A beautiful woman walking towards me in à la folie in Paris: Lasseindra Ninja, the legendary pioneer of the European Ballroom Scene, sits down with me to speak about the intrinsic politics of Ballroom, black culture and protecting safe spaces.
“My first Ballroom. I was so young. I was in shock – I liked the energy so much. I liked the dance too but the first thing I was obsessed about, was the energy. It was very uncommon but I felt like at my place. And I didn’t know that this place existed.” Lasseindra Ninja is the person who brought the Ballroom Scene and therefore safe spaces for the LGBTIQ community from New York to Europe. Since 2011 she’s setting Paris on fire with its raging, ravishing and energetic Ballrooms. This subculture is backed by some serious history – and it’s got the political bite to prove it.
The Ballroom culture started in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. A movement that challenged social structures and demonstrated that race, gender, sex and sexuality are intersecting, fluid and most of all: evolving. Harlem became a place of LGBTIQ art, activism and culture. It’s not surprising that Harlem also became the birthplace of the Ballroom Scene and its dance style vogue.
Voguing is a highly stylized form of dance created by black and Latino LGBTIQ communities. The dance form became part of drag competitions, also called “balls”. It is named after the well-known fashion magazine and inspired by the poses of the models in it, as well as the Egyptian ancient art. With its fast, extravagant hand gestures and the whole competition and spectacle around it, voguing and the Ballroom culture are demonstrating that gender, in the end, is only a performance.
“The Ballroom scene means a lot of things to me – it’s the space where I found my freedom, my identity and my confidence. Ballroom means a lot of work, strength and rules.” A Ballroom with its high energy, incredible dance performances and house DJ has a highly structured organization. It’s very complex and not just fun: there are issues of status, social and gestural grammar and above all, a huge choreographic impact.” Lasseindra knows it well as she runs a house, groups that are part of the competitive affiliation, part surrogate family. Lasseindra is the mother of the House of Ninja in Paris, where she trains young dancers. And she knows: this is not a passing trend.
It is and was a safe haven where black, gay, trans, queer youth could become better equipped to deal with life, to be individual, to form their own opinion and to stand up for themselves. It offers a space of freedom, the possibility to invent themselves, to play with norms, to experience the body and to perform it. Vogue goes beyond creating an imaginative space where aesthetics and LGBTQ life can be explored in all its complexity. Vogue and the Ballroom Scene offer a sense of identity, belonging, freedom and dignity to black and Latino LGBTIQ communities, in a world that does not always fully value their lives.
Ballrooms are political insofar as its aesthetics stand critically towards the structures that perpetuate dominant ideologies, in particular, those functioning within a white supremacist patriarchal and commodity culture. Lasseindra explains: “When you have black people together, in a white supremacy society, doing things for themselves and create themselves – that’s political.” Did these political aspects change since the creation of ballroom culture? “I don’t think it really changed – but the world has changed. I think we have more questions, new questions and new problematics coming into the picture. But the old problems and issues are still here.“
There is a growing fascination around the Ballroom Scene, mostly felt in today’s young generation. The scene is becoming commercialized and appreciated in mainstream media and brands are starting to look for collaborations with the Ballroom Scene. Lasseindra has mixed feelings about it: “There is a good and bad side. There are issues that are brought to the world with making Ballroom mainstream. Issues that we are facing every day have become more visible. So, people can maybe find a sort of strength in this. But also, it is mainstream marketing – making money, capitalism. How can you protect a culture when it comes to mainstream and everybody is thinking that they own it when, in fact, they are not? How do you protect people? The Ballroom Scene is supposed to be a safe space and it should keep on being it.”
Vogue and the Ballroom culture itself have evolved by offering a gender-fluid language to an array of global communities that adopted and adapted it to their own cultural needs. Moreover, it would indeed have been a backlash if queer traditions like this one were restricted, curbed or closed for the sake of preserving their authenticity, especially in times of many minoritarian subjectivities taking major steps towards social visibility. However, cultures have to be protected and safe spaces for LGBTIQ communities are crucial. Voices like Lasseindra Ninja have to be listened to. The Ballroom culture is here to stay and to be appreciated insofar as its memory and history are felt and respected.
So, what is Lasseindra hoping for the future of Ballroom? “What I hope is that black people will cherish their culture and themselves. That they stand up and speak up for their culture and that they protect it.”
Sources about the historical background of ballroom culture:
Tsione Wolde-Michael, Writer/Editor for the Office of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History.
Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis in Strike a Pose, Forever: The Legacy of Vogue and its Re-contextualization in Contemporary Camp Performances, 2017.