Paris is 'Still' Burning

5.22.2011

By Steven Thrasher

More than 20 years after the film was released, the Bronx's drag ball scene continues to thrive as a home for queer culture in an otherwise hostile world.

The House of Xtravaganza lives up to its name. There are some 400 or so 'houses' in the ballroom scene. Each one (Allure, Garcon, Mugler, LaBeija) revolves around a personality or lifestyle, its membership part 'gay street gang,' part family. Houses compete as teams in balls, celebrate holidays together, and sometimes even live communally.

Xtravaganza is among the oldest and most infamous. It was the first Hispanic house in an otherwise black scene when founded more than 30 years ago. As legend has it, Xtravaganzas taught Madonna how to vogue. (These would be fighting words to the House of Ninja, who claim Willi Ninja gets that credit.)

Xtravaganza is the most common last name in the onscreen credits of Paris Is Burning. A generation later, the house is doing well, despite the fact that few members from that era are still alive. The Bronx kids in the kiki scene, who dream of doing something with their lives via ballroom, might do well to strive for Xtravagance.

'We want people to take what they do in the ballroom scene and do it to the world,' says Raul Xtravaganza, a professional makeup artist who walks 'realness.' Among their members are professional models, dancers, and a Cartier executive. No Xtravaganza appears to be struggling financially, if you judge them by their bling. Anthony Xtravaganza -- the house's first black member -- recalls the days 'when we were all snorting coke through hundred dollar bills.' He's now a public school teacher -- not rich, but certainly not homeless.

On a recent Friday night, the house rented a midtown studio for a meeting. They discussed plans to travel to Europe for a ball and to march as a family in the AIDS Walk. Even out of drag, they were dressed to the nines for their powwow. When it finished, they rolled the short distance to Splash Bar in members' own luxury cars and proceeded to take over the lower level.

Wherever they go, the feeling of family is palpable. Sonia Xtravaganza has been a member since the early '90s, even though she doesn't really walk herself. 'I was a single mother of two boys,' she says, 'and all these gay men were there for me, helping me raise my kids, even when my own family was not.'

 

VIEW THE SLIDESHOW FOR MORE IMAGES FROM KEVIN AMATO'S BALLROOM SHOOT.

La familia extends even to straight guys. 'When they recruited me, I told them I wasn't gay, and they said, 'That's cool, we just want you to hang with us,'" says Jungi Xtravaganza, a buff dancer who was performing when he was propositioned. He's only walked once -- 'sex siren, so I could say I had done it' -- but he's proudly Xtravagant.

'What people don't understand is that, in the absence of my own family, this fills that need,' he says. 'These people are my family.'

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