Arts Spaces for Queer BIPOC During COVID: Paris Has Burned

Community as a concept is understood universally; in function its possibilities are inherently dynamic. However, community becomes a necessity when it supersedes formation through common interests and is developed by way of shared experiences. The purpose of this series is to highlight the way in which queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) identifying individuals have preserved their art spaces during a pandemic.

For some queer individuals, and specifically ones of color, the ballroom scene is an example of a community formed through the need to have a space where everyone understands each other through shared experience. In interviewing Noelle Deleon, a black trans woman from Texas, we are allowed insight into the ballroom community that she recently found herself a part of. When asked about the importance of ballroom she says, “It’s where queer men and trans women can go to be free. There is an absence of the influence and presence of people who don’t understand us.”

Noelle Deleon, photo by Ann Lecompte.To understand Noelle’s journey through dance, we can begin to understand the origins of ballroom and its culture through the lens of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. The documentary explores why trans women actively and openly choose to express themselves in a way that leaves them vulnerable to violence from a society that rejects them. In a time where gender performance was understood as the binary, many trans women chose to openly express their femininity to not only defy societal norms, but also be their most honest and open selves.

This step led many trans women of color to the ballroom, where the dance form of vogue was born. Vogueing is a form of dance with origins in the growing ballroom scene of the late 20th century and was later brought into the mainstream by Madonna’s song of the same name in the 90s. The ballroom existed as a space where trans women/queer individuals could compete and be judged by their community in various modeling or dance categories, with vogue being the form of dance competitors were expected to perform. Queer people of color formed the ballroom community in order to have a space where there were no rules for gender expression.

To this day, we see that ballroom culture is alive and well within the queer community and remains a haven for trans women like Noelle. She explains:

“When it comes to vogue, if I’m angry, if I’m happy, if I’m feeling sexy, I can vogue in a way that reflects how I’m feeling. Vogue, rather than some other forms of dance, is truly just an expression of how you feel, and how you’re feeling the song. A lot of dancers rely on technique, but vogue can rely on technique or be just a reflection of how you’re feeling.”

A narrative starts to shape around why individuals like Noelle herald the ballroom as a safe space. She speaks of her journey to the ballroom as essential to stepping into her transness. Noelle reminisces of a time where at the start of her transition she yearned to relate to something. “Learning how to vogue and learning that black trans women pioneered this art form was everything to me. I wanted to not only adopt that talent but embrace it too.” In the ballroom, individuals have the experience of being surrounded by almost exclusively by members of their own community, and are given the space to express their emotions through art.

However, there is an elephant in the (ball)room, and that is COVID-19. What happens to trans women when it is no longer safe to host these grand balls with hundreds of other people in the room? For Noelle, she began vogueing at the very beginning of the pandemic, and her transition into the ballroom came only when facilities began to open back up in Texas. She describes how eventually she began vogueing with a small group of individuals until she made her way to her first ball. Still taking precaution and safety measures, Noelle makes it clear to me that entering this scene was necessary in her growth as a dancer when she says, “As quarantine went on and everything started opening back up, getting on the [ballroom] floor then made me even more critical of what I was doing as now I wasn’t practicing alone.” Although masks are enforced, there is still a risk in gathering dozens of people in one place that didn’t exist prior to 2020. The ballroom scene seems to have adapted, not only with masks being enforced but balls also have an earlier curfew now than they did pre-pandemic.

As a result of having more restrictions because of COVID-19, Noelle tells me that the balls are not as grand as they used to be; this in part due to not being able to get through every category (queer terminology for the way in which the community determines who participates in each round of judging). If these balls have lost some of their charm in part due to COVID-19, we land on this question: Why does the queer community still host them? For Noelle, the space the ballroom creates for her to vogue has been essential to her wellbeing and her need for a safe space. She says, “It’s a way that black trans women can make money. It’s a way to not struggle and to better yourself. It prepares black trans women for the outside world, and for spaces that really aren’t for you.” Indulging in this art form and community was almost like a rite of passage for Noelle. Thus, we see what makes a community a necessity even amid a global pandemic. In Noelle’s story, we find that vogueing and the ballroom community are essential to her stepping into her transness while living in a world that has been historically violent toward trans women of color. Ballroom and vogueing remains important to Noelle and other trans woman who use this space to as a stepping stone toward finding their true selves.

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