Todd’s People have hidden in corners to make art, feed birds, and pull knives on me. Todd’s People, really, at the root of it, has been about making friends; in fact, some of my closest. Now, in one of Chicago’s most dangerous and depressed neighborhoods, Todd’s People takes fashion to levels unseen in the “artsy” sectors of the city. I’ve been orbiting around the Ballroom Scene for three years. Inspired by their music, movements, clothing, and organizing, I decided to make images about their world. (See this.) What I didn’t know is that they would change my world and become my friends. I even threw a Ball at a strip club on the South Side with the House of Infiniti. Wait, you may not know what a House is. If you have seen Paris is Burning, then we are on the same page.
The Ball Scene is organized by Houses, and a House is a collective of Ballroom participants that care for one another and help one another when needed. Some examples are the House of Ninja, House of Herrera, House of Escada. It is not uncommon for members of these Houses to come from broken homes where they did not receive support or encouragement for their sexual identities. The Ballroom scene is a means for escape into a fantasy world where they can find acceptance for whomever they wish to be, be it a man or a woman, thug or schoolboy. The Houses provides a launching pad for transformation while providing a support system for its members.
One of the main functions of the Houses is to ”walk,” or compete, against one another in the Ball, where they are judged on dance skills, costume, general appearance, and attitude. No touching is allowed, even though dancers often become intertwined in each other’s extended arms, legs, and hand moves. Participants dress according to a category in which they are competing and are expected to display appropriate “realness,” meaning who looks the most convincing in categories such as Butch Queen (thug), Sex Siren (best body), Female Face (most convincing woman). The judges each pick their own winner. The person with the most votes from the judges wins the walk… if not, that’s a chop, bitch!
Tonight, the House of Escada is throwing their annual Ball. This year’s is called “Red Glamour Kills.” It’s on 83rd and Ellis, in the heart of Chicago’s south side. I thought I’d seen everything—the fights, the moves, the local icons and legends—while attending Ball-related events. But tonight, the outfits outshined the movement: thugs, preppy, artsy, debonaire, sexy, classy, functional, and imaginative, breaking open gender stereotypes. There is a freedom in their fashion tonight, more so than most nights, and this is just at a park district basketball gym.
As taught by the hyper sexed of 80th and Stony Island, Chicago, IL
I didn’t mean to be here. Well, I did and I didn’t. I meant to head south on Stony Island, I meant to pass corners where young men hours before were fatally shot. I meant to barge into the karate studio at midnight, I just didn’t mean to go on the wrong day. As I opened the door I knew this was going to go one of two ways, me shot dead or the best night of my life!
I had meant to show up and photograph a Ball. This karate studio by day was supposed to be filled with hundreds of men vogueing by night. There was supposed to be drag performances, an MC, judges and dudes talking their shit! I was a little caught off guard to find that my arrival was met with a few thuggy “ladies”.
As I entered the establishment I was met with a sharp toned “what are you doing here buddy?” The one who said that gets up and starts walking my way.
"Aren’t there supposed to be men here?" I quickly reply to make it sound like I was supposed to be here.
"That’s tomorrow night. It’s ladies night tonight" she says.
"Ladies night?" I reply
"Ohh, are only lesbians allowed?"
"No, ni99@s can come too!"
I pull my Ball Scene flyer out of my pocket and to my amazement I see that I am in fact at the right place at the wrong time. I apologize to them and I wish them all a great night.
"Wait" one of them says. "What were you going to do here?". "I was going to take pictures." She laughs, says "honey, this could be a blessing in disguise. I am Dj Niema. Do you want to stay and take pictures?"
These gangster ladies, holding down the front lines were just trying to protect what’s theirs. They were the barricades, the gate keepers protecting their most valued resource… dry humping.
"Yes I’ll stay!" It was a symposium. Minds met, bodies collided, worlds expanded. School never taught me the practical use of my body. I didn’t even know that I can go where I thought I couldn’t. When I did finally leave it was 6 am. I entered the karate studio as a college drop out and I left with a degree in mind fucking!