Thanks to the popularity of TV shows like ‘Drag Race’ and ‘Pose,’ the ball scene has never been more in, well, vogue. But can it take off in Tel Aviv?
As her friends chatter excitedly outside Tel Aviv’s Alphabet Club, Gaya Huller is looking serious. With the mentality of an Olympic athlete, the 17-year-old — sporting twin French braids and dark lipstick— is here to dance and compete in the club’s first-ever ball.
Balls are competitions that pit performers in head-to-head clashes for trophies. The emcee presents a category and participants, who run the spectrum from trained dancers to Club Kids, walk the club’s floor as spectators look on from the sides: The performer who best exemplifies the category’s essence to this panel of three judges wins.
At every ball’s core is vogueing, a dance style born from runway poses, and which broke into the mainstream with Madonna’s 1990 music video for “Vogue.”
“Vogueing is a lifestyle; it’s a way to express yourself,” explains one of the organizers, Arian Findel, 21. A dancer who took her first vogueing class at 15, she credits the scene for pulling her out of an unstable background. “For outcasts, for people who’ve experienced hardship and prejudice, it offers them a stage. It’s a way of finding a family,” she says.
The ball scene in its current form emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century from New York’s LGBT counterculture and has served as a haven for the community’s most marginalized — particularly black and Latinx gay and transgender people. Young upstarts, often rejected by their societies and families alike, found a home in ball veterans, who took them under their wings as mothers. These mothers and their “houses” competed against each other for titles, building communities, chosen families and a crucial culture of acceptance along the way.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the hit VH1 show that features at least one ball-themed challenge each season, has catapulted ball culture into the public eye. So has “Pose,” the FX drama series about competing houses in ’80s New York as they struggle with transphobia, racism, AIDS and taking home the trophy.
Netflix also recently added “Paris is Burning,” the definitive 1990 documentary on the ball scene, and which has served as a primer on the subculture for a generation.
Lotus, who emcees in English, calls performers onto the runway one by one, and his cries of “Tens, tens, tens across the board!” are familiar to anyone who has seen any of the abovementioned shows. He’s a firm arbitrator, but not as acerbic as emcee Pray Tell (played by Billy Porter) on “Pose”: Almost all the competitors are walking for their first time tonight, and he’s not intent on crushing any spirits.
All the participants are euphoric, even those who don’t win their round. “I knew I had to compete!” says Dorin, a 25-year-old who made good progress in the face category, showing her impossibly high cheekbones and pearly teeth to the judges. “Everyone tells me I look like Angel from ‘Pose,’” she adds, referencing the character played by transgender model Indya Moore (for whom she is indeed a dead ringer).
Arian herself discovered vogueing a decade ago while watching “Drag Race” at age 11, and credits the public’s growing willingness to accept gay culture for the current boom.
Hanna is more cynical, expressing concerns about the effect of “Pose” and warning that “When an underground culture blows up, it becomes superficial.” The hope is that this ball’s authenticity — no new categories, just homages to the “Paris is Burning” classics — will be its saving grace.
On the floor, the vogueing competition is in full force. Lifelong dancers and club kids drop to the ground, kick over each other’s heads, switching their poses with each beat. When Lotus calls “Hold the pose!” the three judges point to the competitor they want to send to the next round.
“Old way versus new way! Old way versus new way,” Lotus repeats into the microphone, as Gaya faces off against a dancer with a more classical vogueing style. As the other woman frames her face, Gaya looks like she is about to pop her arms out of their sockets, contorting her body with each beat. After a lengthy deliberation, Lotus calls out “New way, you win this!”
After beating out two more competitors, Gaya eventually takes the grand prize. She is surrounded by adoring fans, tears in her eyes, clutching her trophy. Strangers gather to congratulate her and crowds move onto the other competitors, introducing themselves and saluting their courage to walk.
As the club clears at 1:30 A.M., Arian and Hanna are overwhelmed. They watch as attendees mingle outside, making friends, promising to come back for next month’s ball. Everything is starting to come together. There are no houses yet, but the foundation has been laid.