Sissy Ball: Crash-Course on the Origins of Ball Culture in Australia

Amy Toma

Visuals: Amy Toma | @amyytoma

My first encounter with Sissy Ball was through social media. I was quite young, maybe 16 or 17 at the time, and an older friend of mine was competing in one of the categories. Snapchats of him gliding down the catwalk, and other performers dancing and contorting their bodies in ways I had never seen before, blew up my phone. All around them, the crowd appeared to be surging with energy, moving to their own rhythm. They added texture to the performances on stage, extending the relationship between audience and dancer to beyond that of spectator and the spectacle. It was mesmerising.

Multidisciplinary artist Bhenji Ra is mother to the House of Slé, and the curator of Sissy Ball, Australia’s pre-eminent vogue ball. Year after year, Sissy Ball joins the program for Mardi Gras, and imbues Sydney’s annual LGBTQIA+ celebration with a political message and relevance, which transcends the ever-commercialised nature of the festival.

Paris is Still Burning

Bhenji Ra was first introduced to ballroom culture when she was an 18-year-old dance student at the Martha Graham School in New York City. While she was studying, Ra was exposed to vogue by her friends, which is a highly stylised dance form that emerged in 1970s Harlem, and was pioneered by LGBTQIA+ African American and Latinx performers. 

The roots of the dance form come from a sense of making visible the identities and expression of individuals, for whom mainstream visibility was dangerous. Being queer and trans during the 70s in New York was essentially to be invisible.  Underground balls, held at all hours of the night, were the response of these burgeoning communities, to the need to feel seen, and the need to occupy their own space in a society that excluded them.

A Dynasty is Born

Born to Filipino and Australian parents, Ra became conscious of the overwhelming whiteness of traditional dance forms, and yearned to carve out a section within society where she could feel represented and seen, and in turn inspire other trans and queer people of colour. This mobilised her to establish the House of Slé, a collective of performers who are highly renowned in the Australian vogue scene. 

Slé’s members hail from Western Sydney and the surrounding areas. The original intent in the formation of the house, was to “work towards occupying spaces and creating something for [themselves]” and “bridging [the] gaps between the suburbs and metropolitan city”. Bhenji Ra is mother to the ‘children’ of Slé, a group of queer and trans individuals of colour who come from marginalised communities in Sydney.

Houses in ballroom culture exist as a family unit. At the head of the house is the ‘mother’ or ‘father’, who is often older and more established within the scene, and who provides mentorship and support to the members of the house. The significance of the house dynamic lies in the fact that queer and trans individuals often aren’t fully accepted by their own families or society itself, and so house culture provides a sense of ‘radical togetherness’ which is vital to the survival of members of the community.

Not a Trend

Anyone who has opened Twitter at any point in their lives probably remembers the blow-up of Vanessa Hudgens’ cringe-inducing statement when she was a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3: “I’m so into voguing right now.” Sorry Gabriella, but no.

While the glamour and the beauty of vogue is undeniable, Bhenji Ra has been clear in stating her opposition to vogue being consumed like a trend. If it comes to be known as a trend within mainstream society, it sends a message that it is disposable, which completely disregards the political context and history that vogue and ball culture represents. In turn, it suggests that the lived experiences of queer and trans people of colour is also disposable. Bhenji encourages people who engage with vogue culture to challenge themselves to also grapple with the function behind it, as “a tool for survival and an incredible source of resistance that could be shared among communities around the world, especially people of colour and trans people of colour”.

“I just knew I didn’t want it to be consumed as something that was a trend, like a new dance for everyone to learn. I wanted it to be about the core ballroom community as a family structure for queer people of colour to survive and grow together.” – Bhenji Ra.

SISSY BALL dips into the Enmore Theatre on Saturday 22 February – don’t miss getting tickets: http://bit.ly/SISSYBALL2020