By Ricky Tucker
Editor’s note: FX’s Pose and HBO’s Legendary have recently charmed mainstream TV audiences to Ballroom, but the Black and Latinx LGBTQ underground subculture has been around much longer than you think. There’s no way either show could cover every facet of its complex cultural makeup, its integrated history, its ongoing relevance. Turn to Ricky Tucker’s And the Category Is . . .: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community, walking the scene with a strut that means business.
Equal parts sugar and shade, Tucker’s book offers an impressionistic point of entry into the world founded as a fearless response to the systemic marginalization of minority populations. Its photo insert, with contributions from photographers Kareem Worrell, Emrys Eller, and Luna Luis Ortiz, brings us that much closer to the fabulousness of balls. Here, they join Tucker, a close friend of the community, as he shares with us examples that embody the spirit of each ball category. Get your lives, honeys!
This was one of the first images my friend and And the Category Is . . . photographer Kareem Worrell developed while I was writing the book—and it became an aspirational photo. The audacity of Lee, the central figure, drove my urge to match in tone his ferocity in the first few chapters. To, like Ballroom, unapologetically hold accountable the public appropriation of this unique culture, AND to elevate to divine status the unwavering love that is its foundation. In short, this photo is the epitome of the chapter “Werk.”
Kareem Worrell on shooting this Ball:
“I’m not always sure of what I’m looking for when I’m photographing an event, but I can sense it when I see it. My first ball [the Escape from Arkham Ball] was full of these knowing intuitions, triggered by the thumping music, chanting spectators, and kinetic movements on the runway. The frenzied energy of the crowd coupled with the fierce performances really set off my creative energy; I wanted to photograph everything, every vogue movement, every twirl and every hurtling dip (death drop to those weaned on Drag Race). In that space, I felt called home, like I was at a church sermon designed to solely proselytize to me. I hope my photography can honor Ballroom’s visual feast and legacy of tradition built by queer Black hands.”
From contributing two interviews that underscore the global prowess of Ballroom to walking, winning, and constantly breaking the eccentrically dressed category called “bizarre” to being the founding father of the House of Soldier—this book could never have been written without NYC nightlife and Ballroom icon Lee Soulja. His real-life tall tales about traveling to Japan with Willie Ninja for a Thierry Mugler show and going to Paradise Garage the night Keith Haring body painted Grace Jones took the book above and beyond its New York title. And we and the book are transcendent because of it.
Although our final cover image of Keetz the Baddest by Anja Matthes is the image of my dreams, at one point during our search, I thought this photo by Kareem was the one. It’s so kinetic yet arresting and matches perfectly the personal victories and communal engagement that makeup ball culture. Everyone is giving it their all, and it is everything—which is basically what we are voguing about.
The Red Ball, where this picture was taken, was different from most of the balls captured in the book’s photo insert, as it was one specifically meant for the Kiki scene—a much younger set. That night, we were overly encouraged to hit the complimentary buffet, answered surveys for New York City’s public health department, and while watching the runway, felt a fiery rush only the children could deliver. It reminded me that even if LGBTQ kids of color are often abused and let go from their homes, Ballroom catches them with open arms. This community knows no strangers.
Emrys Eller on shooting this ball:
“The lasting impression of shooting the Red Ball in Brooklyn, shortly before Covid forced us into our silos, was a feeling of sincere and warm acceptance. I showed up to my first-ever ball expecting the vogueing kids to be wary of the new face behind a giant lens, but their smiles and friendly chit-chat quickly dispelled that notion. Here was a crowd who gathered to witness one another wholly, with plenty of playful judgment but not an ounce of malice. As I snapped portraits of a group outside the venue, they passed the post-ball joint my way, and I felt honored that they had welcomed this stranger into the fold, if only for a night.”
Find more of Eller’s work at emryseller.com.
Throughout the book, but specifically in the “Church” chapter, I discuss the extended metaphor of the Ball as a sacred, hallowed, space. The MC as pastor. The crowd the congregation. The DJ as choir director. House music the gospel. This picture, however, states beautifully the divine grace bestowed upon those most prepared for and deserving of its spotlight.
Walking categories, trans lives, and the unexpected prevalence of gender norms within the Ballroom scene
Winning the umbrella category of realness can be contingent upon current beauty standards and the tastes of the judges. The offshoot category of face can rely as heavily on holding your head high, finding the right light with said face, and emphatically appealing to your judges. Thus, this picture by Legendary Icon Hall of Famer, Butch Queen Face grand prize winner, and photographer Luna Luis Ortiz shows the lengths to which folx will go to have you know precisely how mother effin pretty they are.
Luna Luis Ortiz on shooting his lifelong community across countless balls:
“Taking photographs at a ball is an extension of my own creativity as an artist. From the moment I entered Ballroom in 1988, I knew it was something important and that it should be documented. Being a walking participant gave me an understanding of the body in motion; I understood the voguing body because I Vogue. I understood the beauty in the photo because I walked and won Face. I understood the struggles before going into the ball because I lived it. So, it came naturally for me to capture images that are not only beautiful but tell a story, that showcase the vulnerability and strengths of Ballroom.
A ballroom moment is just a moment—but a photo or video is forever.”
In the “Body” chapter, I go into the importance of Black trans fem bodies, metabolizing racial trauma in our bodies, body sponsorship by both corporations, and the not-for-profit industrial complex. Heavy. But I thought for this image, it would be nice to simplify a bit and appreciate bodies at a ball in their most classic sense—stuff you’d like to touch. Enjoy. #bodiadiadi
About the Author
Ricky Tucker is a North Carolina native, a storyteller, an educator, a lead creative, and an art critic. His work explores the imprints of art and memory on narrative, and the absurdity of most fleeting moments. He has written for the Paris Review, the Tenth Magazine, and Public Seminar, among others, and has performed for reading series including the Moth Grand SLAM, Sister Spit, Born: Free, and Spark London. In 2017, he was chosen as a Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow for creative nonfiction. Connect with him at thewriterrickytucker.com and on Instagram: @rictorscale.