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The Library is Open: Baltimore Ballroom at Peabody

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Unlike about half of America in 2023, the culture wars are being won by LGBTQ+ communities of color in Baltimore–and we are all the better for it. Specifically, within ballroom culture, this  historically marginalized group knows that beauty, art, and style is a love language and super power that transcends all barriers. 

During these elaborate performances, audiences are given the opportunity to experience gorgeous, life-affirming spectacles that embrace artists from all walks of life. When LGBTQ+ cultural organizations are given significant support, nurtured, and have their work shared thoughtfully, the results are exponentially positive. One stunning example of a cultural win-win scenario is the Peabody Ballroom Experience, a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries and leaders from Baltimore’s ballroom scene.

Over the past few years, Baltimore’s ballroom communities have received institutional support from JHU Sheridan Librariesin the form of partnerships, an oral history project at the library, collaborations with student dancers, and an opulent space to host an annual ball competition. Coordinated by Dr. Joseph Plaster since 2019, “the project aims to cultivate an exchange of knowledge between the university and ballroom by offering diverse opportunities for faculty, students, staff, and ballroom to come together as partners in education.”

It culminates in an annual private, free event hosted at Peabody Library where performances and competitions include dancers walking against one another in different categories, with its most recent iteration on Saturday, April 15, 2023 in an event that lasted until midnight.

For those not familiar with ballroom culture, it is also described as “vogue”a stylized form of dance created by Black and Latino LGBTQ+ communities in Harlem. According to the NMAAHC, “Between the 1960’s and 80’s New York drag competitions known as ‘balls’ transformed from elaborate pageantry to ‘vogue’ battles. As part of this ballroom culture, Black and Latino voguers would compete for trophies and the reputation of their ‘Houses’groups that were part competitive affiliation, part surrogate family. Named after the famous fashion magazine, vogue took from the poses in high fashion and ancient Egyptian art, adding exaggerated hand gestures to tell a story and imitate various gender performances in categorized drag genres.”

Using dance, performance, and elaborate costume, ballroom artists prove that gender is a performance. They used ballroom competitions to build community, peacefully settle disputes between rivals, and to assure a high level of respect and care through elaborate ceremonies, awards, dance, and garments. During these performances, voguers “read” each otherand the winner is often the person who “throws the best shade.” And in reference to reading, or throwing shade, the ‘library’ is metaphorically a place where drag queens insult each other back and forth in a playful manner. In this case, we have a vogue ball being hosted literally in a library, with the Peabody Library, part of JHU, serving not just as an opulent architectural backdrop but as a place where this community feels safe and welcomed.

“Ballroom started in NYC. As it has grown, it began to travel to different cities and Baltimore was one of them,” explains vogue performer Marquis Clanton, of the House of Revlon in an earlier interview. “Over time it has grown and grown and has now gone international as well. I started voguing in 1999 and through time I learned, walked, battled, won, and being consistent with it allowed me to become one of the legendary icon masters of vogue. I now teach vogue and share the history with people all over Baltimore and across the world.”

 

Marquis Clanton practices with JHU student dancers
Marquis Revlon
Dr. Joseph Plaster
Fans and family in the audience at the Peabody Library on April 15, 2023

Collaboration between Baltimore Ballroom and JHU was a multilayered consideration, and focused around the event and performance at the library. The very start of the performance featured a choreographed dance performance featuring JHU students where veteran dancer Marquis Clanton led five vogue workshops for students enrolled in the Peabody BFA Dance Program.

Additional educational collaborations include Jason Gray, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies MA program, filming the April 15 ball to create two documentary shorts to be screened free of charge for the public in the future. In addition, students enrolled in Joseph Plaster’s Queer Performativity course (JHU WGS) have been learning about ballroom history and meeting with ballroom leaders, so they were in attendance at the ball in order to write about the competition along with students from Peabody Dance faculty Salvador Barajas’ Critical Dance course (Peabody Dance).

“I heard many performers talk about the evening as historic because the Peabody Library has not been a place open to ‘people like us’ in the past,” says Clanton, of the original Peabody Ballroom Experience. “Literally, they pointed to the glass ceiling (gorgeous!) and said that the experience was, for them, tantamount to breaking a historic barrier in Baltimore.”

For the third annual ball competition in 2023 (after a multi-year pause for COVID), JHU worked with four leaders of Baltimore’s Ballroom Community: Legendary Rhonda Carr (named an Icon at the 2023 ball!!!), Icon Hall of Famer Enrique St. Laurent, Legendary Marco West, and Icon Sebastian Escada to plan the ball in collaboration with Joseph Plaster, Director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center and Paul Espinosa, Curator of the Peabody Library.

As part of the concept and design, library curators presented a selection of the Sheridan Libraries’ collections—over 300,000 volumes dating from the Renaissance through the 21st century—via workshops and informal gatherings. Ballroom artists then interpreted library materials through ballroom performance traditions. The team ultimately co-produced the runway, performance, and realness categories that make up the ball. The competition honors the trailblazers and blueprints who launched Baltimore’s ballroom scene, with much homage paid to ballroom icons as they bring to life the JHU Sheridan Libraries collection.

The Baltimore Ballroom Alliance, a new organization that will create new collaborations between Baltimore ballroom leadership, was announced during the performance on Saturday, April 15, 2023, and that night they inducted five ballroom artists into the Baltimore Hall of Fame, which honors individuals with 20+ years of achievements in the ballroom scene, giving out cash awards and art deco inspired trophies. Hall of Fame inductees include Icon Marquis Clanton Revlon, Legendary David Harvin Revlon, Icon Kyan M Elsey DuMure-Versailles, Legendary Summer Brittney Aphrodite, and Legendary Ugene Success Brown Basquiat. Additionally, ballroom leaders deemed several community members as “Icons,” a high-status designation in ballroom.

Hosted in one of Baltimore’s most pristine, elaborate, and previously, private spaces, Baltimore’s Ballroom communities came together to “read” the room, celebrate this historic art form unique to LGBTQ+ communities, and to compete for awards. Each dancer was free to tell their story, to express femininity and masculinity through elaborate moves, clothing, and expression and as such, received warm and enthusiastic support from the audience, judges, community leadership, and JHU.

“When I walked into the George Peabody Library, with its dramatic atrium and cast iron balconies, it just seemed to cry out for ballroom performance,” says Dr. Joseph Plaster, of his motivation for creating this collaboration. He moved to Baltimore in 2018 for a curatorial position at the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. “My job is to conduct original research at the university’s museums and libraries and interpret the collections for the public in ways that surface marginalized histories. I decided to partner with artists in the ballroom community to interpret the Peabody Library collections.”

Plaster continues, “It seemed like an incongruous match at first: most of the library books were acquired by Baltimore’s white male elite in the late 1800s and reflect their interests. But one of the most powerful things about ballroom culture is its ability to adopt elements of mainstream culture—even those elements that are built on unjust privilege—and reinterpret them as something beautiful and life-affirming for the queer people of color who make up the community. Academics might call this ‘queer performativity’ or ‘disidentification.’”

Captured in photos by Saskia Kahn, the April 15, 2023 performance offers an opportunity to “read” the room: JHU’s Peabody Ballroom Experience is a new model for our most powerful institutions to respect, support, and hospitably host creative communities that have historically thrived with very few resources. The library is now officially open as a place for diverse cultures to thrive.

 

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