Are you going to the ball?
This is the question on everybody’s lips within Johannesburg’s vibrant LGBTQIA+ community as soon as the date and theme for the next Queer Ball is announced.
The announcement gets social media buzzing with excitement – and mild anxiety: What to wear? What drag character to channel? Which categories to “walk” on the special day? Decisions that are what most queer dreams are made of. The extravagance, liberation and acceptance within the Queer Ball space is what makes these events feel like home for the community.
Freedom of Expression
Weeks of preparation culminate in a night when queer people from every corner of Jozi flock to one safe space where their bodies can be free of public policing, violence, scrutiny or discrimination. It’s a place where fashion, music, dance, social life, glamour, and the event’s main attraction – the iconic “walk-offs” – become the business of the day. Those in attendance are either spectators or compete as part of units known within the community as “houses”.
South African Flair
Competition is fierce but friendly, with judging by key figures and veterans within the community. Trophies – and sometimes cash – are up for grabs for the best performing “queens” in each category. The choice of music, dance styles and fashion bring a uniquely South African flair to the events, which speaks to the participants and their lived experiences and sets the SA Ball scene apart from the global scene.
The History of Ball Culture
Ball culture, also known as “Drag Ball culture” or “Ballroom culture” originated in New York City during the 19th century. Participants were mainly young African-American and Latin American members of the LGBTQIA+ community who needed a safe space in which they could belong, unapologetically be themselves and live out their most fabulous fantasies. Many of these young people had been ostracised by their own families or communities and sought refuge in the subculture; others were simply fans of the phenomenon and wanting to be part of it.
LGBTQIA+ Rights in South Africa
The South African LQBTQIA+ community continues to experience a lot of prejudice and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, even though queer people have the same constitutional rights as non-LGBTQIA+ people. Ideally queer South Africans are supposed to enjoy constitutional and statutory protection from discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services and other areas. However, in practice, there’s still much work to be done to ensure that level of equality exists. Spaces like Balls allow for members of the often socially marginalised group to temporarily escape their unjust reality and genuinely feel like they belong.
Ball Culture in Johannesburg
There are different categories for participants to walk or “vogue” in, all in front of a cheering crowd made up of fellow queer spectators. There’s glitter everywhere and a spectrum of colour – true to the community’s nature. It’s a glimpse of what the world and everyday life could look like if the rest of society was more welcoming and less discriminatory towards the community – especially in Africa. This is where the wildest fantasies become a reality, albeit for one night only.
Within the Ball scene, participants need to belong to a “House” – a tradition as old as the subculture itself. Houses are normally made up of drag queens of all gender identities, united by their love of Drag and Ball culture and their queer identity. This sisterhood goes beyond the competitions though, as House mates often become each other’s chosen families.
Initially the concept of houses was to give refuge to homeless queer young people who had been kicked out of their original homes due to their sexuality. A house is normally headed by a much older, established, or wiser “queen” – typically addressed as “Mother”. Here, queer people form a unit and support structure of like-minded individuals. Sometimes they live together full-time in the same way that an average family would. The practice still endures today, although the essence and purpose might have shifted to being more about competition rehearsals, Ball preparations and collective costume creation.
Ball Culture in Pop Culture
In the 21st century, Ball culture has taken the world of pop culture by storm. This can be seen through the rise of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Netflix’s Pose and HBO Max’s Legendary, which all boast impressive ratings and viewership.
The fashion and beauty industry has also evolved to accommodate, as well as borrow, from the Drag/ Ball and LGBTQIA+ community at large to create new, edgy trends that continue to blaze runways at some of the world’s most prominent fashion weeks. This cultural impact continues to grow – not only internationally, but here in the South African fashion landscape as well.
Brands Aligned with Ball Culture
The music festival Afropunk, which advocates for equal rights for all people – with a major focus on marginalised groups – continues to inspire a more inclusive and safe society for all. In 2019 Afropunk Joburg dedicated a sizeable chunk of stage time to the South African Ball community. Participants performed in front of large audiences and had the opportunity to expose more people – including those outside of the LGBTQIA+ community – to this spectacular subculture. It was a big step towards creating a more accepting society within South Africa.
Nike has consistently sponsored most of the Ball events that take place in Johannesburg. This has enabled organisers to grow the movement even further and allowed the brand to form strong bonds with the local LGBTQIA+ community.
There is a huge opportunity for more brands to display inclusion and lend their support or platforms to the Ball community in South African to help propel the subculture forward. This also presents them with opportunities to form strong bonds and drive foster loyalty amongst some of the most influential and powerful communities in their respective markets. The key is to establish a space of relevance and ensure that it comes from a place of authenticity, free of any opportunistic intentions.