Belles of the Ball

"There can only be one cunty girl tonight," MC Angel Camacho taunts the Jingle Ball judges as they examine the five beautiful contestants in the category Femme Queen Everyday Realness. As the girls begin to strut, the throng of spectators huddles close to the edge of the dance floor at Fort Lauderdale's Club Coliseum. On the left side of the floor stand the Infinitis. Across the way are the Lords. In the back are a handful of Latex children. Each clique of gender-bending boys and girls chants the name of its respective house in support of its contestant. Two lanky boys who call themselves Naomi and Debra stand in the front row wearing ill-fitting cocktail dresses, heavy foundation, and wigs, studying the glamour girls who compete in front of them.

"Are they real? If they're walking down the street, can you tell?" Camacho teases as five girls walk the floor to where the judges sit. That august body has already presided over numerous competitions on this December night, in categories ranging from Butch Queen up in Pumps (males dancing dressed as men except for their shoes) to Femme Queen Performance Cat Fight (boys fighting like girls on the dance floor). In one category called Transformation, contestants swagger in their toughest street-thug wear and then appear an hour later dressed in micro miniskirts, wigs, and halter tops.

The Femme Queen Everyday Realness competition, in which transgenders, mostly men who live their lives as women, must prove to the judges beyond a reasonable doubt that they are women, is perhaps the most intriguing tilt of the evening.

All the contestants are members of South Florida's fledgling ballroom scene, an underground world that attracts gays and lesbians in their late teens and early twenties to cliques called "houses." Rather than fraternities or sororities, these houses are more like gay youth gangs for the fey and fabulous. Instead of proving their might in drive-by shootings and rumbles, these bandidos duel by walking in stilettos, throwing attitude with sunglasses and cigarettes, and voguing under a disco ball. At stake is not only a cheap metal statuette like the ones given out at Little League championships but the reputation of an entire house. Two groups, the House of Lords and the House of Infiniti, each with about 30 members, dominate the scene here, though several groups, such as the Legacies and Exxentrikas, are building strong followings. The House of Quest, sponsored by the South Beach AIDS Project, works to promote safe sex and AIDS awareness, as does the newly formed House of Latex, which is loosely affiliated with New York's well-known house of the same name.

The Lords, who can be seen at Club Coliseum most Friday nights, are the home team at Jingle Ball; the Lords' Champagne Bordeaux does her house proud, exposing her very real breasts to the judges. Liliana represents the Infinitis, flipping her hair and wearing a tight denim pantsuit. Chastity Latex, done up in a smart skirt and red off-the-shoulder knit blouse, stands attentively as if meeting her boyfriend's parents. Kayla Tucker radiates friendliness for Infiniti, offering a warm handshake and winning smile. The competition heats up as the girls begin to grab the judges' hands and make them examine their jaw lines for stubble. "Flawless -- just like a girl," Camacho narrates. "Who's the cunty one?" The aspirants wipe tissues on their cheekbones and foreheads to show the judges how little makeup they are wearing.

Tucker, the Doris Day of the evening, wins after the judges examine her dainty hands. "When I'm walking I'm going to give you exactly what I am: an everyday girl," she says. Instead of approaching the judges with ice-cold glares dripping with attitude, Tucker wins them over with her down-to-earth charm. She smiles and looks into their eyes when she shakes their hands. She walks the floor as if she's a coquettish Gwyneth Paltrow strolling in a park.

Twenty-one-year-old, raven-haired Tucker is one of those transsexuals whose appearance often makes people say, "You could never tell." Since she began taking female hormones in 1997, she says no one has questioned her gender. Now living in New York, Tucker works in a straight Manhattan biker bar and lives her life as a woman. She was vacationing in South Florida when she attended the Jingle Ball. "Ballroom is like Thanksgiving. It's like spending the holidays with your friends and family," Tucker explains after the competition. "It can be an ego boost, a place where you can show off. And it's a safe place for people to sneak out and have a good time. Some kids just can't come out at home."

Safe though it might be, ballroom culture is not always friendly.

"It can get pretty cutthroat. A ball is like a regular sporting event," explains Alexis Rodriguez, who recently retired after seven years as the father, or leader, of the House of Lords. "You have to stand out. You can't just be a part of the crowd. You have to prove yourself."

If there is a sport that compares to the dance floor tête-à-têtes of the ballroom scene, it would be professional wrestling. The competition hinges on persuading the audience you genuinely are something you are not while dazzling spectators with physicality and persona. As New York house luminary Emanuel Xavier points out: "In a ball men dressed like women must look like real women. Women dressed like men must look like real men; gays and lesbians must pass for straight. Attending any ball can become a Crying Game of sorts as you try to figure out who's got what between their legs."

Xavier, born Emanuel Martinez, is a published poet and performer living in Manhattan. In the early '90s, he chronicled his ballroom experiences in his book, Pier Queen. He was 16 years old at the time and delving into the seamier side of New York's ballroom circuit, which included prostitution, drugs, and violence. That world was depicted in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, which, along with Madonna's megahit, "Vogue," thrust the Harlem balls into mainstream pop culture. Although the documentary dates back almost a decade and voguing today seems almost archaic, the subculture and the dance style are thriving in houses from New York to Washington, D.C., from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale to Miami.

In South Florida the house members are not as streetwise as their New York brethren, and the scene is more clean-cut; most of the "children" here hail from the comfy cul-de-sacs of Pembroke Pines, Westchester, and Kendall. But there's one universal bond. "It's always going to appeal to younger generations for the simple reason that a house represents the creation of your own family," Xavier explains. "A lot of gay kids are thrown out of their homes and are not understood or accepted in their real families. In a house they sort of come into their own by proclaiming their own brothers and sisters."

Many houses adopt names that inspire opulence, such as the Extravaganzas, LaBejas, and Mizrahis. (Members, in turn, often adopt the house name as part of their nom de guerres.) Each house owes its existence to the original queens of ballroom, Harlem cross-dressers who held secret-society parties in the early 1900s. Once discovered by the speakeasy set, those parties quickly blossomed into large-scale balls at the Rockland Palace on 155th Street and the Savoy Ballroom on 140th Street and Lenox Avenue, where thousands of onlookers, from all facets of the New York social strata, craned their necks to see the grand dames promenade in style. "Of course a costume ball can be a very tame thing," reported the '20s Harlem weekly, the Inter-State Tattler, "but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed."

Although the balls eventually waned in the '30s and '40s, the cross-dressing underground persisted. The modern-day ball re-emerged in the '70s with a growing awareness of gay rights and with funky fashions that screamed for a good drag queen to flaunt them. After Madonna explored the balls in the late '80s, Paris Is Burning won critical acclaim, and a not-so-underground following started to swell, the ballroom scene broke out of its New York City confines, thus ensuring its longevity in gay culture, Xavier says.

Soon after the release of the documentary, a paean of sorts to the ballroom circles, New York members brought their houses to South Florida.

Many credit Jojo Infiniti for sparking off the groups here. Jojo, a nearly 300-pound drag queen, began "walking balls" with the Infinitis in New York in 1991. Not long afterward he gathered his friends in South Florida and established the house in Miami. He began producing balls in Hollywood's Club 21 and South Beach's Torpedo Club, both venues now defunct. "It was all very premature; there was no ballroom professionalism here," Jojo recalls. "The children had attitude, but they didn't have what it took to pull it off."

Those early groups lacked a unifying vision toward which the house members could strive. "What you have to have is an idea that everybody can believe in," he explains. "It all begins with friendship and with one cause: to be fierce." He defines fierceness as a state of mind infused with arrogance and style, shared by the children, that sets the house apart and inspires awe when the house makes a group entrance at a club. "It's a state of being accepted and celebrated," he notes.

Although he is strongly associated with ballroom in both South Florida and New York, Jojo is reluctant to participate in the balls these days. In fact last November's House of Quest ball in Little Havana's Oz may have been his last. His new domain is the South Beach nightclub circuit, where the scene is older, with a stronger focus on designer drugs, muscle mass, and cruising. When performing or making the rounds at South Beach's Level, Score, or Salvation, he cultivates an androgynous look that fuses the cartoon character Zippy the Pinhead with Divine, John Waters' favorite plus-size cross-dresser. At a recent performance at Salvation, Jojo ruled the stage in a form-fitting chiffon frock, with a thonged patent-leather corset showing underneath. The outfit accentuated his large round belly and his bald head, framed by black feathers that rose up from his leather choker, was a sight to behold.

Ballroom houses are not just places for young gays and lesbians to party and compete with one another. As those involved repeatedly maintain, they act as secondary families where members can get support when dealing with the pressures of dating or coming out of the closet or with feelings of alienation. The leaders of each house, typically two men, are referred to as father and mother. It's a multiethnic world populated by Hispanic, African-American, and Anglo kids drawn together by sexual rather than racial identity. The South Florida houses, unlike some in New York, are open to both men and women.

"The reason we call ourselves a family more than a house is because we are there for each other when someone needs help," says Alexis Rodriguez, the House of Lords' former leader. He says he cannot count the times he's had to get his children out of jams in the seven years since he formed the house. "I've been called at three in the morning to juvenile hall to bail out a kid whose boyfriend beat him up," he recalls. "Another kid showed up on my doorstep because his mom beat the shit out of him because she found out he was gay."

Rodriguez puts up youngsters at his West Kendall home while they work out problems with hostile parents and temperamental lovers. For members of the ballroom culture, the friendship and family support found in the houses is as important as the prancing and voguing.

James Paul can usually be spotted dancing on top of speakers at the Club Coliseum as a member of the House of Lords. Standing about six feet tall, Paul has an athletic build and wears his hair pulled back in thick cornrows. His rhythmic popping and contorted dance movements distinguish him as one of the top, or "legendary," house children in the South Florida scene. But while his moves are mesmerizing, Paul has not always been so flashy.

Growing up in a strict Haitian-Bahamian home, Paul felt constantly repressed and masked his true identity day in and day out. Even as a boy he was expected to act like a grown man, and the rules for boyhood were rigid. "I couldn't act the way I wanted to act," Paul recounts. "I had to listen to a certain type of music and was expected to bring girls home."

The stifling family code continued until he moved into his own apartment four years ago, at age 18. "I needed to come out. It was a big step when I moved out of the house. It opened the door to my life." Since revealing himself as a gay man, he has been one of the more colorful and controversial members of the South Florida ballroom scene. He joined the Lords after a few of the members spotted his moves at the Coliseum and recruited him. Paul dances tough in the Butch Queen Vogue category, usually in jeans and a T-shirt, or skips and prances in Femme Queen Vogue. When he dances in a ball, he competes in a frenzy, mocking his rivals, spiraling down to the floor and convulsing his body to the beat of the music, twisting his arms and torso in endless fluid contortions.

As the sweat builds, so does his attitude. At the House of Quest Ball, Paul stormed off the floor after an extended showdown with Simon Infiniti. Vanessa Mizrahi, using her status as a New York legend, disqualified him for a dancing style that was too masculine for the Femme Queen category. There were curses and histrionics, but no punch was thrown, no weapon brandished. Instead, when the drama subsided, Paul hugged and kissed his competitors.

"I was born a Lord; I will die a Lord," Paul professes. He has developed deep friendships with his house family, which he says will last a lifetime. That feeling is common among the members, as many have finally found a place where they fit in, where they no longer are ostracized. And each brings something unique to a ball. Whether it's Face, Body, Everyday Realness, or Bizarre, there is a category for just about anybody.

At 260 pounds, five-foot-eight Orlando Pineda is the regional champion of two ballroom categories: Big Boy Vogue and Big Boy Runway, in which paunchy men get to dance or model for the judges. Walking the balls, he says, is a way of expressing himself like he's never before been able to do. "I enjoy performing for my house," admits the 24-year-old television technical director. "It feels really good to let people know you don't have to look like everybody else to win." His favorite category is walking Runway, where he gets to strut in the latest outfits he concocts for the balls. At the House of Quest Ball, Pineda won the category wearing a tight gold lamé tank top with a matching glittery cowboy hat and oversize sunglasses. The outfit did nothing to hide Pineda's girth. Instead it emphasized his size. He changed his look at the Jingle Ball, where, decked out in basic black Kenneth Cole, he walked away with a trophy.

The ballroom world is a long way from Pineda's Cuban-Catholic upbringing in Hialeah, where he learned to hide his sexuality and feel ashamed of it, along with his weight. Although they are accepting and supportive these days, he says his family members are still in some denial about his sexuality. "They keep expecting me to change," he says. While family support made coming out of the closet less difficult for him than it often is for others, admitting his orientation to himself and fully grasping it was not so easy. That is, until he began walking in balls. "Ballroom has made me a more open person," Pineda insists. "I used to be very quiet and reserved. Now I feel I can express myself however I want and not be afraid because I'm big."

Twenty-two-year-old Pembroke Pines student Suji Harper agrees. She's new to the scene and picked up her first trophy at the Jingle Ball walking the Butch Girl Realness category. Harper is a far cry from a supermodel. She's a big black girl with a combed-back flattop. She wears blue jeans and a denim jacket and walked at the ball with a patient swagger, as if sizing up the hollering crowd. But the toughness she conjures for the show drops away when she leaves the floor. Harper's mother has a hard time accepting her daughter, her only child, as a butch lesbian. But for Harper there is no doubt: She clearly wouldn't be caught dead in frills and dresses.

At a ball Harper can let it all hang loose. "Walking balls means a lot to me," she ruminates. "It means that I can show myself the way I really am and sell myself the way I want to."

Infiniti's Liliana hails from Medellín, Colombia, and like many of the ball performers, won't reveal her last name. She has racked up dozens of trophies from her triumphs at balls in New York and South Florida, competing in the Femme Queen Face and Femme Queen Realness categories. There is no way to tell that Liliana, who boasts all the right curves and a flawless complexion, was born with a Y chromosome. She works as a freelance makeup artist and lives her life as a woman full-time. "Femme Queen Realness means working in the day as a woman, and nobody knows you're a man," Liliana explains. "It means going home to meet [a boyfriend's] family, and they can never tell." In the six years she's been living as a woman, Liliana has yet to be discovered. "I'm 150 percent woman; there is nothing that I do in my life that has to do with my being a man."

At 24 years old, Vanessa Mizrahi is one of the New York legends who is settling in South Florida. Her famed reputation in the ballroom scene here stems from her stardom in Greenwich Village's House of Mizrahi. She began her career in the ballroom circuit at age 16 -- two years after surreptitiously beginning hormone therapy with other drag queens in her hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She's seen the competition get tough not only at the dance clubs but also out on the streets. "There are some vicious queens out there. I've seen heads cracked," Mizrahi says from her South Beach apartment. "It's not all just fun and games." She is a survivor, and she relishes telling her story. She expresses herself with the mystique and majesty of a Gloria Swanson -- with a New York accent, of course. Her hair is bleached white, emphasizing cinnamon skin from her Cuban­Puerto Rican heritage. Since moving to South Beach last summer, Mizrahi has been working with the House of Quest and for support and advocacy groups for transgender youth and prostitutes. She would like to see less stress on competition and more on community. "Do not forget the concept of a house is it's a family," she scolds. "Let's be a family and not go out against each other. Let's help each other out."

The backstabbing and politics of the dance floor were part of the scene that drove top South Beach performer Power Infiniti (whose real name is Dale Wilson) away from the ballroom and into his own performance career. In the mid-'90s he founded Miami's House of Righteous Shade. He and his family began garnering trophies, sparking a challenge to the Lords and Infinitis. The trouble was he began to take the balls too seriously, he says. "I was so competitive that, if I didn't win, I would always start some shit," he remembers. "If one of my kids didn't win, I wouldn't talk to the judges. It used to cause me a lot of stress."

He decided to develop as a transgender performer, not just as a ballroom participant (most recently as a member of the Infinitis). He does not consider himself a drag performer; he doesn't aim to impersonate women like most drag queens. Instead he thinks of himself as a performance artist when he is featured at South Beach's Salvation on Saturday nights. Along with a host of other performers, he is one of the more recognizable personalities in the arena of South Beach nightclubs, often performing in shimmering catsuits with futuristic headdresses glued to his shaved head. But he does attribute much of his success to his ballroom roots. "Ballroom is still so underground, a lot of the circuit boys don't even know about it," he says. "But I've learned to take it on-stage. I bring ballroom to the big parties. It gives me an edge."

His turn judging the children at the Jingle Ball was a homecoming of sorts. He walked the introductory Walk of the Legends at the beginning of the event and waved to a crowd of fresh faces he didn't know but who knew of him. (Most are not old enough to get into the 21-and-over clubs where he performs.) Although spotting Power at a ball these days is a rarity, he says the scene was integral to his development as a gay man and a performer. "I will always live ballroom. When I first came out, it allowed me to have a family atmosphere and exercise my talent," he says. "There's a need for it. As long as you have social outcasting of gays by the so-called normal community, it's gonna affect young adults. They will feel a need to bond."

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