Vogue balls are vibrant genderfuck celebrations of queer culture for queer and trans people of colour, and one is heading to Mardi Gras for the very first time. Jess Jones reports.

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New York City’s underground ball culture burst onto screens in the 1990 queer classic Paris is Burning, before being reinvented and showcased to a new generation in the contemporary film Kiki.

Aside from the dance, the fashion, and the music, the balls have historically provided queer and trans people of colour with an important safe space to express their identities and connect with their communities.

And now, vogue ball culture is coming to Australia, with this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras set to hold a ballroom event for the very first time.

Creative director Bhenji Ra, the brains behind numerous other arts events exploring themes of gender and sexuality, says fans of drag and dance can expect something very special at the Sissy Ball.

“This is the first time something [I’ve curated] has ever been so epic,” she says.

“It’s about bringing together the right people in a time and space that may never happen again in history.”

Vogue balls are vibrant genderfuck celebrations of queer culture and artistic expression. Dancers representing various ‘houses’ compete on the runway in a series of dance-offs to be crowned the ultimate performer by a panel of judges.

As well as voguers representing houses, other dancers are welcome to compete individually—they’re called 007s or rogue agents.

“Expect something quite intense and high-energy,” Ra says.

“My experience going to balls and battles has been that the energy is just so engulfing.

“When you’re a spectator it’s easy to get swamped and engulfed by that. You’re not just watching, you’re a part of it.

“I don’t think there’s anything like that.”

Bhenji Ra

Bhenji Ra. Image: Jack Mannix.

Performance artist and choreographer Ra believes the Sissy Ball is an important opportunity for young queer folks like herself from outside of the inner city to come together.

“We’re all people of colour, we’re all living in the ‘burbs, we’re all living quite far away and don’t have the same experiences as other people,” she explains.

As for the name, Ra chose ‘sissy’ as part of an increasing global reclamation of what has often been used as a slur.

“It’s definitely a term widely used amongst the younger generation of queer people of colour,” she says.

Sissy Ball will bring together performance artists and DJs from all over Australia and the world.

The event will go beyond being just being a safe space for diverse genders and sexualities.

“It will be an intensively celebrative space,” Ra says.

“I think these spaces have an energy that is so celebratory of gender diversity and queer people that it leaves no room for any kind of discrimination. People are there to celebrate expressions of identity.”

Ra will be busy on the night, both hosting the event and managing the performers from her own House of Slé.

“My girls are a little bit alternative,” she says.

“They don’t really fuck with western beauty standards or the binary, and they’re all very gender non-conforming. They always bring something different and unique to the mix.”

Ra anticipates a massive evening of immersive entertainment.

“People are going to be spoiled,” she promises.

“There’s going to be so much there.”

Akashi Fisiinaua is one of the voguers who will be wowing the crowd, as part of FAFSWAG House.

A diverse group of queer people of colour, FAFSWAG is a visual and performing arts collective based in Auckland.  

“We’ve been leading the ballroom scene here in New Zealand, and there is a growing vogue ballroom culture globally,” Fisiinaua says.

Her earliest involvement in the scene included the Body Ball, performing as commentary on New Zealand’s marriage law reform as well as “to celebrate brown, queer, and trans bodies in Aotearoa”.

Akashi Fisiinaua

Akashi. Image: Hōhua Ropate Kurene.

Fisiinaua is looking forward to crossing the ditch for her first Mardi Gras and to make connections with international performers.  

“I feel like we exist within a pocket here in New Zealand,” she says.

“The only sort of connection that we have to the American ballroom scene is through social media. It will be good to connect with the girls we watch all the time on YouTube.

“Mardi Gras will be a whole new experience for me. I’ve never been to such a big festival as this before—I hear it’s crazy!”

All the FAFSWAG performers are just as thrilled to take part in the Sissy Ball and meet some of their Australian and international idols.

“We’re all really excited to be coming over,” says Fisiinaua.

“It will definitely be a new experience for us to battle outside of our little community here. The pressure’s on!”

Red Bull Music is partnering with Bhenji Ra and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to present Sissy Ball – held at Sydney’s Carriageworks on Saturday 24 February.

For one night only, clubbers will be transported to a vogue dance floor born from the living history of New York’s underground ballroom scene.

Tickets are available from: www.mardigras.org.au/events/sissy-ball.

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