Review: And the Category is… Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community
You love Bette Davis.
Always have, always will. Ever since Madonna vowed that she did, too, you’ve voiced your passion while you Vogued, white-gloved hands splayed, slap the floor, frame, pose, pose, pose. It’s not All About Eve this time; it’s all about you when you dance like that. And in the new book And the Category Is… by Ricky Tucker, you know where you do it.
The culture known as Ballroom is a little hard to define.
It’s not a single song, although you can’t have Ballroom without music. It’s not one specific place; you can attend Ballroom classes in many places and dance wherever there’s a Ball. Ballroom is “a freedom, a fearlessness… in deconstructing and reinventing oneself in front of a crowd…” And it’s “a thriving arts-based culture founded over a century ago by LGBTQ African American and Latinx people of Harlem.”
“In so many ways, house-Ballroom culture is… the invisible creating visibility for themselves,” says Tucker.
In his eyes, Ballroom is “smart, innovative, loving, and funny…” At its very basic, it’s pageantry, masquerade, and glitz, and awards are given in various categories that exhibit “realness.” Hand-movements are graded, as are spins, dips, and the way one walks; what you wear is as important as how you dance. And yes, taking a Ballroom class is better than making a fool of yourself and bringing shame to your House. That, by the way, could be a literal home led by a house mother or father and a multi-membered, created family for anyone who might need one.
Ballroom gives trans and gay people a safe place to be themselves and maybe win a trophy for it. It also offers Black dancers a chance to unite “under one cause: freedom” and to display “a powerful performative act of defiance” toward rich, straight, white cis people — even though there are many cis people who are Ballroom fans…
There are two ways of approaching And the Category Is…: one, if you’re a Ballroom follower or participant. Another, if you’re not.
Aficionados of Ballroom will devour every page of this personal memoir-mixed-with-cultural-history. They’ll love author Ricky Tucker’s breathlessly-told tale of finding Ballroom, and himself in it; his experiences in learning how to dance properly; and the sense of insider that he lends overall.
Readers will also enjoy Tucker’s extensive interviews with LGBTQ BIPOC: Ballroom members, legends, organizers, activists, house parents, his own “fathers,” and other performers. There, and in his analysis of the interviews, we see how defying racism is a large part of the essence of Ballroom, how HIV activism fits in, and how Ballroom has been appropriated for wider audiences.
On the other side of the dance floor, if you’re not into Ballroom, this book will take some getting used-to. Tucker jumps in with both feet and very little preamble to prepare readers unfamiliar with Ballroom culture. Stick around; you’ll get it eventually, if you have patience.
If you don’t, then fasten those seatbelts. Reading And the Category Is… will make for a bumpy night..
And the Category Is… Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community by Ricky Tucker, c.2021, Beacon Press, $25.95, 248 pages