An oral history of the Philippine ballroom scene

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From left: Ken Ken from the House of Elle and Legendary Haus of Marciano, Marvil Angels 007, Xyza Mizrahi from the Iconic House of Mizrahi, Prince Nunoy Revlon from the Iconic House of Revlon, Inxi Moon 007, Prince Marell, and OV Cunt at the OTA Ball. Photo by KANE BLANCAFLOR

What I know of queerness when I was a teenager was relegated to Tumblr ships and fictional boys, novels by David Levithan and songs by Troye Sivan. I was pretty much clueless with things beyond these as during that time, it seemed like it was extra taboo to be queer. I kept my interests and desires neatly pinned on the bookmarks tab of my old laptop, never showing anyone what was kept in between. The discovery of queer culture for me was gradual. At first, I was introduced to Season 6 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where I encountered terms such as “reading,” “shade,” “category,” and many more — all of which I did not know at the time were actually from the ballroom scene. One day I found a Vogue Femme battle between “Sailor Moon” and “Wonder Woman” on YouTube by accident, and I could not explain how I felt back then, both baffled and gagged at how these two fierce beings would twirl and then throw themselves to the ground, only to swiftly bounce back up and dance once again. Ballroom is a queer subculture where participants perform or “walk” in categories — not ballroom dancing.

Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” helped me understand the culture more, showing the life and battles of the ballroom community during the ‘80s in New York City, the fight against discrimination, racism, poverty, and AIDS.

This tradition of ballroom began in the ‘70s where it was founded in Harlem, New York among Black and Latino trans and queer communities to create a space that resisted against the racist and cis-white heteronormative society. Voguing on the other hand, according to Xyza Mizrahi, mother of the Iconic House of Mizrahi here in the Philippines, is an art of posing. It is an expression and an art form which is the performance aspect of ballroom composed of three different styles such as the Old Way, New Way, and Vogue Femme where you use your arms to tell a story. In the scene, realness is a vital essence one must carry when walking. It is the ability to portray cis-heteronormative culture by way of fashion, dance, and performance, which started from the trans members of the community which are called femqueens. The intricacy of ballroom culture is owed mainly from the trans community that upheld the scene since it began.

Lulu 007 during the face category in the EnCUNTo Ball. Photo by KANE BLANCAFLOR

It took a decade for me to see actual voguing in person at the first ball I ever attended. In October 2022, I went to the EnCUNTo Ball organized by the Kiki House of Anansi and UP University Student Council. Decked in what’s supposed to be Arthurian aesthetics, the hotel became somewhat fitting for the Philippine mythology and folk culture that the ball was trying to emulate.

The ball was attended by both local and international ballroom scenes, and I was ecstatic to see people whom I’d only seen from my computer screen. The judges were Sattva Ninja from the Iconic House of Ninja’s UK and Germany Chapter, Onika 007 who is a drag queen, and Nunoy Revlon from the Iconic House of Revlon’s Paris Chapter (a house that notably placed third in the HBO Max reality vogueing competition show “Legendary”). Teddy Oricci from the Legendary House of Oricci hosted the event, and Chisei Ninja from the Iconic House of Ninja was also there.

Prince Nunoy Revlon hosting the OTA Ball. Photo by KANE BLANCAFLOR

“Ballroom is a community and culture where we stand together and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community by expressing our true selves in ways we can’t in the streets,” says Nunoy Revlon. With categories such as Bathala, Sirena, Sawa, Bakunawa, and the like, many ballroom walkers of the EnCUNTo Ball were clad in pearls, gold, and other traditional ornaments as they strutted and vogued their way in front of the judges bearing heavy inspiration from our culture. The highlights of the night were the vogue battles between performers which caused screams and cheers from every corner of the event hall. From jumping from a table to dousing oneself with water, there were endless possibilities in the performances themselves.

When not performing or training for balls, most people from the scene convene to relax and mingle with others who are also part of the community. We Are Shapeshifters in Escolta, Manila, owned by Misha 007, has been a haven for the scene with their regular Ballroom Hangouts. We Are Shapeshifters started holding these hangouts in December 2022 to have a conversation about the history of the community and what happens in and out of it. During one of the hangouts in January this year, Mother Xyza, along with the Kiki House of Dirty, talked about how their house came to be. A kiki house is a training ground for members of the community before they ascend to major houses.

It started with a question about how they can fund their house, with the members jokingly agreeing that they would all look for a sugar daddy. However, on a more serious note, Father Jaja said that they settled for “Dirty” because in their house, everything is included, especially their “kalat.” Kalat in love, in life, which what they believe makes a person. Even though the Kiki house is considered as a training ground, the Kiki House of Dirty is no less than professional. Father Jaja works as an instructor in the Department of Anthropology in UP Diliman while Mother Ozkurrr is a fashion designer. Both of them grew from their Kiki house to both major houses where Father Jaja is now in Revlon and Mother Ozkurrr in Mizrahi.

Mother Xyza Mizrahi talking about the ballroom community during the Ballroom Hangouts in We Are Shapeshifters. Photo by KANE BLANCAFLOR

Last year, the Kiki House of Dirty organized a ball called the Kalat Kiki Ball. The ball’s theme was purely Pop Pinoy culture, featuring categories inspired by walis tambo and mop, Jejemon culture, and the lip sync battle which they called “Kanto-tahan.” These humor and quips can only be described as truly Pinoy, which reflects what the ballroom scene in the Philippines is.

Before the boom of ballroom last year, there was already a steadily growing scene according to Mother Xyza. When asked when was the first official ball in the Philippines, Mother Xyza said it was the Labyrinth Ball held in Makati back in 2016. But she quickly adds that for her, ballroom has always existed in the Philippines, just in a different style or name. She mentioned that one could consider the barangay gay pageants and other traditional barangay culture as the predecessor of ballroom here in the Philippines, “It has been happening here. It’s been here, it’s been existing in our country, na parang iba lang ‘yung tawag. Kasi ‘di ba sa pageantry, ‘yung every barangay, ‘di ba? That’s realness, basically that’s realness! And when may swimsuit competition, that’s body. Gown? That’s best dressed.”

Mother Xyza’s own story is also tied with the start of the ballroom itself in the country. After being enlightened by Future, a known ballroom voguer, Mother Xyza went to Japan to train under the wing of Javier Ninja where soon after, she met Mother Koppi Mizrahi who introduced her to more of the culture. She eventually went to New York and met Mohammad Omni and Lisa, a former Ninja through the help of a fellow Filipina dancer, Sheena Vera Cruz. In 2016 after being a member of the House of Mizrahi, Mother Xyza began establishing the community in the country.

As the continued rise of ballroom in the country, the house parents are very protective of the culture itself. Father Jaja said that gatekeeping is necessary because through the years, ballroom has always been picked upon and stolen bit by bit by powerful and mainstream culture. Gatekeeping shields the culture away from being exploited.

When asked what separates Philippine ballroom from the rest of the world, Mother Xyza emotionally answered that it has to be our quest to look for what is Filipino through the lens of ballroom. “Iba ‘yung laban natin,” she says. She further mentioned that not only were the themes and categories inherently Filipino, but also the fight within ourselves, that we have something to prove as a third world country amongst the ballroom from the first worlds. Her hopes for the future of ballroom in the country, along with the others, is for ballroom to spread throughout the country. With conviction she explains that ballroom has more to show in other parts of the country. “It’s about time for us to be celebrated as a culture,” she said. “Ang rich ng culture ng Philippines and sobrang excited talaga ako as in, dream siya."