Legacy Vogue Ball: Tāmaki Aflame
It started an hour late. It started early, before anyone had walked: at the smokers’ huddle on Queen Street, at the swarm around the bar, and at the Town Hall bathrooms, where full-body onceovers and look checks took place among rows of brass urinals. Are you a Butch Queen, Femme Queen, Nonbinary or Cis Woman? Are you from Māngere, Ponsonby, Pōneke or St Heliers? Are you popping your ball cherry, or are you one of the pioneers? Are you dressed in a pressed blazer and boat shoes, or nothing but heels and body paint?
This is the Ha crash. This is Ballroom. This is the Legacy Vogue Ball, a signal fire of queer, Indigenous brilliance, birthed by FAFSWAG, and set aflame by the entire ballroom community in Aotearoa.
Presented by the Auckland Arts Festival, the Legacy Vogue Ball was the first Ballroom event co-hosted by all three of the legendary Tāmaki Makaurau houses: the House of Iman, the House of Aitu and the House of Coven-Carangi. Held on March 20 at the Auckland Town Hall, the Ball was an insurgent reclamation of a storied house of colonisation, marked by equal doses of ferocity, filth and respect. From 8pm till midnight, the Edwardian walls vibrated with (FAF)swag on Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei land. We danced on the neck of colonisation, gentrification and displacement. We snapped our fingers and howled above Waihorotiu Stream, a precious resource for Tangata Whenua buried by the asphalt of colonisation 150 years ago.
I was shuddering with insecurity and excitement. As a queer, white-skinned Latine–Israeli kid, I perched hesitantly on the threshold to bear witness from the outside. I grew up in Hawai‘i, nestled in the embrace of hula. I came to know my body and my sexuality through hula, and the knowledge passed down by queer Indigenous kūpuna. Now, as a white, cis body in Tāmaki Makaurau, I write from the outer edges of the skin, attempting to pay my respects to the beating heart. I am here to be grateful, and to learn.
How did we arrive here, together? Queerness struts past the monolith of a singular origin story. Ballroom in Aotearoa has several: from FAFSWAG’s first ball at Te Puke ō Tara Community Centre in 2013, to the Black and Latine pioneers who birthed Vogue and Ballroom in postwar New York, to the inaugural Odd Fellows Ball held in Harlem in 1867, where the rivers of gender, queerness, performance, and fashion first converged.
Yet in Aotearoa, and the Polynesian diaspora, the whakapapa of queer somatic resistance is much broader. Queer and Trans embodiment in Pacific cultures has been held since before the journey from Hawaiki. Speaking into Pacific cultures’ more expansive gender practices, māhū Kumu Hula Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu says, “we have all aspects to embrace”. Takatāpui, māhū, faʻafafine and fakaleitī people have passed down knowledge and life essence for thousands of years. From this whakapapa, FAFSWAG and the Aotearoa Ballroom community transform Harlem Ball culture with surging, oceanic brilliance.
Like most subcultures, Ballroom draws its singular force from a latent underbelly of rage. People of colour and queer folk grow fertile ecosystems to scream in because in everyday life, hetero-colonialism tapes their larynxes shut. What happens, then, when screaming spaces are programmed at national arts festivals? Who shouts for whom, and does money amplify or deafen it? Upon being given a seat at the table, FAFSWAG scuppered the entire gleaming edifice. It was the most alive arts festival event I can recall – raunchy and improper in the most delicious ways.
Our tickets said 8pm, but this is queer time. So we waited, and it was good for us. Lateness hijacks respectability, and throws a wrench in capital’s indefatigable bicycle. Late time is stolen time, with which to make a stolen life, outdoors of consumptive relation.
We spent the first hour floating in and out of doorways as DJ Keanu Feleti blasted lilting, sensual shrapnel in our ears. They smacked us with the Ha crash (the root of all Ballroom music), mixed with Megan Thee Stallion’s ribald bounce. Body-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody-ody… My eardrums rang late into the following afternoon.
After 60 minutes of expectant bliss, we were welcomed by MCs Honey Coven-Carangi, Meghan Iman and Aniyah Aitu. They held us with vitality and grace. Before walking commenced, Honey called those seated in the Circle down to the floor. There is no passive voyeurism at a Ball, no sightline hierarchies that privilege the wealthy. With moving simplicity, Honey reminded us that Balls are safe spaces for those who do not feel safe on the street, and called the people of colour and Trans folk among us to the front.
Let us not underestimate the importance of this act. For FAFSWAG to scramble the hierarchies of power at a national arts festival, where even the cheapest tickets are often expensive and widely unaffordable, is monumental. Privileging the experiences of minoritised folks is a sharp incision into the colonising fabric of most art institutions in Aotearoa.
The ball began with a roll call of icons and legends. House mothers Falencie Aitu, Moe Laga and Jaycee Iman tore down upon us, their bodies mobilised by abundant generosity and self-knowing. Laidback and glowing, Butch Queens Pati Solomona Tyrell and Darren Taniue vogued with humble insouciance. Their hand performance had the thick velvet grace of kelp.
Throughout the night, all the walkers moved with exhilarating self-possession. Where else in Aotearoa do you encounter performances imbued with such courage, authenticity, love and wit? The six categories – Runway Ota, Hand Performance, Bizaare, Tag Team Performance, Sex Siren and Ota Vogue Performance – held space for singular creative gifts.
“I WHAKAPAPA THEREFORE I AM.” “PROTECT QPOC.” In the Runway Ota, walkers clothed themselves with words of affirmation and resistance. It was an opportunity to appreciate the ethical power of aesthetics. When they finished walking some smiled, embraced and unscrewed their taut spines. Their shoulders softened inward, their sternum relaxed, and their necks craned forward with shyness. To see their everyday embodiment amplified the potency of their runway performances.
For the Tag Team Performance category, walkers vogued in pairs, dressed as animated duos from computer games and cartoons. They darted around each other in colour-block miniskirts, lunging through tiny slivers of space. Duckwalk as the music ebbs, then dip at the climax of the beat, limbs falling up as their head smacked down to the HA!
MC Meghan Iman calls a 10-minute break, that becomes 20 when the judges disappear. They return, after an appropriate dose of lateness, in new looks. Unreasonable, illogical beauty is a queer tactic – why should we make sense when we can flaunt our glittering sensuality instead?
The ball continues. DJ Zeki’s luminous Ha beats dissolve into grinding bass rhythms, so the Sex Sirens can break us down and make us hot. They slink above us drenched in power and smut, intent on setting Tāmaki aflame. Walkers dressed as their cultural atua gyrate with pornographic grace, in an embodied meeting of the sacred and the profane. We fan ourselves, and get busy attempting to restrain the improprietous joy of our dopamine.
The night closes with the Ota Vogue Performance, where walkers are assessed on the five elements of vogue: catwalk, hand performance, duckwalks, floor performance, and dips and spins. I observe the angular counterpoint of hip and shoulder (a queer épaulement?), the playful geometry of hand performance, and the body folding and unfolding like a pair of scissors as it dips and spins. Fatheir Fang Coven-Carangi, winner of the Grand Prize, is singularly full-bodied. They strike with a porous, soft underlay that emanates outwards in waves.
The ball ends with acknowledgements and recognition for the gifts of legends and pioneers. Lady Shaka spins us into heart songs. I am delirious with gratitude. Thank you FAFSWAG and the Ballroom scene in Aotearoa for your riotous, kind implosions. Thank you for creating irreverent utopias.
Feature image credit: Shelley Te Haara