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Yaaas queen! Drag ball culture comes to Joburg

In a scene that could be straight out of Pose, contestants dance, vogue and strut to a loud, adoring audience at The Tennis Club's spectacular Le Grand Ball, writes Sandiso Ngubane

01 September 2019 - 00:12 By Sandiso Ngubane
Glamorous contestants at Le Grand Ball at The Tennis Club compete for prizes and trophies.
Glamorous contestants at Le Grand Ball at The Tennis Club compete for prizes and trophies.
Image: Leroy Jensen

Petite and feisty, a visibly unimpressed young one makes their way through an unrelenting crowd, pushing, trying to find gaps between bodies to force their way through to the bar.

"Can't you see we're standing here? There's no room for you to pass," someone says, The feisty one responds: "Watch me!"

No-one moves, and eventually, glossy lips pursed, the feisty one gives up and goes back outside.

Later I see them sitting on a bench, a cigarette glowing between their black-varnished fingernails. Not that the chaos around them has subsided. There are lots of bodies, standing around, shouting, cheering, chatting, laughing, fighting to see through the door and glass walls of The Tennis Club at Johannesburg's Ellis Park.

Inside the club, the bold, the beautiful and the fabulous are strutting their stuff in a variety of competition category "walk-offs" on a makeshift runway.

They mince and swagger to a loud, adoring audience as Le Grand Ball unfolds. If this sounds like a scene from the TV series Pose, that's because it could very well be.

Contestant after contestant walks the runway, dancing, posing, vogueing - as ball founder and host The Original Hunty, self-proclaimed "Duchess of the House of Diamonds", eggs them on over the microphone: "Fabulous! Work! Work it!"

The ball counterculture, in all its queer splendour, has made its way to Johannesburg!

Rooted in defiance, the ball phenomenon traces its roots to the 19th century in New York.

In an essay in the 1920s, poet Langston Hughes described the balls as "spectacles of colour".

He wrote that the balls held in Harlem were displays where "men dressed as women and women as men" performed for members of high society who "occupy boxes and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dance floor - males in flowing gowns and feather headdresses, and females in tuxedos and box-back suits".

Though the balls were integrated (which was highly unusual at the time) there were no black judges, and so black participants hardly ever won the prizes on offer.

It's an idea inspired by 'Pose', but it's really about having a space where we can be celebrated for who we are
Treyvone Moosa (AKA Original Hunty) on bringing the ball culture to Joburg

To counteract this, black and Latino participants decided to form their own balls and so modern ball culture as we know it was born.

In ball culture, "houses" compete for prizes and trophies - vogueing, dancing, walking and posing in performance competition categories.

Crystal Labeija, the renowned late Manhattan drag queen who founded the House of Labeija in the 1970s, is credited with having started the "house" culture, in which various "houses" send their most fabulous members to compete in each category.

This is the format of the competitions in the TV show Pose and the one that has been adopted by Le Grand Ball at The Tennis Club.

The Original Hunty - real name Treyvone Moosa - explains the motivation behind bringing ball culture to Johannesburg: "It's difficult to find spaces where I don't feel invisible going out as a queer body in Johannesburg.

So, it's mostly about visibility. The straw that really broke the camel's back, though, was when a good friend - a trans body - was physically attacked outside a club at a party that purports to be a safe space for queer bodies. That's when I realised we need a change. It's an idea inspired by Pose, but it's really about having a space where we can be celebrated for who we are."

At Le Grand Ball, four houses are in competition: the House of Skebengas, The Palace, the House of Quriosity and Hunty's own House of Diamondz.

A "mother" - and sometimes a "father" too - heads each house, and their job is to make sure they recruit and mentor the best members of their house to win in each category.

Although Original Hunty founded House of Diamondz, the house mother is Lulu Belle. On the night I was there, they won in the overall category to sashay away with the R5,000 cash prize. They received high scores of 10 points from each of the four judges in most categories.

But balls are about more than just winning.

"The ball is a movement and we want the whole community to participate in them. Of course we'd love entry to the balls to be free, but the reality is that there are costs attached to hosting one. We encourage members of the queer community to form houses and come to compete," says Hunty.

Having been overall winner of the two balls that have taken place so far, the House of Diamondz is sitting the next few out to allow others houses a chance to win. They want to build up to a big championship at the end of the year.

The ball is a movement and we want ... We encourage members of the queer community to form houses and come to compete
Treyvone Moosa (AKA Original Hunty)

Beyond the competition, Hunty says, a foundation will be formalised and proceeds from each ball will be placed in a fund used to broaden access to members of the LGBTQIA+ community in places beyond the city, like Soweto and Tembisa.

Globally, ball culture is synonymous with fostering a sense of belonging for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, many of whom are ostracised by relatives and often feel unwelcome in conservative public spaces.

Members of the House of Diamondz, for example, meet every week for dinner and to chat about their lives. "It's like a family support system," says Hunty.

Back at the ball, before the end of the night's proceedings, Hunty makes an open call to members of the audience who feel comfortable and confident enough to jump on the runway to compete in a category that doesn't require house membership.

I see the petite, feisty young one's fighting spirit emerging. This time, the stage is set and no-one is standing in their way.


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