Strike a pose: a brief history of ballroom culture in 10 joyous songs

As part of Black History Month, we look back at the vogue and ball culture, which continues to thrive today – but hunty, it's been around forever!

Ballroom isn’t just about the waltz and the Argentinian tangos – has been a prevalent underground scene created as a haven for the Black and Latin queer and trans members of New York City, until it eventually spread worldwide. Being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t easy, and being a person of colour atop of that makes it even worse, yet what the kids of the ‘60s managed to create in the disco heydays is a pop culture phenomenon that has changed not just the LGBTQIA+ community forever, but also the whole entertainment industry.

Pushing the needle on fashion, dance and especially music, ballroom (often interchangeably called ball or vogue as well) has a rich history that we’re only now starting to scratch the surface of – if you’re looking from outside of the scene, of course. And it all stems from the balls. Balls are big parties held at the hottest clubs in NYC, and more, where the best dancers show off their voguing skills, in the coolest themed outfits to earn respect from the peers around them. As years evolved and pop changed, the music to these very balls changed from the typical house and dance to all the pop of today, including its beloved electronic sound. 

Evolving through its 50 years hidden from the public’s eye, now in 2021, ballroom is becoming one of the most exciting scenes of the ‘20s, as it finally getting its well-deserved acceptance in a seemingly more tolerant Hollywood. Even Rihanna incorporated some of the scenes biggest names into her last Savage X Fenty fashion show. Although the scene’s history is impossibly rich, here are 10 songs to start your dive into ballroom history.

MFSB, ‘Love is The Message’ (1974)

Advertisement

Truly just a great dance track that ruled the ‘80s dance scenes, ‘Love Is The Message’ became the voguing anthem for the “old way” of things. Old Way voguing is all about the elongation, the posing, and the performance as fellow ball attendees would watch the performances contort to Eygptian-esque poses. There was a huge emphasis on striking poses at this early stage in the long history of New York’s richest underground scene. The scene mostly thrived off of popular house tracks with that attitude synonymous with ballroom, and MFSB seemed to be the first recognised house track to start the voguing trend.

Best line: Considering this song has only one lyric, it’s: “Love is the message that I sing to you”. But what a lyric!

Ellis D Presents Boom Boom, ‘Work This Pussy (Hurt Me Mix)’ (1989)

Later joining the legendary House of Xtravaganza, Junior Vasquez (under his alias Ellis D) chopped up this house tune to set crowds alight as he DJed at the club he co-founded, the infamous original Sound Factory in Chelsea, New York. ‘Work This Pussy’ is still one of the most iconic voguing tracks ever, and the line is synonymous with ball culture. All about feeling your oats and exuding gender-fluid voracity, the very title is now a queer pop culture colloquialism and lives on as a mantra for even young queens as well as the reminiscent.

Best Line: The only lyrics you need: “Work this pussy”

Johnny Dynell featuring David Ian Xtravaganza, ‘Elements of Vogue (David DePino’s original mix)’ (1989)

Advertisement

If you were ever wondering what voguing is, ‘Elements of Vogue’ will be a great introduction. Once you get past the futuristic twinkling synths and doubled hi-hats, the prolific House of Xtravaganza’s MC tells you what to do if you want to be the next big vogue star. The Xtravaganzas would be great teachers since in the ’80s and onwards, the house has been a powerhouse in the ball world, dominating in all aspects of fashion, music, and dance, and is still one of the longest standing houses in ballroom history.

Best Line: “Give them face, Give them body / Walking heat, strike a pose” 

Malcolm McLaren, ‘Deep In Vogue’ (1989)

‘Deep In Vogue’ follows in the same nature as ‘Elements of Vogue’ as these two songs were two of the first to establish that energy that needs to be present for the perfect voguing track. Fun fact: voguing was created to throw shade on other qweens in a ball and battle it out lovingly. Ball is all about expression, and that is quite often ineffable, but if you could use word, it would be: it’s attitude.

It’s all about topping your opponent but also embracing your ally. It’s about serving the best face and body, but also having the best moves on the floor. It’s about being the whole package, and the MCing from the legendary house founder and ballroom icon, Willi Ninja, narrates this ideal on this track. Also, this was one of the first-ever ball tracks to chart on the Billboard charts.

Best Line: “Vogueing is a challenge dance / Instead of fighting you take it out on the dance floor / 10! 10! 10! 10! 10! 10! / Are there anymore!” 

Madonna, ‘Vogue’ (1990)

Before beautiful depictions of ball culture (and more to come) were heavily scattered throughout the mainstream, Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ was the most prolific successful rack of ballroom in pop culture. From Madonna hanging out at the aforementioned Sound Factory with Junior Vasquez, as well as all the other disco-turned-ball clubs across the US, she came across the magnificent moves of the ball dancers – especially José Xtravaganza, who ended up choreographing the music video for the iconic ‘90s track. Breaking through with a spotlight on the culture, it looked like ball was going to be the next new thing.

Best Line: Beauty’s where you find it / Not just where you bump and grind it”. 

Masters At Work, ‘The Ha Dance (Pumpin’ Dubb)’ (1991)

‘The Ha Dance’ solidify what set ball music apart from the average popular house music at the club; the ha crashes, a sound accented on every fourth beat where you know to strike a pose, or dip — not “death drop”. Being one of the most popular ball tracks of the ‘90s, this song moved the subgenre into a more uptempo and showy realm, different to the glamorous and spacey sounds of the Old Way. Vogue’s new way now included great clicks and arm control many now knowing voguing to be.

Best line: This track is an instrumental so the best line is whatever your local ball MC thinks of.

Kevin Aviance, ‘Cunty (This Feeling)’ (1995)

Obviously, to the majority, the word ‘cunt’ is a vulgar curse word, but in the LGBTQIA+ community, the word has been reprised to be an empowering word for femininity, despite whether you’re a full femme doll or a “butch qween”. It celebrated this over-the-top, eccentric attitude of superfluousness that you can have whilst strutting your stuff, and ball polymath Kevin Aviance’s ‘Cunty’ embodies this perfectly. From the sonic to the visuals, it’s fun, it’s camp, it’s ball – it’s everything!

Best Line: “Feeling like a daisy / Feeling like a lady” 

Divoli S’vere feat. DuhGreatOne, ‘Svere Pussy Pop Ha’ (2016)

There’s quite a jump in time here, but balls and its music was still thriving in between these years, with newcomers DJ MikeQ and Vjuan Allure remixing the older ‘80s and ‘90s club classics for the new generation of ball queens coming through the scene. Throughout that time, queer icons started to move closer to the limelight, the most noticeable being RuPaul – dubbed the “world’s most famous drag queen” by Fortune magazine. While drag culture was becoming a part of mainstream pop culture, the underground, snappier Jersey Club (a style of dance music pioneered in Newark in the early ’00s) and bounce-inspired tracks filled the balls. ‘Svere Pussy Pop Ha’ is a perfect example.

Best Line: ‘My pussy pops!” is the only lyric you need to know.

RuPaul featuring Vjuan Allure, ‘Category Is…’ (2016)

While he parades around in his fancy frocks and sky-high ‘dos, judging the world’s next class of drag superstars, Ru Paul has been creating a soundtrack for his popular RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise. ‘Category Is…’ really could hold up in the balls too since, by 2016, the ball world was in its Vogue Femme era, where now a great vogue is judged on five disciplines: hands and face, duckwalk, catwalk, spins and dips, and floor performance. With the late DJing legend Vjuan Allure’s innovative ear for ball hits, ‘Category Is…’ embodies the latest version of voguing with a competitive flair.

Best Line: “I’m minty fresh but it ain’t for free / Legendary queen from NYC”

MikeQ and Ash B, ‘Legendary’ (2020)

MikeQ has left a long-lasting impression on ball forever with his masterful production, filled with chopped up samples from his world. But he became legendary when he started the first-ever record label for vogue music, Qween Beat, in 2016. Aside from founding the iconic musical ‘house’, so vogue will continue to have a place in the music industry, he and his second female signee, Ash B, created the theme tune for HBO Max’s latest competition show Legendary.

Judged by the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado (seen twirling in the featured image) and fashion extraordinaire Law Roach – as well as Hot Girl Megan Thee Stallion and presenter-turned-actor and activist Jameela Jamil, different houses compete for the coveted Best House award week after week, before earning a chance to win $100k. With a simple show on HBO Max, the show gets to enlighten those with what the scene has been building up to all these years.

Best Line: “I’m so (uh!) all I really want to be, is an icon or a statement / It’s legendary”

Advertisement
Advertisement