People crowded the dance floor of XL Nightclub at 2 a.m. on a Monday. They spun, dipped, moved their arms and hands in fast, calculated moves, and dropped their bodies to the floor, keeping alive a queer subculture known as “ballroom.”
Ballroom competitions are open to people who identify as trans, gay and cis (adhering to their birth gender). And they feature a variety of categories.
Sometimes competitors dress in drag, but most categories allow for a range of outfit options. At XL Nightclub they arrived in typical club attire. Contestants usually compete under a “house,” akin to a fraternity or sorority, with leaders known as fathers or mothers.
“Here in Harlem is where ballroom started,” said Lee Soulja, father of the House of Soulja. “Around the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the activities that was really happening out here was the drag balls.”
In its beginnings, ballroom culture was similar to that of a beauty pageant, but the judging was tainted by racism. In the 1960s, Crystal Labeija, a transgender woman and pageant performer, rebelled against the discrimination faced by black contestants and created the modern ballroom scene.
“From there she formed the House of Labeija, and that’s basically the transition from it being the drag ball scene to the house and ballroom community that we have today,” Mr. Soulja, 50, said.
Now a global phenomenon, ballroom has transformed into more than a competition. It is a community for its participants.
Ballroom “was a place where I could express myself and be me,” said Hector Xtravaganza, one of the first members of the House of Xtravangaza. “I felt safe. I felt like what I was going through was O.K.”
Tattooed across Mr. Xtravaganza’s right forearm is the word “Grandfather,” and across his left forearm reads “Xtravaganza.”
“I live for ballroom,” Mr. Xtravaganza, a grandfather of four houses, said. “My heart, my blood, my pride, my joy, my everything is Xtravaganza.”
He said growing up as a gay Latino in the 1980s was hard. There was rampant police harassment and he contracted HIV in 1982, he said.
Mr. Xtravaganza, 57, also had to face homophobia within his own family. He was one of 14 children and coming out was difficult. His mother told him she’d “rather I become a murderer, a thief, a drug pusher, a drug abuser, than be gay,”he said.
“My mother basically beat it out of me. Her question to me was, ‘Was I a “faggot?” ’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not a “faggot,” ’ and she kept hitting me because I guess she wanted me to say it,” he said.
The House of Xtravangaza became his real family, he said. On his right calf, below a tattoo of Bugs Bunny, are the names of his house family: Angie Xtravaganza, his mother; Octavia St. Laurent Carmen and Joann Daly, his daughters; and his boys, Luna, Steve and Freddy.
“I love them, and they’re mine. They’re my family,” Mr. Extravaganza said.
Bdot Dillinger, 37, started doing ballroom before she transitioned from male to female in the mid-1990s.
“It was a freedom of expression,” Ms. Dillinger said. “I got a chance to exhale. Within my community, we have ideas that we never get to bring to the forefront.”
Ms. Dillinger said she loves fashion. She wore a Dolce & Gabbana white tuxedo blazer, cut-off shorts, a Gucci belt, Adidas retro high-tops, a Nixon watch and Alain Mikli sunglasses. When she first started competing in ballroom, some of the categories she participated in were judged by the quality of competitors’ clothing – which designer fashions they wore.
“Ballroom gave you the outlet to be creative,” she said. “It’s like an underground fashion society. Fashion. Face. Body. Glam.”
Still, she said there was a point in her life when she had to remind herself that ballroom was a “fantasy world.” She resorted to committing crimes to sustain her ability to compete. She said she would steal, use other people’s credit cards and jeopardize her well-being.
“It wasn’t because I was hungry and I needed it. It was because I was trying to be something and expected validation,” Ms. Dillinger said. “But it wasn’t real, I couldn’t take that home with me, because once ballroom was over, reality stepped in.”
Ms. Dillinger said she is now living a better life. She is a fashion consultant and a rapper, working with Foxy Brown, the hip-hop icon. She still competes in ballroom, but she said she participates in a healthier way.
“They made me the person I am today: outspoken, artistic,” Ms. Dillinger said. “I learned a lot in ballroom.”
Mr. Soulja, who formed his own house a year ago, said the ballroom community has vastly changed since the days of “Paris is Burning,” a iconic documentary that captured what ballroom culture was like in 1980s Harlem.
He said that although ballroom has since evolved, it is still a source of community for him.
“It still represents that part of family that accepts me for who I am unconditionally,” he said. “However I choose to identify, ballroom respects that.”