Philadelphia’s ballroom scene is set to make a fashionable debut at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the museum’s monthly Final Friday program on Jan. 25.
POSSE (Promoting Ovah-ness through Safer Sex Education) Project Philly will perform “Werk It!” as part of a program paying tribute to LGBTQ ballroom culture.
For the uninitiated, ballroom or ball culture started in New York and Washington, D.C., in the 1980s as underground drag and cross-dressing fashion shows with performance safe spaces for people of color in the LGBTQ community.
While ball culture has had an influence on pop culture since the 1990s, the scene has found renewed exposure and interest thanks to recent documentaries, books and TV shows like “Pose” and “My House,” focusing on ball culture.
POSSE performer and board member Hakeem Balenciaga said bringing a ballroom performance to the hallowed artistic halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is something both parties are excited to present.
“It was a joint effort,” he said about how the idea for the event came about. “There was talk on the museum’s end and our end. We thought it would be a good idea to bring the ballroom scene to them because it’s something that has never been done before,” Balenciaga said. “The way a ball works is there’s a scene, most times, where they bring certain categories to life coinciding to that scene. What we did was circle the ball portion around the exhibits so that these categories can be brought to life, similar to how the exhibit shows its fashions.
“It’s structured like a ball would be. There will be four different categories during this exhibition that we have at balls, that will show how people bring these certain things to life.”
Balenciaga said now that ballroom culture is getting more exposure in books, film and television, it’s a good time to take these performances to places where larger audiences can experience them.
“Getting ballroom from the underground to now being more mainstream, to get more people in the community to know what ballroom is - that’s the main purpose of these types of events,” he said, adding it helps people understand the ballroom community and what happens at balls.
“There will be people who have probably never been to a ball or may have seen it on TV on shows. They’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this on TV and now I’m here witnessing it.’ So I think that’s very important, and one of the reasons we’re excited about bringing this to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
Any time an underground phenomenon suddenly gets popular or has its long overdue moment in the spotlight, there are always a few people within that scene who will lament the newfound attention their scene is getting, especially from people unfamiliar with it. Balenciaga said while there might be some who feel that way, for the most part, longtime fans and performers in the ballroom scene see the heightened visibility as a good thing.
“It’s something positive,” he said. “I’m sure there are people that have their doubts about ballroom going mainstream but most people feel like this is something of great magnitude for ballroom, because it’s been underground for so many years and people felt like they had to hide it because of things that were going on in society. But now that it’s more on the forefront, people are excited to be a part of it and interested in it being out there like that. So I do think it is a positive thing all around.”
With the influx of interest in ball culture, Balenciaga wants people new to the art form to know it takes a lot of dedication to stand out in such a competitive scene.
“It’s just like any other hobby,” he said. “I’ve been in the ballroom scene for over 10 years now. I started when I was in high school, going into college. A lot of times it was just extracurricular for me. If you are involved in it, and you like it and excel at it, it’s something you’ll want to make time for. It definitely does take time, especially for certain categories. You walk a certain category, you need to bring it to life and be extra creative. That takes a lot of time. But if that’s something you’re interested in doing, I’m all for it.”
POSSE Project Philly performs “Werk It!” 5-8:45 p.m. Jan. 25 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. More information at https://www.philamuseum.org/fridaynights and https://www.facebook.com/POSSEProjectPhilly/.