Credit: Todd Diederich

Look around everywhere you turn is heartache

It’s everywhere that you go

You try everything you can to escape

The pain of life that you know

When all else fails and you long to be

Something better than you are today

I know a place where you can get away

It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for, so—

Come on, vogue

Let your body move to the music

—from “Vogue” by Madonna and Shep Pettibone

It’s 1 AM on Saturday, May 21. A tall black man stands alone in the shadows of a storefront at the corner of Madison and Cicero on the west side, wearing jeans that hang off his waist and a tight white T-shirt that clings to his muscular build. The headlights of passing cars illuminate his face: bright red lips, fake eyelashes, rouged cheeks. Cell phone in hand, he talks a caller through an alley to the back of a community center and the unmarked, bouncer-guarded entrance to Family Affair.

Family Affair is a ballroom competition—part of a national, underground LGBTQ phenomenon that builds community around queer identity and fierce, fashion-conscious striving. Balls are held nearly every weekend on the far south and west sides. Most happen at ungodly hours in unmarked spaces, which keeps them self-selecting and also helps organizers avoid the expense and permit hassles of more public social events.

Unseen by most outsiders, ballroom is a haven for well over 1,000 young, gay, Chicago black men whose sexuality can make them outlaws and targets in their neighborhoods. Ballroom poses its own, significant dangers. The stakes are high for ballroom competitors, and physical fights are common, sometimes leading to stabbings. The threat of gun violence is a growing fear.

But it also offers beauty, belonging, and even a sort of advanced education. The community’s slang for the competitions is “getting your life.”

At Family Affair, around 150 male-identified men, drag queens, transgender folks, and born women (whom ballroom participants call “allies”) stand in clusters in a big, carpeted room, waiting for the competition to begin. Fluorescent lights run the length of the ceiling. Noise ricochets off walls covered with graffiti tags that read “Rebel fever,” “I am change,” “Never conform,” “We demand life,” and “AIDS is a fact.”

Along the back, participants in leotards and knee-length skirts stretch like dancers at the bar. Men vie for scarce mirror space in the ladies’ room—applying makeup can take hours. Some attendees (whose gender remains ambiguous even under skintight dresses) slither through the crowd, flirtily greeting one another as “baby” or “bitch.” Others who can’t be more than 18 years old clench cigarettes and plastic vodka bottles. Outside, people sit on cars, passing blunts and draining beer cans before dropping them to the pavement.

At around 2 AM, the ball starts full tilt. A techno beat drops and the crowd instantaneously forms a horseshoe around the room’s center. “Ball it!” they chant to the beat. “Ball it!” Some step to the center to strut as the MC shouts their names into a microphone.

THE CHICAGO BALLROOM SCENE can be traced back to the 1920s. As southern blacks poured into what became known as Bronzeville during the Great Migration, a sizable gay community emerged. Interracial drag balls followed. In 1935, one transplant, a gay street hustler named Alfred Finnie, launched a series of drag events called Finnie Balls. Lasting into the 1960s, Finnie Balls became a south-side Halloween tradition and almost certainly Chicago’s largest LGBTQ affair, attracting people of every sexual orientation from all over the city.

Like the Finnie Balls, today’s ballroom competitions are partly a response to the fact that poor, black, gay kids have few places where they can mix with Chicago’s broader gay community. Recent violence and protests in Boys Town suggest that that community is as racially and economically segregated as the rest of the city. But with segregation comes congregation, and balls are where gay black kids can find one another.

There are three types of balls: kikis, minis, and majors. Kiki balls are informal events with no cash prizes and no judges—usually just a gathering of friends. Mini balls are larger, with 100 to 150 participants and $200 to $500 cash purses. Major balls may attract as many as 500 competitors vying for up to $1,000. They’re judged by panels that generally consist of Legends—ballroom veterans and leaders in the community. In the ballroom scene, you climb in status from Star to Statement to Legend and ultimately to Icon.

Every ball has a theme, from the kitschy (“‘Thriller,'” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Horror Movies”) to the morbid (“Dubai Suicide”). A theme outlines costume requirements, or “effects.” An effect for a recent military-themed ball read, “Bring it as an amputee”—i.e., all competitors had to perform as if missing a limb. Family Affair is looser than most; it has no effects. Participants are just encouraged to dress creatively.

Competitors “walk” in categories. The category called “Up in Pumps” tests how well they locomote in heels. “Fashion Labels” requires that they be cloaked in a single, premium brand name from head to toe. “Face” is a beauty competition stressing pinched noses and high cheekbones. Others are “Best Dressed” and “Glitz and Glam.”

“‘Schoolboy Realness With a Twist’ is my category,” says Justin Dixon as he stretches against a grafittied wall. A handsome, doe-eyed 21-year-old from Gage Park, Dixon studies criminal justice at Kennedy-King College by day. He’s known as Buddha Omni in the ballroom scene. “First you walk as a regular schoolboy, meaning you try to pass as a boy and you’re not clocky”—a clocky gay man being one who attempts to create a heterosexual facade but is still easily identified as gay. Dixon’s Family Affair costume consists of a stocking cap, low-hung basketball shorts, and a gray ribbed undershirt. “The twist,” he adds, “is when you later walk in the ball as a gay boy and vogue.”

Vogueing is a competitive dance style that borrows techniques from krumping, break dancing, and jazz and modern dance. It’s attributed to Willi Ninja, who started competing in the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1980s. He’s also been cited as an inspiration for Madonna’s “Vogue,” which became a sensation on MTV in 1990 and popularized the style for a mass audience.

A competitive vogue dancer in Chicago today has to hit five elements: spins, dips, hands, catwalks, and dovewalks. Spins are pirouettes that land in a dip, which is a drop to the floor from a standing position on an eight-count beat. (Dips are the dramatic climax of a vogue performance; when competitors do them, onlookers yell “Ow!” and extend an arm as if throwing dice.) “Hands” refers to drawing lines and shapes in the air with your arms during a catwalk, which is the same thing as a model’s runway walk. Dovewalking is moving across the floor in a crouched position—a kind of cross between Chuck Berry’s duckwalk and traditional Kazakh folk dancing. “It’s a challenging competition,” says Dixon. “But it keeps you off the streets and keeps you doing something positive.”

DIXON’S CONTRASTING schoolboy/gay boy looks reflect the divided identities many competitors live with on a daily basis. In ballroom parlance, “realness” means creating a successful facade. Common realness walks include “executive,” “thug,” “trans man” (female-to-male transsexual), and “fem queen.”

“Realness basically turns something negative in the real world into something positive in the ballroom scene,” says LeRoy Kirk (nom de ball, LeRoy Avant Garde), who practices runway walking and vogueing with Dixon every week .

It can also provide practical behavioral tools for bridging the two worlds. “A person who walks realness would like you to think he’s heterosexual,” says Solomon Arnold, aka Legendary Solomon Infiniti, a 31-year-old, 12-year veteran of the ballroom who teaches both Dixon and Kirk. “If he’s a convincing heterosexual, his church will accept him and employers are more likely to hire him.”

At six-foot-three (without heels), Arnold is a towering figure and self-described chameleon. On the street, he keeps his long hair in a low ponytail and wears plain shirts and jeans. But ballroom photos show him wearing a mesh shirt tucked into a layered black skirt with a three-foot train. His hair is pinned so that it cascades over his forehead.

Arnold walks the “Runway” and “Bizarre, Bizarre” categories. In the latter competitors create outfits out of whatever comes to hand, and Arnold has appeared in a dress made from Popeye’s chicken boxes. He’s also competed against a fellow legend who climaxed her walk by revealing midgets she’d concealed beneath her full-length skirt.

“Walking a ball is about exception, acceptance, and fantasy,” says Arnold. “You can walk like a woman even though you’re a man. And you’re accepted as such. In ballroom you’re accepted as who you are—or who you want to be.”

No ballroom category proves Arnold’s point like “Rags to Riches,” which requires competitors to start out looking poor and end up in a costume that bespeaks wealth and splendor. “‘Rags to Riches’ highlights the contrast between what you have the potential to be and what your reality is,” Kirk says.

Although Kirk walks balls up to twice a month, his family is unaware of his involvement in the scene. “They’d think it’s silly,” he says. Twenty-one now, he left home and moved into his own apartment three years ago. Many ball scene participants lack the means to do the same, but feel compelled to get out on their own anyway.

According to data collected by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2007, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless youths in Chicago. Between 1,448 and 3,000 of them identify as LGBTQ, and a number of those look for a surrogate family and social network in the ballroom scene, which is uniquely situated to absorb them.

The ballroom community is structured around “houses” named, for the most part, after fashion labels. There’s the House of Mischka, for example, the House of Herrera, the House of Kardashian (a newer one), and so on—nearly 30 of them in Chicago and about 300 nationwide. House members are called “children” and each house has a “housemother” who’s almost always a man. “Housemothers mentor their children,” says Arnold, who’s been housemother for Chicago’s House of Infiniti since 2002 (and is now the national housemother, overseeing Infiniti chapters in 13 big cities). “Housemothers help get their children in school, help get them a job, elevate their confidence, prepare them for the ball, and create a safe space for them.”

“Within a house, we’re all like family,” says Kirk. “We have a sense of community with each other. Sometimes you don’t have that from your original family.”

Houses field competitors and take turns hosting balls. The Family Affair ball was thrown by Chicago’s House of Mizrahi to celebrate its house family—hence the theme. Most houses require monthly or weekly meetings, charge dues, and have signature skills and interests. The House of Infiniti is considered a strong Runway house and campaigns against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Not all houses are positive forces, though, and not everyone in a position of power is a good influence.

“Unfortunately, parent figures and [house children] sometimes get sexually involved,” says Arnold. “It can be an entire house that experiences molestation or just individual children. It’s sick but it happens.” According to Arnold, House of Infiniti members are forbidden to have relationships with one another. “It just leads to unnecessary drama. We don’t play that.”

HOUSES MOSTLY OPERATE independently of one another, but there’s one place where competitors from across the community gather to practice and prepare for balls. Every Thursday a subtle techno beat radiates from the Winnie Mandela Intergenerational Alternative High School in South Shore. In the basement, 40 young men move to the music, their loose shirts cutting the air as they vogue. This is the School of Opulence, the nonprofit arm of the House of Avant Garde.

The SOO has been holding workshops in runway and vogueing technique for nine years. And if you want to learn grantwriting or how to teach HIV prevention, there are classes on those topics, too. Mauren “Alyaze” Avant Garde and Tommy Avant Garde are the SOO’s founders, executive directors, and primary funders. An Icon and House of Avant Garde housefather, Mauren is also considered one of the founders of the Chicago ballroom scene itself.

“We want to instill in our kids that the school is just a stepping stone,” Mauren says. “We teach them how to market themselves as performers. We want them to build confidence as they move into the working world.”

Mario Knowles, an SOO student whose ballroom name is So’nee Mischka, has been walking balls since early 2009, when he was 17. He lives with his dad and 15 other extended family members in two houses that share a front yard at 107th and Langley. The “Beware of Dog” sign hung on the front fence is an understatement: the family owns eight pit bulls.

“I use the ballroom scene as a place to express myself in ways that I can’t in real life,” Knowles explains, sitting on a jungle gym across the street from his home, wearing a T-shirt, thigh-hugging jeans, and lace-up knee-high Timberlands. “As a homosexual male it’s hard to walk down the street on the west or south side. You get treated differently. The ballroom scene is the only place I can freak out.”

Knowles grew up in his mother’s house and only met his dad, Tim, a year ago. But he and Tim quickly became close.

“For me, it’s strange,” Tim says of the ballroom scene. “But it’s my son and I love him, so I can’t but support him. Your family should be your biggest support.”

Tim often helps Mario think through his looks for balls and has even cheered him on at a few. “I’ve been learning a lot from my son,” he says. “He’s enlightened me on the gay lifestyle. And he’s a person who has a lot of individuality and is determined to be the best at what he does. That’s all I’d want for him.”

Unlike Dixon and Kirk, Mario feels comfortable with his birth family. But his neighbors can be less accepting. He says two local men attended a family party with the intention of beating him up. His family chased them out, but the incident was a reminder of how violently homophobic the people around him can get. Understandably, he socializes far from home, in the gay enclaves of Jackson Park and Lakeview’s Boys Town (See “No place to be somebody“).

“I’ve come to terms with the rest of the world and I know the best ways to express myself,” says Mario. “Being homosexual can sometimes mean life or death. But you’ve just got to brush it off and live your life.”

“THE BALLROOM CAN BE THE BEST thing to happen to you, but it can also be the worst,” muses Solomon Arnold. His House of Infiniti throws two balls a year, and at each he makes sure that somewhere between 50 and 100 participants get tested for HIV. The virus is a pervasive problem in the ballroom scene, he says, and the attentions of service providers such as Taskforce Prevention & Community Services, the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, and the Howard Brown Health Center aren’t helping much.

According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study using data from 2006, gay men account for nearly half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S. They’re also the only group in the U.S. who’ve experienced annual increases in HIV infections since the early 1990s. And when it comes to black gay men, by far the most new infections occur among 13- to 29-year-olds. The study found that the infection rate for that group is roughly double what it is for whites and Latinos in the same age range.

“Service providers target the ballroom scene because of the prevalence of HIV and STIs in the community,” notes Mauren Avant Garde. “But there’s so much distrust. The kids have been let down too many times. They’ve been promised housing, jobs, scholarships, and it doesn’t come through. And now I don’t totally trust 90 percent of service providers to do what they’re tasked to do.”

The House of Avant Garde and School of Opulence have made efforts to improve the relationship between service providers and the ball community, holding public forums to make sure the voices of ball youth are heard. “The boys are starting to get educated, and they’re starting to question the system and the way money is being used,” Mauren says. “Things are going to change. It’s time service providers invite the kids to the table and really listen to what they want.”

In the meantime, there’s some disturbing behavior among those kids.

Balls cost money. In order to stay competitive, ball participants need to cover $10 to $30 entrance fees, outfits, makeup, travel, and house dues. “You could spend up to $500 on a ball look,” says Mario Knowles. “And you can never wear the same outfit twice because you’d get chopped.”

As a consequence, Arnold says, “There are plenty of people who steal stuff. They’ll prostitute themselves, sell drugs, create fake checks and credit cards. There’s also a lot of violence. People fight, some have been shot at ballroom house parties.” He trails off. “There are plenty of people who are in the ball scene to stay out of trouble, but there are also those who are in it to stay in trouble. But you know, with the bad comes the opportunity to see how it could get better.”

Mauren Avant Garde also sees potential. “The ballroom scene is starting to come into its own and figure out who it is,” he says. “Ballroom kids are breaking stereotypes. They’re stepping up, and I’m very proud of that. For a passionate performer, the ballroom is a place of recognition. And for people who aren’t privileged enough to get into a dance school, this is their outlet. I try to teach them that they should take what they learn here and move on.”

STANDING IN THE CROWD at Family Affair, Justin Dixon is surrounded by scores of men. It’s a relatively small group for the scene, but there’s nothing small about the energy in the room. Each house shouts its own name. “Mizrahi! Mizrahi!” “Kardashian! Kardashian!” The competing chants collide in chaos. But it’s chaos to a beat.

Dixon won’t win tonight. He’ll be back at the School of Opulence next Thursday, though, to work on his craft.

It’s a slow climb to Legend.