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.
'Girl, I don't want to show you my meat. I just want to rest my balls on your chin!'
It's backstage at the Kombat, a kiki ball in the Bronx Pride Center, and teens have taken over Ryan White/Twiggy's office to change. As they tuck and primp, the speed of their verbal wit would put any tweeter (or even a conventional drag queen) to shame.
Admission is only $2, but it's waived for those willing to get tested for HIV. Hours before any actual walking starts, social worker Sage Rivera (also known as Vivike W. Miyake of the House of Mugler) has already tested half a dozen kids.
Though the event will run late for a weeknight, many of these kids are not in school anyway, and several are already working as escorts. For the center, the goal seems to be keeping them out of harm's way for one evening, introducing them to available resources, and giving them a chance to feel beautiful for a moment on the runway -- despite what anyone else may be telling them.
Dashawn Wesley is a 'vogue femme dramatic' walker, who's become one of the most popular commentators working the ballroom scene. His Barry White'like voice blends perfectly with the excessive bass of ball beats, and his commentary lends an air of gravitas to kiki functions. He's also an HIV health educator and makes the most of promoting safe play while working the mic.
Once the walking starts, the show is definitely not 'a shade-free zone.' The ruthlessness with which these girls give face -- not just to each other, but to the judges -- makes the balls in Paris look like as quaint and outdated a portrayal of black urban life as The Cosby Show.
About 100 spectators are squeezed into the hall, huddled tightly around the makeshift runway. The ball starts with a 'hotwear footwear' shoe modeling competition, followed by 'schoolboy realness.' When a nerdy-yet-thuggy kid whips out his student ID card and shoves it at the judges' table, it brings down the house.
With every spin and dip, the audience screams 'Aww!' and leans in so close to the falling, flailing dancer, it's amazing no one loses an eye. The young Biggie Smalls from Pony's class seems unconscious of everything except the joy he feels on his virgin walk. Jenovia, the more experienced student, is one of the breakout stars of the night. She's very feminine in her hair and face, but she has a hard time staying in her small top, which keeps shimmying off to reveal her very male chest.
When things don't go their way, some queens start throwing serious shade and getting in the judges' faces. It's obvious that Dashawn and Twiggy have lost control of the room when one blue-painted queen refuses to stop screaming or get off the walk when the judges rule against her.
But it's the thrilling defiance some queens display that may enable them to compete in the real ballroom scene someday (and maybe even to survive real life). Through giving face and refusing to flinch, they embody that timeless, unspoken command of ballroom walkers throughout history, expressed by those who've been ignored everywhere else but on the runway: Look. At. Me.