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Inside Berlin’s busy Ballroom scene

Does “voguing” ring a bell for you? Well, it should, because Ballroom, the NYC-born 1960s subculture, is alive and kicking in 2020 Berlin. We met up with some of the extravagant ‘mothers’ and ‘secret agents’ that walk the local runway.

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Does “voguing” ring a bell for you? Well, it should, because Ballroom, the NYC-born 1960s subculture, is alive and kicking in 2020 Berlin. Photo: Carolin Windel

When I entered the club, I was immediately blown away,” says Duong Ly, describing his first ballroom experience. “The performers were so self-confident and loving their bodies, it was beautiful – I just wanted to be on the stage too.” The 28-year-old fashion student had just started to learn voguing, and when he left that night, he was determined to prove to himself that he, too, could walk a Ball. Two weeks later, Ly was standing at the end of a runway, his heart racing. He was wearing an eccentric head wrap adorned with decorative colourful plastic butterflies, which he had made especially to suit that night’s “Wakanda” theme.

“The first time, you never know if the outfit is too much,” he says. “But in Ballroom, more is more.”

In the distance sat three judges, serious and stylish, each one shrouded in purple stage-light while sipping a G&T. Behind them was the audience, clapping along to the signature fast-paced 1990s Ballroom house track “The Ha Dance”. At first, Ly was overwhelmed to see all the performers: “They were all so gorgeous, so talented, and I was the beginner,” he remembers. “I was so scared and didn’t know anyone – but when the light came on and I walked out, it was just me on the runway.” It was 2018, and Ly was having his ‘Virgin Runway’.

This is not a scene from New York City’s famous drag and LGBTQI+ scene, but a regular Ballroom night at Kreuzberg’s St. Georg. In fact, Berlin Ballroom has a fashion sense of its own, one that encompasses multiple cultures but is not immune to the occasional controversy. At balls, participants take part in competitive events that combine elements of dance, modelling – and fashion. Style is central to Ballroom, and Ballroom in turn has a considerable influence on global main- stream fashion and art. In Berlin today, as in 1960s New York City, members of the community have found a way to use fashion and performance to fully express their complex, individual identities.

Fashion your fantasy

Berlin’s foremost Ballroom connoisseur is Georgina “Leo Saint Laurent” Philp. Originally from Düsseldorf, this pioneer of the German scene first encountered the sub-culture in New York City in 2008. “This is where I met Archie Burnett. He showed me where to go and who to ask,” Philp explains. “Back then it was an even more underground culture than it is now.”

Burnett, a prominent voguing choreographer, traveled to Berlin and helped Philp establish a local scene. And thus began the journey for Ballroom in Germany. Philp is now the “Mother” of the European chapter of the House of Saint Laurent. This system originated in the original NYC community, where so-called “Houses” acted as surrogate families for black and Latinx LGBTQI+ people who had been rejected by their families and, in some cases, become homeless. On Berlin’s runways, Philp and her 15 “kids” compete against three other major houses – the House of Milan, the Gorgeous House of Gucci and the House of Prodigy.

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Jan Nwattu’s introduction to Ballroom was when he attended a beginners workshop two years ago. Photo: KOWA-Berlin

Since Ballroom’s emergence, glamour and style have always been a key to success. One of Philp’s protegés, 23-year-old Jan Nwattu, first attended a beginners workshop two years ago, before entering Philp’s chapter. He “walks” – that is, he participates – in the fashion categories “Runway”, “Best Dressed” and “Fashion Killer”. Unlike some others in the Ballroom scene, for Nwattu it’s all about the fashion – a ball’s theme comes second. Within the “Runway” section, he walks the masculine “All-American” and the feminine “European” categories. “If I’m walking All-American,” he says, “I need to wear heavy armour, heavy shoes, layers, big things to feel more strong and covered. When I’m walking European, I want to look more bougie and sassy.”

While the voguing category of a ball focuses primarily on dance skills, the fashion categories that Nwattu competes in pay particular attention to the creativity expressed in the contestants’ looks. Outfits do not need to be professional – they can even be made from paper – but they absolutely must be extravagant.

Nwattu, who comes from the small NRW town of Minden, moved to Berlin specifically to join the Ballroom community. His performance name is “Eros”, after the Greek god of love and desire. This, he explains, is part of his Ballroom fantasy: “I imagine that everyone wants me, everyone thinks and knows that I’m beautiful.” Ballroom has helped Nwattu to be confident, and to wear whatever he wants. “I know that in the Ballroom world I can go all out,” he says. The sentiment is summarised perfectly in the commentary of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which follows protagonists from the 1980s NYC community: “At a ball, you can become anything and do anything, right here, right now, and it won’t be questioned. I came, I saw, I conquered. That’s a ball.”

And that kind of self-expression is not limited to the fashion categories. Thirty-four-year-old Andra Wöllert, AKA “Zueira Gucci Angels”, entered the scene eight years ago and attended the first Berlin Ballroom workshops held by Philp and Archie Burnett at Motions Dance Studios in Kreuzberg. “From there I had to learn a lot about the history of Ballroom, that it wasn’t just a dance for some random white girl from the village,” she says. Wöllert, who hails from a small village near Frankfurt (Oder), competes in “Sex Siren”, a category that highlights sex appeal and flirtatiousness. While Nwattu’s Ballroom fantasy creates a world in which he is an object of instant desire, Wöllert conjure an escape from how she is sexualised in the outside world. “‘Sex Siren’ allowed me to reclaim my body and sexuality,” she explains, “a desire that many women can relate to.”

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Georgina “Leo Saint Laurent” Philp is Berlin’s foremost Ballroom connoisseur. Photo: Carolin Windel

The “Body” and “Sex Siren” categories don’t demand many clothes. “What I do in Ballroom, you wouldn’t call it fashion,” Wöllert says, “but sometimes I’m wearing even more layers than people competing in fashion categories – once I dressed as an Ice Queen, and with the help of my sisters, I put crystals all over my body.” Wöllert has decided that her next challenge will be “Runway”: “I’m not done with being curvy and sexy, but I would like to not be naked all the time,” she laughs.

Designing for Ballroom

When Ly moved to Berlin from Vietnam in 2011, initially to study computing, he soon found that fashion was his true calling. Now a student at Berlin’s Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Ly joined the Ballroom community two years ago, seeking inspiration for his clothing collections. His performance name is “Mio”. Today, he is a “007”, aka a “Secret Agent”, competitor, which means that he competes independently rather than as a House member. “Not everyone can get into a house easily,” Ly explains. “You have to know the people, have the talent and have won many prizes. You have to bring value to the house.” In the studio corner of his bedroom, Ly shows off a Phoenix costume that he made for a Harry Potter-themed ball: a golden kimono, adorned with yellow feathers and shorts made from fabric he brought back from Vietnam. Ly’s outfit, which draws upon his Asian cultural background, exhibits the mixing and borrowing of cultures that has always been at the heart of Ballroom’s fantastic ensembles. Yet cultural mash-ups are also a source of contentiousness.

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Andra Wöllert, AKA “Zueira Gucci Angels”, entered the Ballroom scene eight years ago. Photo: Agatha Powa

“Maybe nowadays I am the only person who can do this,” Ly laughs, referring to his Phoenix outfit, “because white people cannot dress in kimonos or other culturally Asian clothes.” Ly notes that there have been many cases of cultural appropriation in the Ballroom community: “There are lots of white people in the scene, and even though they don’t intend to offend, they sometimes make mistakes.”

These modern-day discussions have roots in Ballroom’s unique history as a cultural movement. “Early Ballroom communities found inspiration from everywhere they could – TV, magazines, films, social environments and worlds they couldn’t grasp at in real life,” Philp explains. “Someone who is rich can travel to China and see the culture, but someone who is black and lives in the ghetto has that input through a Kung-Fu movie.”

In fact, she adds, Kung-Fu movies actually inspired the “Old Way” dance style of voguing in the 1980s. For Ly, this long tradition of cultural borrowing – coupled with the growing popularity of Ballroom among white Europeans in Berlin – raises important questions about appropriation. These are generally taken seriously by the community. “Nowadays organisers are very careful with categories,” Ly says. When checking out pro- motional material for an upcoming Harlem Renaissance-themed ball in Wedding, he was glad to see that descriptions came with detailed advice on how to be culturally sensitive when putting together outfits.

“When I was making an outfit for a ball that had an African theme, I had to be very cautious not to be appropriative,” Ly recalls. “I took inspiration from colours and tried to make my own interpretation and bring a ’vibe’.”

Looking back on the last few years of Berlin’s Ballroom scene, Philp reflects that such issues have taken on greater importance within the community. “We had a ball with the theme ‘Journey to the Far East’,” she remembers, “and now when I look back on it I think, ‘Oh god, this was cultural appropriation’. Back then, I didn’t understand this – I think in Germany in 2014, we didn’t even know of the term ‘cultural appropriation’.” For Philp, the key is finding a balance between recognising Ballroom’s own history of finding inspiration in other cultures and the contemporary context of Berlin, which makes cultural appropriation an ongoing issue.

This is why it’s hard,” she says. “On the one hand, it is part of Ballroom to be inspired by everything, to reinvent it and live that fantasy. But on the other hand, some fantasies do that in a racist way or insult somebody’s heritage.” Still, she adds: “It’s also a part of Ballroom that, if it says ‘Come as a Geisha’, you come as a Geisha.”

Ballroom in the mainstream?

While Ballroom grapples with the cultural appropriation debate, it is itself appropriated by mainstream arts and fashion industries – Madonna’s “Vogue” is only one example. Elements of the clothing, slang and beauty standards in the scene can be observed emerging in the mainstream. Gender-fluid looks, for example, are growing in popularity. “I think that Ballroom inspires mainstream fashion today,” says young designer Ly, “by challenging gender binary stereotypes in clothing.”

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Jan Nwattu in Berlin. Photo: Marc Romero

Two years after entering the world of Ballroom in search of inspiration, Ly put together his graduate knitwear collection: a zero-waste exhibition of seven Ballroom-inspired outfits, which debuted at this year’s Berlin Fashion Week. “It was a tribute to this community – every single part of it inspired me,” he says. One of the most striking designs of Ly’s collection is a yarn-panelled top, modelled by Nwattu, with the title “Cunty” – a reference to Ballroom slang. “In the Ballroom context,” Ly explains, “the term is used as praise or chanting for a femme performer. It means a fierce, overtly feminine sensibility and soft movements.” More well-known, though, is the phrase “throwing shade”. After being used in Paris is Burning and later in Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it has found its place in the mainstream vocabulary.

Another one of Ly’s outfits was inspired by the international Ballroom icon Sinia Braxton: elegant bright red, knitted trousers and an off-the-shoulder top. The design pays homage to the contributions of transwomen in Ballroom – such as Braxton – Philp laments the reproduction of their image and legacy. “The aesthetics of FemQueens – transwomen in Ballroom – are the beauty standards that we now see in the mainstream,” she says. “There’s definitely a case of the fashion industry sucking in our culture and washing it into something which can be marketed. Ballroom doesn’t get much in return for this.”

Hopefully in the future – in Berlin and elsewhere – the community will be duly recognised for how its members have shaped not only fashion but dance, music and queer culture more broadly.