As her friends chatter excitedly outside Tel Aviv’s Alphabet Club, Gaya Huller is looking serious. With the mentality of an Olympic athlete, the 17-year-old — sporting twin French braids and dark lipstick— is here to dance and compete in the club’s first-ever ball.
Balls are competitions that pit performers in head-to-head clashes for trophies. The emcee presents a category and participants, who run the spectrum from trained dancers to Club Kids, walk the club’s floor as spectators look on from the sides: The performer who best exemplifies the category’s essence to this panel of three judges wins.
At every ball’s core is vogueing, a dance style born from runway poses, and which broke into the mainstream with Madonna’s 1990 music video for “Vogue.”
“Vogueing is a lifestyle; it’s a way to express yourself,” explains one of the organizers, Arian Findel, 21. A dancer who took her first vogueing class at 15, she credits the scene for pulling her out of an unstable background. “For outcasts, for people who’ve experienced hardship and prejudice, it offers them a stage. It’s a way of finding a family,” she says.
The ball scene in its current form emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century from New York’s LGBT counterculture and has served as a haven for the community’s most marginalized — particularly black and Latinx gay and transgender people. Young upstarts, often rejected by their societies and families alike, found a home in ball veterans, who took them under their wings as mothers. These mothers and their “houses” competed against each other for titles, building communities, chosen families and a crucial culture of acceptance along the way.
“This whole thing came out of what it means to be a transgender black woman in the ’80s,” says fashion designer Hanna Hamam, 26, who is also the event’s second organizer. “And in 2019, unfortunately, this prejudice still exists — especially toward transgender women and men, and the whole LGBT community. So for us it was clear that we needed a space for this.”
As an Arab, Hanna has experienced prejudice, offering the example of trying to find an apartment in Tel Aviv with an Arab name. “But that’s nothing compared to what the trans community goes through. It’s horrific,” Hanna says, and it’s taken for granted that they will experience violence.
This event is an opportunity to build a space where they are not only accepted, but welcomed and embraced for bringing their whole selves.
Not gay, queer
In gay-friendly Tel Aviv, it may seem odd that this would be an unfilled niche.
“Tel Aviv is very gay, but it’s not very queer,” says the event’s master of ceremonies, who prefers to give Haaretz only his ball name: Lotus 007. A recent arrival from the United States, Lotus got his start walking in Brooklyn balls last year — with a particular affinity for the runway category (where competitors take turns rhythmically pounding the catwalk). “The ballroom culture challenges you to accept your queerness,” he says.
The difference between gay and queer, Lotus says, goes beyond sexuality: “As much as I love this country, it has a masculinity complex — as does much of the Middle East,” he smiles. Queerness, he says, “is about embracing being an exception to the norm. I think there’s a fear of femininity … masculinity is placed on a pedestal in our society — and the gay community is no exception. There’s not much room or acceptance for trans women, for feminine gay men or validation for feminine lesbians. We’re here to shake things up.”
Inside, the energy is significantly different from Tel Aviv’s gay club scene. Instead of a sea of shirtless, chiseled men, femininity dominates both on the narrow performance floor and the packed sidelines. The club’s intimate inner space is crowded with androgynous teens and twenty-somethings. When asked their pronouns, some specify that they be referred to as “she/her” or “he/him,” but most add that they have no preference — including the heavily pierced and tattooed Hanna, who is sporting a long tartan skirt.
Young people mill about in glitter, makeup and midriff-baring attire, and trans and cisgender performers alike are eager to showcase their moves and, in the face category, the natural beauty of their mugs.
And while the movements are charged, they’re not sexual. Elegance and grace dominate, and Lotus “chops” — disqualifies — the raunchy and campy.
It’s a stark departure from the drag show that preceded the event in the club’s bar area. Although they share a common denominator of gender-bending, Arian says, drag and ball culture are two separate, disconnected entities.
Gaya, the teenager who came here to compete, has been taking vogueing classes with one of the event’s judges. “We came because we need to elevate the scene,” she says, complaining that “people aren’t educated here” about ball culture. “They saw ‘[RuPaul’s] Drag Race,’ but they don’t get it. We need a real ball scene, with performers and houses.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the hit VH1 show that features at least one ball-themed challenge each season, has catapulted ball culture into the public eye. So has “Pose,” the FX drama series about competing houses in ’80s New York as they struggle with transphobia, racism, AIDS and taking home the trophy.
Netflix also recently added “Paris is Burning,” the definitive 1990 documentary on the ball scene, and which has served as a primer on the subculture for a generation.
Lotus, who emcees in English, calls performers onto the runway one by one, and his cries of “Tens, tens, tens across the board!” are familiar to anyone who has seen any of the abovementioned shows. He’s a firm arbitrator, but not as acerbic as emcee Pray Tell (played by Billy Porter) on “Pose”: Almost all the competitors are walking for their first time tonight, and he’s not intent on crushing any spirits.
All the participants are euphoric, even those who don’t win their round. “I knew I had to compete!” says Dorin, a 25-year-old who made good progress in the face category, showing her impossibly high cheekbones and pearly teeth to the judges. “Everyone tells me I look like Angel from ‘Pose,’” she adds, referencing the character played by transgender model Indya Moore (for whom she is indeed a dead ringer).
Arian herself discovered vogueing a decade ago while watching “Drag Race” at age 11, and credits the public’s growing willingness to accept gay culture for the current boom.
Hanna is more cynical, expressing concerns about the effect of “Pose” and warning that “When an underground culture blows up, it becomes superficial.” The hope is that this ball’s authenticity — no new categories, just homages to the “Paris is Burning” classics — will be its saving grace.
On the floor, the vogueing competition is in full force. Lifelong dancers and club kids drop to the ground, kick over each other’s heads, switching their poses with each beat. When Lotus calls “Hold the pose!” the three judges point to the competitor they want to send to the next round.
“Old way versus new way! Old way versus new way,” Lotus repeats into the microphone, as Gaya faces off against a dancer with a more classical vogueing style. As the other woman frames her face, Gaya looks like she is about to pop her arms out of their sockets, contorting her body with each beat. After a lengthy deliberation, Lotus calls out “New way, you win this!”
After beating out two more competitors, Gaya eventually takes the grand prize. She is surrounded by adoring fans, tears in her eyes, clutching her trophy. Strangers gather to congratulate her and crowds move onto the other competitors, introducing themselves and saluting their courage to walk.
As the club clears at 1:30 A.M., Arian and Hanna are overwhelmed. They watch as attendees mingle outside, making friends, promising to come back for next month’s ball. Everything is starting to come together. There are no houses yet, but the foundation has been laid.