As we celebrate Pride, it is important to remember the sacrifices of those who have pioneered the LGBTQ+ ballroom scene, while also navigating through the various adversities that come with being a queer person of color in America. Very similar to other social movements of significance to the queer community, ballroom is a space that started underground and progressively emerged into a global phenomenon. The vibrancy we see in ballroom is merely a reflection of the beautiful complexities of the queer identity.
Beyond the Performance
Ballroom is more than a subculture of music and entertainment. It is truly a safe haven for Black and brown individuals of queer and trans experience, one of the most disenfranchised populations of people in our society. As early as the 1970s, Black and brown LGBTQ+ individuals created their own “houses,” or chosen families, which replicated the nuclear structure that included a mother, father, children, and everyone using the same last name.
This newfound kinship would act as a means of survival and comradery for those who were no longer accepted by their biological families because of their sexual or gender identities. Houses would soon evolve into ballroom houses, as they united to compete for trophies in a series of categories during an event known as a “ball.” This movement would slowly grow into what we know today as ballroom. Categories within the ball are inclusive of the gender spectrum and give queer folks an opportunity to show off their love of fashion, music, and dance, while celebrating the ability to exist and authentically thrive despite the heteronormative social construct.
Thanks to shows such as Pose and Legendary, the media offspring of predecessor documentary film Paris Is Burning, ballroom has gained resurgence among the public spotlight. Ballroom is a space that was pioneered by queer people of color, yet today it encompasses individuals of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities. While utilized to showcase their talents, ballroom leaders also use this sacred space to shed light on issues that are critical to their own community. In recent years, several individuals and organizations have been working diligently to revive and expand the ballroom scene in Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin.
Empowering Community Action Initiative is a grassroots organization that was founded by Ricardo Wynn and focuses on building healthier Black LGBTQ+ and Same Gender Loving (SGL) communities throughout Milwaukee and surrounding areas through education, special events, advocacy, and other community efforts, with an emphasis on House and Ballroom communities. One example of their programming is MKE Vogue Nights, a special series of events that focuses on uplifting the ballroom scene in Milwaukee, while also advocating tremendously to provide safe spaces in Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin. In their first year alone, over 1250 people attended MKE Vogue Nights and the impact included:
• 30 (10 per event) HIV tests performed.
• 200 Evaluation surveys collected.
• 215 people received free meals and other outreach materials/COVID education-materials.
MKE Vogue Nights has been hosting events since 2021, and as a result, they have produced balls and Vogue Nights that were transformed into informative hubs geared toward addressing public health and social justice issues that directly impact queer people of color in Milwaukee.
Ballroom in Madison
Years before the inception of MKE Vogue Nights, Ricardo Wynn collaborated with several community leaders to bring the first ballroom showcases to Madison, and that legacy continues to grow. In 2017, Ricardo Wynn, also known as TeeTee Mizrahi, Overall Mother of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Iconic International House of Mizrahi, collaborated with Jelani Rivera, the former Program Coordinator for the LGBTQ center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Black Cultural Center Student Coordinator, Breanna Taylor, to gather local ballroom leaders and national Legends and Icons for a discussion on the evolution of ballroom.
This discussion was followed by Madison’s very first Kiki Ball, “Reclaiming the Kiki,” which included leaders throughout ballroom like Icon George Mizrahi, Legendary Chicken 007, and up-and-coming Legend, Brooklyn Balenciaga. In addition, the ball included Wisconsin Ballroom leaders such as up-and-coming Father Chad Dimera Alan-Mikli, Dj Cuddy 007, and TeeTee Mizrahi.
In 2021, Davette Baker, TS Banks, Dana Pellebon, Tempest Ballenger, and Ricardo Wynn hosted and planned the first Pride Kiki Ball hosted at FIVE Nightclub with special guest, Calypso Balmain, Season 1 winner from HBO’s Legendary. In 2022, UW-Madison’s Gender and Sexuality Campus Center and Queer & Trans People of Color partnered with Milwaukee Local Houses Alain-Mikli and the Iconic International House of Mizrahi to host their QTPOC Ball and Vogue and Drag Night.
Appropriation Is an Issue
Because of its notoriety, ballroom is often vulnerable to being misappropriated for reasons that are counterintuitive to its purpose. “There are certain things that you should have boundaries with and around; and ballroom is definitely one of those things,” says up-and-coming Legend, Chad Alain Mikli, Overall Father of the Milwaukee chapter of the House of Alain Mikli. Father Chad continues to highlight that misappropriating ballroom culture is a concern “when you have people that put their blood, sweat and tears into something, and then someone comes along and makes a dollar off of what you did, without giving you any type of recognition.”
Ballroom leaders have been concerned that willfully refusing education and guidance from individuals and organizations within the ballroom community who work to keep the movement going can be harmful to the very individuals that are meant to be served. Father Chad continues to say, “It’s a matter of respecting where ballroom came from and where it’s going…but if you haven’t played a part in that, is it fair for you to benefit from it?” Utilizing the platform of ballroom while having no desire to collaborate with actual ballroom houses and leaders opens the door for others to do the same, which compromises the legacy and impact of those who fought to have this space in the first place.
It is truly disheartening when people try to take advantage of a safe space and social movement that was built out of necessity and protection for a significantly vulnerable population of people, who have been otherwise rejected by the rest of mainstream society. Father Chad continues to charge those who aren’t familiar with ballroom, to educate themselves to gain a clearer understanding. “We should continue to do showcases that are like balls and learning experiences in collaboration with those who are interested in ballroom but lack the expertise; and we should always incorporate some type of history in our events, paying homage to people who had such a presence in ballroom…because it makes it a teachable moment, even as ballroom continues to evolve.”
A Cultural Heritage
Ballroom continues to be a place of refuge where queer people of color can reimagine themselves and the world around them, truly creating a transformative place where they are safe and able to thrive in the fullness of their gifts and innovation. Ricardo Wynn says, “As a leader in the ballroom community, I am committed to protecting the legacy that has been passed down to my House and children throughout Wisconsin as an effort to ensure the history and integrity of our community’s values and contributions are properly acknowledged and honored in every space where it has influence.”
Leaders within the ballroom community have the privilege and burden of leveraging the voices of the greater LGBTQ+ community and advancing the mission of equity and recognition of their humanity in all spaces and facets of society. They are fighting daily for social and legislative justice for the basic essentials needed to care for the health of their physical bodies and mental wellness. Because of their resilience, they’re very passionate about preserving the cultural heritage of ballroom, which transcends, yet influences, mainstream entertainment, music, dance, and fashion; whether it is acknowledged or not.
We would like to give a special recognition to all the ballroom leaders who help guide our ballroom events and initiatives, as well as a special thanks to some of our private donors and community partners:
AIDS Project of East Bay
Anointed Aprons, Inc.
Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin
Build With Rosha
Diverse & Resilient
Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT)
Love on Black Women
Ninjas for Health
Our Lives magazine
Papyrus and Charms
Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin
Sixteenth Street Community Health Center
Stephaun Elite Wallace, LLC
This Is It!
United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County
Wisconsin Black Historical Society