Photos by Cait Oppermann.
MikeQ is weaving down Central Avenue in a pale gold SUV, trying to catch rare Pokemon on Pokemon Go. As we drive into East Orange, New Jersey—cruising past chain stores and a park that's deserted despite the mid-July heat—he aims his phone at a brick building on our right. "That's my elementary school," he notes. "And right next to it is a Pokestop."
When he picked me up from the Newark Path Train station moments before, I noticed that the car's license plate read CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST. Dressed in a grey T-shirt, denim shorts, and black Puma sliders, he apologized to me as soon as I hopped in. "Sorry, the air-conditioning is broken," he said. "It's my grandmother's car."
MikeQ, born Michael Cox, is the soft-spoken ambassador of America's flashiest subculture, ballroom. There is no party in the world—no velvet-roped VIP club, no grime-covered warehouse—that can compare to a ball. On any given evening, if you know where to look, you'll see drag queens, butch queens, trans women, and other queer people of color flocking to clubs or rental venues, decked out in everything from head-to-toe Ferragamo, to an LED-lit corset, to trash bags stitched into a gown. The night unfolds as a series of battles for cash prizes and glory, some dancers twisting their bodies into spine-snapping drops to the floor, others swanning around like Naomi Campbell on a Parisian runway.
Even though ballroom dates back to the 60s, the scene has largely flown under the radar—not only of mainstream America, but of the gay community itself. "Stop 20 gay men, and ask them about the icons in the ballroom scene," ballroom veteran Power Infiniti lamented to the Miami New Times in 2014. "Most of them wouldn't even know."
In recent years, however, this oversight is being slowly rectified thanks to prominent advocates like MikeQ, a 30-year-old DJ and producer who has dedicated his decade-long career to championing ballroom's allure—and its commercial viability. He's toured cities where local ballroom scenes are sprouting up, like Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, Mexico, and Seoul. He's invaded living rooms across the globe with his live-streamed Boiler Room sets, and seduced the heads by linking up with the Fade to Mind label and GHE20G0TH1K party—both bulwarks of the experimental avant-garde. Even Missy Elliott slid into his DMs once, hitting up Mike in 2013 to collaborate on a ballroom track.
In some ways, my visit to Mike's suburban hometown couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time. He's just flown home from a gig in LA. Later this week, he'll DJ at a party called Vogue Knights and attend the Latex Ball, an annual ballroom extravaganza co-founded by the Gay Men's Health Crisis nonprofit at the height of the 80s AIDS epidemic to spread awareness of HIV prevention in the scene. He's also preparing for the August 12 release of his label Qween Beat's first album, an 11-track compilation of ballroom-affiliated artists that Mike thinks deserve more shine. On top of everything, he's in the middle of moving out of the home where he's lived with his family since 1990, and into his longtime boyfriend's apartment a few blocks down the street.
The house where Mike grew up is three stories tall, with curved white walls and windows with navy blue trim. A beaten-up box of toys lies on the spacious front porch, and more boxes line the entrance hallway. Two calendars of the Obama family—for the same year—are pinned to the bright yellow wall by the door.
Stepping over a hamburger recipe book, I follow Mike up the creaky wooden stairs and come face-to-face with his 83-year-old grandmother, who is perched in a chair on the second-floor landing. Smiling sweetly, she grasps my hand with a trembling grip, mumbling a greeting I can't quite catch. Mike tells me his mother and grandfather used to live here but moved out a few years ago, leaving him and his grandmother to support his aunt and her two young kids, who also reside with them. "That's why I hadn't moved out sooner—I wanted to be here helping with this house," he says.
Up on the top floor, Mike's room is nearly empty save for his bed, his studio gear, and mountains of Nike boxes. Taking a seat at his desk next to two large computer screens, he swivels his black office chair to gaze around the room. "I get sad on and off about it," he says. "Sometime next week, I'll probably never be able to come in here. But it's time for change."
Mike was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and moved to the house here in East Orange when he was four. His dad lives fifteen minutes away, in Paterson—"the same town where Fetty Wap is from," Mike notes—and they would hang out on the weekends when he was growing up. Mike says he's been the "quiet, geeky nerdy type" since childhood, and sang in the choir in elementary school.
"I didn't dress nice," he says about his adolescence. "I never had a haircut. I wasn't loud and out-and-about." But he also had a rebellious streak. On the first day of middle school, he erased the name of the school his mother had written on his enrollment form because the building was "so dingy and ghetto," replacing it with one he liked better. Somehow, he never got into trouble. In high school, Mike started smoking weed and skipping class, which got him held back a year. Still, he excelled at his job as a manager at Domino's Pizza. "Work was more important to me," Mike says, "It wasn't that I was stupid—I just got over school in a way."
Mike's life changed when he first walked into The Globe, a no-frills club that was the throbbing heart of Newark's gay scene in early to mid-2000s. "I was scared to go there—I have always been who I am but never in a public space," he says, hinting at how suburban New Jersey isn't the most friendly environment for black gay kids like him.
But one Friday night when he was 17 years old, Mike mustered his courage and hit the club with a friend. Walking onto the The Globe's black-and-white checkered floor, Mike recognized the familiar staccato chants and taut bass wallops of Jersey club, a hip-hop-influenced genre from Newark that Mike had often heard at local block parties and family barbeques growing up. But at the end of the night, the DJ started playing a he'd never heard before, full of cut-up vocal samples peppered over thunderous crash symbols and tribal drumming. "All these drag queens came out and started doing this dance," Mike recalls. "[I thought] why the fuck are they throwing themselves on the ground like this? It was so weird, but it looked hot."
Mike had discovered the hyper-kinetic sounds of modern ballroom music—the fuel that gives dancers the adrenaline they need to dominate their opponents during battles. Back in the 80s, balls were soundtracked by elegant disco and hard house classics like MFSB's "Love is the Message" and Junior Vasquez's "X."In 1991, Masters At Work's classic "The Ha Dance" changed the game by giving ballroom its two signature sounds: an ecstatic "ha!" chant and metallic crashes on every fourth beat, often used by dancers as cues to dip to the floor. In 2000, tiring of the scene's limited playlist, modern ballroom pioneer Vjuan Allure sampled that "ha" in a remix specifically tailored to battles called "The Allure Ha." Vjuan's new of ballroom dispelled with traditional verse-verse-break song structure, ratcheting up the drama instead. "When you play it, there's a feeling that you're ready to go out and battle," he told RBMA in 2012. The intense ballroom that Vjuan pioneered has ventured into even darker and more aggressive territory with younger producers like LSDXOXO, Quest?ionmarc, and Byrell the Great, while the internet has spawned thousands of bootleg ballroom remixes of popular songs.
Mike fell in love with ballroom instantly. Unlike the music he grew up with, ballroom was inherently queer, its stuttering beats often punctuated by a vocalist hooting lines like "Yas, bish, yaaas!" and "Work that pussy!" "Ballroom was danceable like Jersey club or house, but it was just gay," Mike explains.
After that fateful night, Mike started driving into the city to hang out in the Village in Manhattan, a historic gay enclave. "I was super amazed at all these gay people like me walking around," he says. "Slowly I just came out." Mike is open about his sexuality with his mother's side of the family, but things with his father are a bit more complicated. "I know that he knows," Mike says matter-of-factly. "We just never had that conversation." Same goes for the wider community of people he grew up with in Jersey. "I won't say super gay things on Facebook because all my friends from school are on there," he says.
Teenage Mike fed his growing appetite for ballroom with CDs he bought from Vjuan Allure, Angel X, and Tony Cortes, all pioneering DJs he hung out with at The Club House. After studying their music at home, Mike started making his own tracks using Fruity Loops and ACID Pro, music production programs he got from a friend he met at The Globe. "I would chop tracks and combine my sense of Jersey club with [ballroom]," he explains. Mike tagged all his early productions with a special "drop"—a recording of Vjuan Allure saying Mike's name that the older DJ had given him at his 19th birthday party. To Mike, the gift was a coveted stamp of approval.
"Ballroom was danceable like Jersey club or house, but it was just gay"—MikeQ
While Vjuan Allure and Angel X promoted their music the old-school way—selling CDs in-person to their fans at balls—Mike got his name out by posting his tracks to online ballroom forums like Walk 4 Me Wednesdays and DL Thugs. In fact, MikeQ's DJ moniker stems from his old username on those forums: MikeQ7000. "I liked Infinity cars, and they were were always naming cars 'Infinity Q' and a number," he explains. "Once I became a DJ, I just took the 7000 off."
In September 2005, Mike got an offer to DJ at The Globe. It was his first gig, and paid $70 for a six-hour slot. Afraid of messing up, he played a pre-mixed set off CDs he'd made at home. Soon, he was DJing all the time at both The Globe and The Club House. "I became the resident at the first two clubs I ever went to, which was weird," he says. "I just did that for years."
It's not difficult to see why: standing behind the booth, Mike has a special talent for zero-ing in on the dancefloor smashers you want to hear in a sweaty room full of your friends at 2 AM. When it comes to his own productions, Mike's ear for catchy hooks and propulsive baselines translates to his own idiosyncratic take on ballroom, one that involves cross-breeding that genre's musical DNA with hip-hop, pop, and industrial club. "The Ha Dub ReWork'D," the lead track off his first EP for Fade to Mind in 2011, Let It All Out, pays homage to the Masters at Work "ha" sample, but forgoes the fuzzy house music crunch of the original, instead emphasizing its alien, ear-splitting synth triplets. It sounds like "The Ha Dance" transported from the Paradise Garage into an alien spaceship, 200 years in the future.
Though his days at The Globe and The Club House are over, the one party that has remained a fixture in Mike's life is Vogue Knights, where he has been a resident DJ since it started six years ago. Founded by scene stalwarts Jack Mizrahi and Luna Kahn, Vogue Knights serves as as a relaxed space for dancers to practice their moves before joining more competitive balls. Over the years, it has drawn celebrities like FKA Twigs, Robert Pattinson, Queen Latifah, and Boys Noize as spectators; Twigs has even gone on to incorporate vogue dancing into her live shows. The scene has also produced its own breakout stars, like Hood By Air designer and GHE20G0THIK co-founder Shayne Oliver, model Shaun Ross, and Missy Elliott protégé Sharaya J.
With his enviable perch in between the ballroom underground and wider music world, Mike seems poised to follow in their footsteps. But while other stars' ties to ballroom are often overlooked by outsiders, Mike is determined to make sure the scene's history isn't forgotten. "I'm always sure to speak about Vjuan Allure and make it known," he says gravely. "A lot of people think that I started [ballroom], because they've only heard about me."
Vogue Knights officially starts at 11PM, but the competitions only heat up around 2 AM, leaving the floor to serious ballroom dancers and fans. The streets of Midtown Manhattan are deserted when I roll up to Vogue Knights on a Thursday in mid-July, lit by the distant glow of Times Square a few blocks away. Tonight is the first time the party is taking place at its new home, a gay club called XL, following five years at La Escuelita, a Latin gay club also in Midtown. Mike will DJ the party from start to finish, from 11 PM to around 5 AM.
A muffled shout rings out from behind the black marble pillars of an empty office building at the end of the street: "Michelle!" I squint and see Mike huddled with four friends, passing around a joint while keeping out of sight from a police station next to the club.
Mike looks fresh and relaxed, his denim long-sleeve shirt unbuttoned to reveal a white shirt and silver chains. As I slide into his circle of friends, he stretches his arms over his head and bends forward at the waist in a stretch. "I'm tired!" he sigh. "It's a little dry tonight—but Vogue Knights to me is always a little dry."
"A lot of people think that I started [ballroom], because they've only heard about me."—MikeQ
A tall, blonde white girl in our midst lifts sparkly chains off someone's neck and sashays down the sidewalk like it's a runway, her legs flashing through a black skirt that's slit up her thigh. "Let's go back in," she calls over her shoulder, and before I get to ask Mike what he meant by his complaint, he turns around and walks briskly back through the club's pink doors. "Work—work—work," instructs a ballroom remix of Rihanna's hit song as he weaves through kids warming up on the sunken dancefloor, headed towards the stage. Bounding up a flight of stairs, he takes his place behind a makeshift DJ booth next to a table of sneering judges in wide-brimmed hats. As if on cue, his trademark drop booms through the speakers, a robotic male voice intoning, "Dee-jaaay MikeQ."
Over the next few hours, dancers parade in front of the judges, competing in categories with names like "Old Way" and "Femme Queen Vogue." When competitors try to outdo each other in the "Runway" division, where they're judged by the fierceness of their walks, Mike plays warm, smooth house music made for slinking your hips to. One feminine-presenting dancer in a black cape wins the crowd over by pulling out a vape and billowing out a plume of smoke as she sashays down the catwalk. Another competitor is less successful. "Girl, put down your bag and take off your jacket," booms the MC. "This category is about confidence!"
Later, he explains that DJing at a ball is strictly functional, and requires knowing how to interpret commands and non-verbal cues from the MC in addition to choosing the right sounds for different categories. It's very different from playing a gig at a club, where people are coming out specifically to bask in the music. At a ball, "my job is someone who creates the soundtrack," Mike says.
I press Mike on what he meant before by Vogue Knights being "dry." "Vogue Knights is my job—that's how I eat today," he begins. Furrowing his brow, he confesses that the rate he gets paid at Vogue Knights pales in comparison to what he pulls as a touring artist: "$200 a night is nothing, like putting me back in 2007." His feelings towards Vogue Knights, he says, have changed with his growing success outside the scene. These days, he thinks of the party as a kind of "community service."
Despite what Mike says about wanting to give back to ballroom, I can't help thinking of an Instagram post I noticed on his feed earlier that night: a screenshot of a text conversation he'd had with the Vogue Knights promoter. After being told he would no longer be allowed to bring in friends for free on his guestlist, Mike texted back saying he needed at least two spots, adding that other clubs give free bottles and other perks when he plays. "That's just what comes with hiring me in 2016," he wrote. He deleted the Instagram post a few days later.
The origins of New York's ballroom scene go back as early as 1869, when gay men began holding drag fashion shows, with prizes for the most outrageous costumes. But modern ballroom wasn't born until a century later, when black and Latino drag queens started throwing elaborate "balls" in Harlem community centers and other public venues. In the late 1960s, they adopted a new dance called "voguing," inspired by the elegant poses of the women they saw parading down Fifth Avenue and splashed in fashion magazines like Vogue.
"To the drag queens of that time, vogue was a beautiful escape, a way to dance away the pain and oppression they were experiencing," Kevin Omni Burrus, a ballroom dancer since 1975, told DNAInfo in 2012. "But beyond that, it was a celebration of their beauty."
In the 70s, a queen named Crystal LaBeija founded the first ballroom "house," the House of LaBeija. It functioned like a fraternity, with a "mother" and "father" mentoring younger, less-experienced members. Soon, other rival houses emerged, often named after haute couture labels like Balenciaga and St. Laurent, or qualities its members want to embody, like Xtravaganza and Ninja.
The houses became second families for many kids who had nowhere else to turn. "A lot of gay kids and gay youth were turned away from their own families," said Power Infiniti in the Miami New Times interview. "They found this social network in the clubs and on the streets."
Underneath its flashy surface, ballroom evolved into a complex world with its own hierarchies, customs, and lingo. Going to a ball for the first time, it's hard to understand what's going on—and how exactly one wins a category called "soft and cunt"—without somebody from the community to guide you.
In one of ballroom's first breakthrough moments, nightlife impresario Susanne Bartsch organized a celebrity-studded ballroom competition and AIDS research benefit called the Love Ball in 1989, with David Byrne, Iman, and Vogue's editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley among the judges. According to an article published by Red Bull Music Academy, the Love Ball is said to be where Madonna saw voguing for the first time; her 1990 hit "Vogue" paid homage to the dance style's fluid hand gestures and elegant arcs of movement. The same year, cult documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston exposed the subculture to a worldwide audience.
While public interest in ballroom has waxed and waned since its inception, there is no doubt it's seeped into pop culture's collective consciousness over the decades. RuPaul has been a household name since the 90s, and some of ballroom's juiciest slang—like "throwing shade," "yaaaas," "fierce," "work!"—has filtered down to Bravo-loving suburban moms. More recently, FKA Twigs, Beyoncé, and even Willow Smith have collaborated with vogue dancers on tour and in music videos. Beyoncé told The Independent in 2006 that her fiery alter-ego Sasha Fierce was inspired by the confidence of ballroom dancers. The problem is that ballroom's influence on the mainstream is seldom credited; its signifiers have become familiar but stripped from their original context, leaving the scene and its colorful characters all but invisible to the masses.
The ballroom scene also rarely reaps the profits from its popularity. When Paris is Burning was scheduled for a free screening in a New York City park last summer, it re-opened old wounds. Many were offended that the event did not feature any queer and trans people of color from the ballroom community, instead booking white lesbian musician JD Samson, who has little known connection to the scene, to perform as the headliner. A Change.org petition emerged calling for a boycott of the event, calling the film an "exploitation of a vulnerable population," and accusing Livingston of using people "for the sake of her own fame" while "most of the original cast has been murdered or has died in poverty."
In 1991, Livingston distributed $55,000 from the film's profits to 13 cast members, but it did little to appease them. Pepper LaBeija, a dancer who is in the film, told the New York Times it was "hush money."
Mike's ascent to prominence outside the ballroom world was aided partly by good timing, but also by falling in with tastemakers who have the wider music industry's ear. In 2009, Mike met Kingdom, a UK-born, LA-based DJ and producer born Ezra Rubin who makes experimental, deconstructed club music. "Ezra asked me if I wanted to be on his label that he was just starting up," Mike recalls, referring to what became Fade to Mind. "From the beginning, Mike knew deep inside he wanted to go further than DJing at balls," Kingdom recalls. "He wasn't just about making beats—he was doing marketing, pushing his mix CDs, had his own website in the MySpace days... he had big plans [to reach] a broader audience than the community."
"It's really hard to get ballroom people to support anything outside of ballroom. At a ball, your name can barely even get on a flyer. A lot of people don't really know what I look like."—MikeQ
In 2012, he dropped Let It All Out on the label. His only solo release to date, the five-track EP was the club world's swaggering introduction to ballroom's prowling rhythms, attitude-filled vocal hooks ("I wanna see a bitch let it all out!" raps MC Jay Karan on the title track), and signature crashes. In addition to Mike's own production work, Let It All Out featured ballroom pioneers like the DJ/producer Angel X and MC Kevin JZ Prodigy, as well as Jersey club king DJ Sliink—with whom he released a collaborative EP on Fade to Mind with in 2014—as guests.
Following the record's release, the more experimental corners of the electronic music community embraced the genre with gusto, with Kingdom putting his own spin on the "ha" sample with his track "Stalker Ha," and Bok Bok getting Vjuan Allure to guest on one of his Rinse shows in 2012. "The impact was really big because [Let It All Out] was the first-ever ballroom EP to get a proper full release and be pressed to vinyl. It set into motion this international ballroom movement that has so much potential," Kingdom says. That same year, Boiler Room invited Mike to play its first ballroom stream with Kevin JZ Prodigy. In 2014, Fade to Mind and its sister label Night Slugs did a joint re-issue of mid-90s tribal house-inflected battle gem "Icy Lake," and made a documentary with THUMP about it.
With his growing profile, Mike started getting booked for gigs across the country. His first time venturing outside the tri-state area for a show was for Diplo's Mad Decent Mondays in LA in 2011. "After that, "I started traveling a lot, and everything just blew up from there," he says. Last December, I witnessed him DJing another Boiler Room set, this time back-to-back with Night Slugs founder L-VIS 1990, at Brooklyn club Good Room. Dressed in a black shirt with Qween Beat's white geometric logo on it, Mike stood stoically behind the decks, adjusting knobs with quick, precise flicks of his wrist, and exuding a show-stopping confidence. "Linking up with Fade to Mind, Night Slugs, Diplo, Venus X, GHE20GOTH1K parties—all that helped," Mike says.
Mike started Qween Beat in 2005. His boyfriend came up with the name; "It's beats for the queens," Mike explains. Up until this point, Qween Beat has functioned mostly as a collective of Mike's friends he'd met online, at The Globe, and in-person. Its 19 members include not just DJs and producers, but rappers and vocalists like Cakes da Killa and Ash B, and dancers like Tokyo-based Koppi Mizrahi. In a way, it felt like Mike was creating a "house" of his own. While more conventional ballroom houses—like the Houses of Mizrahi, LaBeija, and Xtravaganza—have DJs and MCs amongst their members, they are still dominated by dancers. Mike is already part of another house called Ebony, but Qween Beat seems uniquely focused on musicians, with the idea that banding together will help these often-overlooked members of the scene expand their pool of resources.
As such, many tracks on Qween Beat's first release are collaborations between different artists on the label: Divoli S'vere laid down the garbage can drumming and hard crashes underneath rapper Ash B's rollicking tribute to "Realness," and Jay R Neutron cooked up the electro bleeps that punctuate Gregg Evisu's sandpaper vocals in "Some Type of Way." "It's a family thing," Mike explains. "We're sharing ideas and working with each other." Perhaps most importantly, the label also allows people in the scene to take ownership of ballroom's popularity—and profit off it. "This music is something that sells," he says bluntly.
Still, Mike is protective of the genre he built his career on. Though he touts Queen Beat as the world's first "ballroom label," Mike is careful to draw the line between "pure ballroom" and "ballroom-inspired" music. Lots of producers all over the world have been labeling their music as "ballroom" because they use the genre's trademark sounds, he says, but "just because you use a 'ha' sample doesn't make it a ballroom track." Most of the ballroom-inspired tracks being played at clubs would never work at a ball, he says, because ballroom dancers wouldn't be able to dance to their off-kilter rhythms. "I can't have people call their music ballroom just because they're [associated] with me," Mike says.
From the way he talks about the label, I can sense that Mike has a complicated relationship with the spotlight.He tells me that Qween Beat's first release only features one of his tracks—a collab with the late Daft Punk collaborator Romanthony—because he doesn't want the focus to be on him. "Everybody can't get signed to Fade to Mind the same way I was," he says. "That's what Qween Beat is for." But in the same breath, he confesses that managing the egos and resolving conflicts of the ever-growing Qween Beat family can have its toll. "Sometimes I get discouraged and want to end it, because I could just be doing MikeQ—which not everybody understands," he says. But he's determined to soldier on. "I'm not gonna stop. Ballroom was a place for me to find myself and take those talents outside," he says. "I think that should be the goal for everyone in ballroom."
Even as the most prominent member of the Qween Beat roster, achieving that goal hasn't always been straightforward for Mike. For one thing, the support he receives inside the scene doesn't necessarily translate beyond the ballroom floor. "It's really hard to get ballroom people to support anything outside of ballroom," Mike says, explaining that many people in the community don't even know—or care—who the DJ is. "At a ball, your name can barely even get on a flyer. A lot of people don't really know what I look like."
Mike's stature in the ballroom scene doesn't necessarily translate to success in the wider music industry, either. On a rainy Tuesday night in July, he plays at a show at Baby's Alright that is part of Red Bull Sound Selects, a program that uses bigger acts to draw attention to its roster of emerging artists. Tonight's event was put together by Sound Select artist Cakes da Killa, who asked Big Freedia to play as the headliner and put Mike, his friend, at the end of the night. Unfortunately for Mike, most of the crowd ends up filing out after Big Freedia's set, leaving him to open his set playing Byrell the Great's "Legendary Children"—the opening track off Qweendom—to a nearly empty room, scattered with a handful of sweaty dancers.
After the show, hanging around outside the venue waiting to get paid, his frustration is clear. "Big Freedia ruined my set!," he says to Cakes, loud enough for the dozen or so friends clustered around them to hear. "Next time, don't book Freedia. You coulda booked Qween Beat!" He proceeds to rattle off names of his artists, telling Cakes they could have used the opportunity to fly out the ones living outside of New York. Cakes contritely asks if they can all just hang out now that the show is over, but Mike says he has to pack for a trip to Toronto the next day.
In 2013, Mike almost had a breakout moment when Missy Elliott hit him up to work on a ballroom track for her protégé Sharaya—who grew up going to balls in New York City. Mike says she ended up going with another producer named DJ Jayhood who makes Jersey Club—a genre he thinks Missy felt had broader appeal. (The song ended up being Sharaya's hit single, "Banji.")
As a gesture of friendship, Missy recorded a secret ballroom track for Mike where she tries her hand at ballroom-style rapping, throwing in its choice slang terms like "cunt!" along with her own trademark "BRRRR!" Although the song was never released, Mike says he played it at one of his Boiler Room sets and it immediately went viral, after a fan ripped the song off the stream and posted it online. In some ways, the track feels like a symbol of ballroom's position in the pop culture world: instantly appealing with plenty of commercial potential, but lacking in institutional support.
In many ways, Mike reflects the tensions within ballroom culture at large—eager to break out into the mainstream but fiercely loyal to the scene and its traditions, frustrated with the lack of outside recognition by unwilling to give up where he came from in order to get there. After all, voguing is both a fantasy and an act of defiance—the dancers know they will probably never end up on the cover of Vogue, but engage in a performance of upward-mobility in the face of systematic injustice, reclaiming feminine beauty from rich white women. For better or worse, despite the waves of press declaring ballroom's imminent breakout into the mainstream, and all of its celebrity endorsements, ballroom has remained stubbornly underground.
But if there's one aspect of the culture that can transcend above its insular customs and appeal to a broad range of people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, it's the music—and if there's one person who can be trusted to bring this music to a wider audience without watering it down, it's MikeQ.
For his part, Mike says doesn't need to actively participate in ball culture to stay connected to the scene. "I don't really go to house meetings and I don't travel for balls. Especially because I don't enjoy being out in public much," he says, calling his job as a DJ who travels everywhere for gigs is "ironic." "I'm more of a smoker," he says with a deep inhale of the blunt we shared in his room. "I'd rather just be in the house chilling."
Mike is a study in contradictions—a shy introvert who found himself in an extremely extroverted scene that's all about peacocking. Maybe this is why he turned to DJing, which allowed him to engage with a culture that took him out of suburban New Jersey and into the thriving gay, black underground of New York City, without having to be at the center of attention.
Still, when I meet him to the Latex Ball, I find him surrounded by his Qween Beat fam at the end of the runway, cheering on the dancers on stage. Suddenly, a fight breaks out between a dancer and a judge over a perceived slight. The dancer leaps onto the judges' table, sending drinks spilling everywhere. She gets dragged offstage by security, kicking and punching, but two seconds later she's back, spitting water at her target. 3,000 people on the dancefloor and hanging off the balconies erupt into hoots over the spilled blood—or in this case, spilled tequila soda—and Mike takes a Snapchat of the chaos. Then he shakes his head. "This is embarrassing," he says to me in a low voice, like a father whose child is throwing a tantrum at church.
Near the end of the night, he goes to pay his respects to Vjuan Allure, who DJs the ball every year. Sitting on stage with his arms splayed across two CDJs, Vjuan cuts a striking figure, wearing a glittery cap that says "READ" and wiggling his hefty frame in his chair to the music. Every few minutes, Vjuan—who also dances at balls—can't help himself from breaking into vogue hands when playing a particularly hot track. His exuberance is a total contrast to Mike, who stands next to him reverently, like a statue. Before he leaves to catch his train, Mike slips a CD of the Qween Beat compilation to Vjuan.
At the end of our day in New Jersey together, Mike drives me back to the PATH station in Newark. In contrast to our sunny drive to his house, the lengthening shadows imbue the streets of the city with an air of danger, and at one traffic light, Mike casually mentions that he was once shot at while waiting at the same intersection. A few minutes later, he points to a street crawling with rugged men, calling it the "weed and xanax corner."
As we approach the train station, the towering blue glass windows of a flashy stadium called the Prudential Center come into view. "I saw Rihanna there," Mike tells me, explaining that many northern New Jersey residents have come to view the multi-million-dollar venue a bubble of privilege in the middle of Newark. "They only built up the city until where the stadium is, and put a train station right next it so visitors don't have to interact with the locals." Despite this, Mike is clearly proud of where he comes from. Coasting down the streets he knows well enough to drive blind, he rattles off all the celebrities who've come out of Newark: Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Faith Evans, Paul Simon, Whitney Houston..." He stops catching Pokemon and smiles into the distance: "MikeQ."