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Let's Have a Kiki: Inside New York's Fiercest Teen Subculture

A vibrant ball culture for New York City's most marginalized LGBT youth is thriving in the projects.

by VICE Thump
Feb 11 2015, 12:00am


A competitor in the "Butch Queen Vogue Femme" category. (All photos by Rebecca Smeyne)

"Wow, they're cheering for the virgins?" deadpans a red-nosed clown, leaning towards the bathroom mirror as she dabs rainbow paint on her face. It takes me a few beats to realize that she's talking about the newbies competing in a fierce dance-off next door. Behind us, a statuesque transgender woman in a sequined blue cat suit is practicing her strut for the upcoming runway competition, timing her loping struts to the deafening percussive crashes echoing from the dance floor. Two more trans women in monstrous club kid get-ups burst through the doors, giggling as they lock themselves into a piss-covered stall. The contrast between these glamorous creatures and their humble surroundings could not be more evident—we might be in a community center in the projects, but we're also at an outrageously flamboyant ball.

Just not the kind associated with art museums and Park Avenue debutantes, thank god. We're at a kiki ball. 

Here's a quick primer for those who haven't watched the seminal documentary Paris is Burning yet (what are you waiting for?), or only vaguely know about vogue dancing through Madonna's 1990 hit, "Vogue." Ball culture has been thriving since the early to mid-1970s, when New York City's black, gay and transgender communities started taking over ballrooms in Harlem to throw spectacularly lavish balls. These early ball walkers developed voguing—a style of dancing that mimics the walk and poses of fashion models going down a runway. Participants claim allegiance to various "houses" and compete for cash prizes and golden trophies (plus fame and glory, of course) via runway battles, dance-offs, and beauty contests. Most importantly, balls gives marginalized groups of LGBT youth—who are often shunned from their homes and communities—a crucial path to social acceptance and a means to express their creativity. Oh, and they also happen to be shitloads of fun. 


Niyah Cullen and Alani Houston competing in the "female figure face galactic barbie" category 

Kikis are like the more low-key Junior Varsity league to the more cutthroat "mainstream" balls. Participants are usually kids ranging from 12- to 24-years-old, who hone their skills in a less intimidating environment before they graduate to the majors. Or, as Symba McQueen—the charismatic, Craig David-lookalike who serves as a commentator at almost every kiki in New York City—declares at the beginning of the ball, "This is where you practice before you turn into a butterfly and go into the mainstream!" 

The basketball court hosting tonight's kiki, titled "The Playhouse 2: Galactic Playhouse," is decorated with the space age accouterments of a high school prom—clusters of white balloons float over tables reserved for the competing houses, and curtains of silver foil drape over metal barricades cordoning off the designated dance floor. But there's one thing that you'd never find at an average prom: booths in the back of the room offering free HIV testing and condoms. Tonight's ball was made possible by the health outreach program Housing Works; kikis are usually sponsored by health organizations, which use these events to connect with at-risk youth. Symba repeatedly encourages the crowd to "get tested, and know your status!" These reminders underscore just how vital of a support system these kiki balls are to their community.


Qween Beat DJ Byrell the Great 

Up on stage, the ballroom DJ Byrell the Great is hunched over his laptop and mixers next to a table of judges who are, for some indiscernible reason, all sucking on lollipops and waving neon glowsticks. Byrell considers himself the third generation of the modern ballroom DJs lineage—"there's Vjuan Allure, MikeQ, and me," he says matter-of-factly. A lot has changed since the 70s and 80s, when dub versions of classic house tracks and elegant disco cuts like The Salsoul Orchestra's "Love Break Is The Message" and Ellis D's "Dub Break" served as the predominant ballroom soundtrack. That all changed when Masters At Work put out "The Ha Dance" in 1991—a track that is now the DNA of the ballroom sound.

As Vivian Host put it in Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, "'The Ha Dance' is to ballroom what 'Sing Sing is to Baltimore club or 'Pulse X' is to UK grime: a song that's been hacked to pieces and turned inside out by thousands of versions and bootleg remixes." Dancers love the song's distinctively metallic-sounding crash, which arrives on every fourth beat and helps him hit their perfect poses and spine-snapping floor dips. Also classic is the "ha" sound itself, a sample taken from a scene with Eddie Murphy in the movie Trading Places (seriously). 

"The biggest change thus far in ballroom is when Vjuan Allure started remixing 'The Ha Dance' with his battle beat series—something I am greatly inspired by when making a vogue track," Byrell says. Those battle-ready tracks that Vjuan pioneered and DJs like MikeQ and Jay R Neutron pushed further were marked by raw, skittering beats, chunky kicks, and a harsher overall approach. 

These darker, aggressive tones also happen to be perfectly suited for the club—soon, DJs and heads far removed from the scene started taking a keen interest in the distinctive music coming out of it. Today, the crossover is in full swing, with MikeQ releasing tracks on tastemaking labels like Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, grime producers like Gage collaborating with legendary ballroom commentator Kevin JZ Prodigy, Boddika and Joy Orbison sampling the vogue classic "Walk 4 Me" on their collaborative track "Swim," and Sinjin Hawke bringing the "ha" to weird, dystopian territories. Celebrities have also started stepping into the scene—FKA Twigs, Rihanna, Boys Noize, Raven Symon (from That's So Raven), Queen Latifah and Boys Noize all spotted at recent balls. 

Byrell says he is fully supportive of ballroom music having its moment in the spotlight. "I love it. It's opening up a lot of people's eyes and minds. Someone will listen to it, and be like, 'Gay people aren't that bad.' I like the way people outside the culture play with the sound." But he does take issue with DJs hitting him up and asking for a sound packet of ballroom's most essential samples without taking the time to understand their context. "You should learn the culture before you jump into it. If you knew the culture, you'd know where those samples came from. It's like trying to be a doctor without going to medical school." 

Byrell himself entered the kiki scene three years ago as a performer—a background that gave him an instinctive understanding of what dancers need to hear when they strut into the battle ring. He and Symba are like the master puppeteers of the night, working together to steer and control the energy of the room. "DJ, give me a beat!" Symba commands. Byrell flips on a thundering MikeQ track punctuated by Chinese vocals.

"This is a scene that will chew you up and spit you out. It is very hard to put together a house with longevity, which is why it's important for us to pay tribute to our fathers," Symba announces, in one of many educational spiels he delivers throughout the night. Later, he describes his role to me as being like  "Wendy Williams doing an NFL bracket—you've got to keep track of the winners, know your ballroom history, have a sense of humor, and be good at reading crowds." I would add: being an extremely talented improviser, judicious peacekeeper and entertaining master-of-ceremonies to that resume.  

Carefully watching the dancers, Byrell and Symba work together to orchestrate the perfect conditions for them to express themselves to the music. "If you come up on a bitch, make sure you can eat her!" cries Symba. As I watch the young dancers flip their hair, do the duck walk, and arch their backs dramatically to the floor, I'm reminded that to many gay, transgender, and people of color, their bodies are also sites of political and social identity, often the center of debates larger than themselves.  By performing these feats of endurance, these dancers are also reclaiming their bodies as their own to be twisted, played with, and dressed up as they please. 

The ball finally comes to an end around 11:30PM. The packs of friends start streaming out of the community center onto the streets, where several police cars are already gathered. "No fighting! No violence! No drama," booms Symba as his watchful eye roams over the crowd. "Say nooo to drama!" 

Check out the rest of Rebecca Smeyne's photos of "Sharae Juicy Couture & Housing Works Presents The Playhouse 2: Galactic Playhouse" in the gallery below.

Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor and sharpest hair-flipper - @MichelleLhooq

Brielle

Brielle

Rebecca Smeyne

Commentator Symba with two contestants in the klub kid face category.

Commentator Symba with two contestants in the klub kid face category.

Rebecca Smeyne

Free condoms are offered through Housing Works, a health outreach program that sponsored the kiki.

Free condoms are offered through Housing Works, a health outreach program that sponsored the kiki.

Rebecca Smeyne

Niyah Cullen and Brielle

Niyah Cullen and Brielle

Rebecca Smeyne

TJ

TJ

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne

Competitors in the female figure performance team category.

Competitors in the female figure performance team category.

Rebecca Smeyne

Competitors emerging from a Barbie box in the female figure face galactic barbie category

Competitors emerging from a Barbie box in the female figure face galactic barbie category

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne

Naja Pink Lady

Naja Pink Lady

Rebecca Smeyne

A spectator watches the action on the floor.

A spectator watches the action on the floor.

Rebecca Smeyne

Competitors in the female figure performance team category.

Competitors in the female figure performance team category.

Rebecca Smeyne

Competitors facing the judges in the

Competitors facing the judges in the "BQ Klub Kid Face" category

Rebecca Smeyne

Icon Treyce Pink Lady

Icon Treyce Pink Lady

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne

Sharae Juicy Couture, host of the ball.

Sharae Juicy Couture, host of the ball.

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne

Rebecca Smeyne