“Do you speak the language of cunt?” – Iconic Commentator Kevin JZ Prodigy
To date, the ballroom scene is experiencing its spotlight in entertainment through a culmination of pop culture events. The television drama Pose, which premiered on FX in 2018, dramatized the ballroom scene in New York in the 1980s and 1990s and two years later, Legendary premiered on HBO. Both shows ran three seasons, and shortly after in the summer of 2022, Beyonce released the album Renaissance, which contained many odes to ballroom culture. Ballroom culture has made its way into the homes of cis-heterosexuals and LGBTQAI+ communities alike, similar to when Madonna released her single ‘Vogue’ in 1990. Not only have the performative aspects of ballroom been spectacularized through visual media (i.e. television, Instagram, YouTube), but the sounds of ballroom have also been regarded as a site of cultural significance amongst mainstream, musical artists like FKA Twigs and Megan Thee Stallion (also a judge on HBO’s Legendary). Recent projects by these artists have been creatively influenced by their encounters with ballroom culture, from the consumption of ballroom’s visual objects to its soundscapes. In this essay, I (very) briefly historicize and theorize ballroom sonic productions beyond their circulation in the current cultural-capitalist complex.
One of the key components of ballroom sound that specifically accompanies the different variations of the vogue house genre is the aesthetic of chaos. A staple ballroom track for producers around the globe is “The Ha Dance” (released in 2000) by house musicians “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, both from New York City and both unaffiliated with the ballroom scene at the time. Chicago is often considered the birthplace of house music, but garage house, which is mostly associated with New York City and other east coast regions of the United States, developed alongside Chicago House. I would liken the sound of “The Ha Dance”, though, to Chicago House music. Chicago House is characterized by sensual, sonic attachments: the bass is warm and envelops you upon encounter; it is polyrhythmic and steady within the parameters of the recording; and sampling is a critical element as well. These rhythms and patterns are fixed for the purposes of producing a commercial track and performing to said track allowing for other samples to be introduced, and in this context, specifically making way for the “HA!”.
The sound of vogue house, or ballroom beats, certainly resonates with the original house genres, but its hastened tempo (at about or around 130 beats per minute [BPM]), lyricism, and the inclusion and tonal manipulation of crashes, the sonic interplay of presence and absence that culminates into a thunderous amalgamation of high-pitched instruments or vocalizations every fourth count of a beat, signify its departure. This fundamentally included the vocalizations and commentating of pioneers like Kevin JZ Prodigy and Kevin Aviance who were both actively walking balls while producing music. The productions of prominent DJs Mike Q and Vjuan Allure were also instrumental to the development of ballroom beats in the early 2000s and onwards. The synth sirens on “The Ha Dance” are sampled from the 1989 record “Kaos” by Danish production collective, Dr. Baker, who had been making music since 1989 or earlier. The “HA!”, arguably one of the most important features of any vogue track, is sampled from the film Trading Places (1983), specifically referencing a scene in which characters Billy Ray Valentine (played by Eddie Murphy) and Louis Winthrope III (played by Dan Ackroyd) respectively pose as an “African exchange student” and a “Jamaican man,” and are making jumbled noises while having a conversation in their overexaggerated, poorly executed accents. Winthrope, who is white, is in proper blackface during this enactment, but aside from the distasteful minstrelsy, what I think is most interesting about the scene is how it references blackness in the context of modern cultural production. Winthrope tries to mimic the exaggerated “African” accent of Valentine, and from this attempted mimicry, the chaotic burst of sounds produce a rhythmic incoherence. Blackness is articulated as muddied and incomprehensible in the process of cultural appropriation, which Winthrope can easily access through the Western imaginary. Here, I am considering the work of philosopher Calvin Warren who makes the assertion, in a chapter from his book Ontological Terror entitled “The Question of Black Being,” that blackness necessarily functions as nonsensical in modernity. Warren writes, “Being curses black being by creating an entity unintelligible within the field of ontology” [strikethrough in original]. If language and dialectics are one of many modes of ontological accessibility, then the failure of discourse performed in the feature might suggest how blackness functions for the West. The producers repurpose this racialized scene of unintelligibility to produce an aesthetic object that no longer becomes recognized as such, but is indebted to blackness. Theorist Alexander Wehilye asserts that blackness is inextricable to modernity and that to talk about modernity (and sound as a product of modernity) is always already to talk about blackness. The final product of the clashing monologues in Trading Places is then repurposed, and introduced into an audio-ecosystem of house music.
To further trace the genealogy of “The Ha Dance,” we must attend to the work of producer and performer Kevin Aviance also affiliated with the House of Aviance, one of the pioneering houses of the scene. Kevin Aviance (KA) released the track “Cunty” in 1996, and it was sensationalized amongst the LGBTQ+ community in New York City and beyond. This track was released before Vega and Gonzalez’s “The Ha Dance,” and it almost certainly serves as the referential track for the producers. The song does not have a “HA!” on every fourth count (which is a staple structure of vogue beats), but KA arranges the instruments in a way that leads up to an explosive burst of sounds and instruments that stand in for that critical moment, and the chanting of “cunty” is what takes us there. The arrangements of treble, bass, distorted samples, tonal manipulations all surround each iteration of “cunty” to lift it up, break it down, to deform and dismiss it, dissolving the notion of a locatable form or attachment. The music video accompanying the song is a montage of KA staging multiple attempts to realize cunty’s form. He stretches his arms out to a daisy in one scene, and in another, an orchid superimposed on KA’s body is blended into the contours of his torso, and elements of his carta (a term in ballroom referring to one’s face)—cheekbones and nose. The image is processed in this classic iMovie-esque, sepia toned filter making him appear to possess wings as certain colors melt into one another. These moments of collaging and collapsing flesh and flower represent a longing for what the forms of the orchid or the lily or the rose possess that KA desires. These images correspond to the lyrics, “Feeling like a daisy, Feeling like a lily, Feeling like a rose, Feeling like an ORCHID! Feeling, Feeling, Feeling, Feeling . . .” Nature has already been granted its rightful place, she has been properly secured in modernity’s schemas of being unlike the Other, the Other that is black, and consequently, ungendered. KA’s desire towards cunty, of perpetual longing for the impossibility of a particular securement, blooms into an aesthetic of chaos. The chaos of the sonic provides a mode through which these instabilities are evidenced rather than subverted; and thus, what these crashes do is articulate the ontological crisis that is constantly being performed. Kevin JZ Prodigy’s question that is quoted at the beginning of this essay, “Do you speak the language of cunt?” is a necessary one, but an impossible one.
There is much to be said about the sounds situated in the ballroom scene that cannot be addressed within the parameters of this essay. And of course, it is crucial for me to state that the organizers of the scene have always been clear about the primary purpose of ballroom from its conception as providing a safe and celebratory space for mostly black and brown LGBTQ+ communities at risk of experiencing deadly violence at any given moment in the United States and abroad. From this preface, the intention of my engagement is to highlight how aesthetics can attend to these violences even as they are endured through gorgeously beautiful modes of production, and to trouble the appropriation of ballroom’s cultural objects (often by those who are not participants in the scene) which repeatedly require the superficial circumvention of the very issues the scene mobilized itself around including anti-blackness, transphobia, and homophobia. To sit with the sound and all its glory is to sit with the chaos that persists.permission.