royalty for young gays coming up and coming out. One transsexual writes off his house as “cute,” and Davis admits it’s not an active one. His house is out of town once or twice a week, showing their faces at balls and other gay functions, but not competing. Instead, they get together to make cookies at home, smoke or watch movies, at least during times of low drama. They have family meetings to talk about fashion or school, or about the latest kid to get put out by his biological parents. There’s a physical house, “a headquarters” in Natomas that Davis, who works at Gap, likes to think of as a safe place. Houses exist for “protection, identity, security and comfort.”
In other words, they’re support networks, says Kevin Wehr, an associate professor of sociology at Sac State who identifies as neither straight nor gay. “Some of it evolves from, ‘My real family doesn’t support me, so I’ll find my own family.’”
That’s Davis’ solution to the feeling that there are lost people, often young, struggling with their sexuality and eager for succor.
Orizaba, the would-be architect of Sacramento’s first ball, sees those LGBT youth seeking relief in clubs, alcohol and sex. In a small way, he hopes the ball could be an upgrade, teaching kids “how to be classy, how to carry yourself.”
LaRue, on the other hand, is starting to talk like someone on a much loftier mission. She is starting to wonder if God kept her, after a bullet to the head, after a car accident from which she still has back problems, to help others.
Most days she styles hair out of her one-story, where wooden masks and elephants line the walls, and where her nieces run and hide from their Pomeranian. But on Sundays, she is another person. If it’s Sunday, then LaRue is in a black, floor-length gown, singing “Testimony” or “I Remember Mama,” getting not a few arm-raising, hand-clapping “amens” from the crowd.
And LaRue’s ministry—that’s her word choice—is at Faces Nightclub.
For 20 years, she has been seducing the weekly revelers congregated at Faces’ Dragalicious show with lip-syncs of Jill Scott and Karen Clark Sheard. Gospel has always made up one-half of her performances, but now she is getting the idea that it fills a void for people the church has left behind.
Less and less she is asking, “Am I doing the right thing by doing these songs in the club?” More and more she is preaching, “You can have God and love who you want.” At the drag shows, she is listening less to the people who predict hell in her future, and more to the people who find sanctuary in song.
A little respect
Drag no longer dominates balls, as it did a half-century ago. “In the ’60s, a handful of black queens finally got fed up and started holding balls of their own in Harlem, where they quickly pushed the institution to heights undreamed of by the little gangs of white men parading around in frocks in basement taverns,” writes Michael Cunningham (yes, that Michael Cunningham—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours).
For LaRue, the drag shows at Faces are now the closest reminders of ballroom life that’s just about invisible in her hometown.
Resting in the dressing room during a rare Friday-night gig, LaRue grips a Jägermeister with 6-inch fingernails and drinks through a row of gold teeth.
“Bitch, I don’t fall,” she responds to some comment about high heels. “I’m a professional.”
“Yeah, a professional hooker,” quips Mizz Monique Moore, another transsexual and hostess of the show.
To call theirs a love-hate relationship would oversimplify. They’re about the same age and attitude, but Moore runs Dragalicious and LaRue has been there more than a decade longer.
In the same dressing room, Moore pulls down her zebra-print dress to change for the next act, revealing her new silicone duo with black tape over the nipples. “They’re big, huh?” she asks, gripping them proudly. She makes her own outfits at her house in Oak Park. She also makes costumes for the ball-bound. And while she’s never been to one, Moore is clearly curious.
“My girls say, ‘They couldn’t take you, girl, you’d be fierce!’” She snaps her fingers, as required.
It’s obvious she’d like to walk a ball, and for obvious reasons. They deliver the same reward as her drag shows: attention. Moore has danced, presurgery, to Paula Abdul music in front of Abdul on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and she has gone on Maury and Ricki Lake to disclose her lifestyle. She is no stranger to attention.
Moore, who is Hispanic, doesn’t consider herself a part of the house scene. But she sometimes calls her children the House of Moore, or Family of Moore, with a tattoo to match. The name is as important as molding her children to be “polished” to perform—for now in drag shows, but someday, maybe on the ball floor.
Most who ultimately compete at balls for the prize money, trophies and bragging rights have similar desires. The thinking goes, as Wehr describes it: “I want approval and respect from my peers. I’m not going to get it in the mainstream, so I’m going to search for respect and acceptance and status within this smaller subculture.”
They’re not so different, Wehr says, from academics who want to publish or journalists who want Pulitzers.
Everyone wants to shine but fears getting burned.
No one is immune, not even such a femme de force in the local gay establishment as LaRue. Beneath the confident veneer are questions about how to return to the ball scene, whether to walk, and what sort of catty characters she’ll meet again. Like new ball kids terrified of getting chopped by judges as soon as they walk out for a category, LaRue doesn’t know what to expect.
Her house has never sponsored a ball, though LaRue says she’s thought about it. She might be a little gun-shy after the resistance she met in putting together a gay prom seven years ago for those who couldn’t dress the way they wanted at their own proms. The dance happened eventually, but it took a few tries to get a Sacramento venue that wasn’t skittish about the concept.
Now LaRue speaks with a mindset that the city deserves its own ball. “There’s nothing out here,” she says. “And we’re supposed to be the capital?”
Alexander, the website-building ball dreamer, approached LaRue about his plans, which she received with skeptical optimism. If Sacramento is ever to host a ball, it needs a network of houses. It needs some embracing from the straight community. It needs more than a patch of Lavender Heights to compete with the L.A. and Bay scenes that draw gays and transgenders every weekend. It needs talented voguers.
Whereas drag once defined balls, over time, voguing became the essential ingredient. Plenty of other contests make up a ball night: House members snag trophies by looking most “executive,” or having the freshest face or wearing the most extravagant clothes. But, in one ballgoer’s opinion: “Without voguing, there is no ball.”
A flamboyant combination of modeling and dance, voguing burst onto the pop scene with Madonna’s 1990 music video for the single “Vogue.” Two decades later, it enjoyed a national resurgence when Vogue Evolution charted new LGBT terrain on America’s Best Dance Crew.
“I really think Vogue Evolution helped put voguing on the map,” says Tramon Traywick, a local choreographer who threads some voguing into his routines. Traywick, 30, teaches master classes and hip-hop exercises, working dance conventions and tournaments. After the TV show aired, he noticed dancers asking for vogue lessons and registering “vogue” in their contest submissions. Suddenly, the hand-face gestures, the duck walks, the spins and the shablams were creeping into mainstream dance competitions.
Pride and prestige
Alexander knows he needs to start walking the walk.
For years, he has had entrepreneurial visions of grandeur, of revolutionizing the LGBT community, of tilting at windmills of discrimination and diseases, of making a name for himself in the ballroom circuit. But sometimes chasing boys ranked slightly higher than the business classes he was taking at American River College.
His website, and all that comes with it, is supposed to be the answer. Set to launch this spring, Ovah!live (www.ovahlive.com) would be a virtual public square for ball people, listing events and houses, archiving video clips, compiling music, and selling DVDs of past balls. The site would be the anchor for an entertainment company and the organizing tool for Sacramento’s first ball.
Alexander doesn’t walk the balls, but he seeks glory like those who do. In their catwalks and catcalls, ballgoers are communicating, they are performing gender and identity. It doesn’t matter if the ball is in a glitzy club, an elegant gallery or a drab meeting hall. For a few hours, attendees care as much or as little as they want to about race, money, sex and sexuality. For a few hours, they put on whatever sparkly masks they feel like. Or take them off.
All of that, of course, happens hours away from Sacramento. That is, at least until Alexander and Orizaba find a few more people who want a ball here as much as they do.