Gerard H. Gaskin, photographer and author of Legendary: Inside the House of Ballroom Scene is legendary himself.
In the ballroom scene, one may start by attending balls, and then participating (walking) in different categories. That brings up another question: what is the ballroom scene in the first place? The truth is that not many know much about it.
It only reached mainstream media awareness with Madonna’s song “Vogue,” the ballroom scene has been around for many decades, and it intrigues many people to this very day.
This year, between March 29th and April 5th, New York City hosted the 2014 International Ballroom Convention, which offered a week full of exciting and important events on a variety of ballroom scene related topics. Attendees got to learn about the history of the ballroom scene in New York City, New Jersey and other places; hear about related art created by artist Davey Mitchell; get free HIV testing and counseling provided by Housing Works; and participate in several one-of-a-kind panel discussions with former dancers, activists, and members of the House of Ultra Omni, including Kevin Ultra Omni himself, and filmmaker and LGBT activist, Wolf Omni Busch. While the opening of the convention and most of the events took place at Harlem’s Chashama Gallery, the convention ended with the 35th House of Ultra Omni anniversary ball at Lincoln Center Square, also in New York City.
The theme of this year’s convention was Bridging the Gap, which offered a way to go beyond the convention’s time-boundaries, and set the stage for an open and honest dialogue between different generations of ballroom dancers, in order to ensure the continuity of the ballroom community. The convention also offered a unique view inside the ballroom community, through memories and stories shared by dancers, themselves, and also through the photographic work of Gerard H. Gaskin, as captured in his new book, Legendary: Inside the House of Ballroom Scene.
How did you get involved in photography?
Gerard H. Gaskin: I started photographing some 25 years ago, [with a camera I got] when I was 18 years old. I went to a community college in Queens, and started by thinking that I was [only] going to learn how to use the camera, [and] get some cheap credits. And then I fell in love with photography. A professor told me about a [program] in photography at Hunter College, and I transferred.
Your new book, Legendary, captures your twenty-years of photographing the ball community. Why publish it now?
GHG: I won The First Book prize in a competition put out by Duke University. I was the sixth person to win this prize. [Legendary] came out in November of 2013.
How did you get involved in covering the ballroom community?
GHG: I was hanging out on 42nd Street, in a place called Show World. Downstairs, in the basement of Show World, was where the femme queens would work. I met a lot of really famous femme queens, back then, we’re talking 1993-1994. I was actually a junior at Hunter College [at the time, and] needed a senior project to work on, [and so, photographing the ballroom scene] started out as a senior project.
How have the balls changed over the years?
GHG: A lot! Just the dance form, voguing, is changed. I don’t know if it’s so much for better or worse, but it’s different. The young people who come into the scene [today] run the scene. Their energy runs the scene. Also, part of it is the times, [because] the eighties and nineties [were] completely different…. Now we have Internet. There’s a lot of stuff on YouTube. There is some streaming, not a whole lot, but some. Also, there’s still a certain amount of creativity. [Participants] have to ultimately make [their outfits for the particular categories.] It’s still amazing to watch.
Are the balls still underground today?
GHG: To a certain extend, they are.
So, tell, me, what exactly is Legendary?
GHG: To be Legendary means to have participating in the balls, in at least one category, for at least ten years. And then you do it for twenty years, and you become an Icon.
Can you compete in more than one category?
GHG: You can compete in the same category or in different categories. I know people who do Vogue, Runway, Face, Futuristic, Labels, all of those [categories]. But then there’re certain people who just do Runway. A lot of people only do Futuristic. It depends.
Do you have a favorite category?
GHG: I like Runway. I love Futuristic Runway, that’s my favorite.
GHG: I like it because there’s more creativity involved. It’s not just showing up…. You have to make sure you make a costume that was on the category. ‘Cause sometimes the category tells you that you need to make it in this color, [to look] something like this, [and so on]. I remember I went into a ball that was all around Hollywood, and you had to show up as characters in cartoon movies.
If Icon is above Legendary, as category, why did you call your book Legendary?
GHG: I liked that word better. [smile] There’s a scene in Paris Is Burning where the guy is talking about [his hanging] out with the legendary children. That’s the realness about it.
How did you get behind the scenes to capture performers getting ready for the ball?
GHG: I think it’s 20 years [of] hanging out [with these people]. All of [them] are friends of mine right now. I think that the only way to get the back scene is to do 20 years, or to do enough time to get to know people [and win their trust]. That’s the creative stuff that I like.
Do you still photograph balls?
GHG: Yes, I do, [not] as much as I used to in the late nineties and early thousands. I used to be at a few balls every month. Now I’d be at three or four a year.
What do you think is the key to capturing the ball scene?
GHG: I think that the key thing about the balls [is that they were] created by the participants to judge each other. That is the thing that I loved about it more than anything else. They judge each other. It’s about them. It’s them celebrating them.
Do you think the ballroom scene will continue?
GHG: Oh yeah, it won’t stop. It’s not going to stop.
Learn more about Gerard H. Gaskin by visiting him online at www.gerardhgaskin.com.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.