The night is warm and the lights are bright. It’s loud in Leederville as people flock to the YMCA HQ building to laugh, dance, catch-up and ‘kiki’ (kick back) together. This is not the scene we know from the movie Strictly Ballroom, it’s not about the waltz and the foxtrot. Blaring music, flashing lights and warm welcomes are key features of this new-to-Perth Ballroom scene.
Many people involved in Ballroom flock to groups that are known as “Houses”. Houses are like families chosen outside of the families and communities that people originally belong to. While there’s not that many Ballroom Houses in Perth, one of the most notable is the House of Reign – parented by house mother Santana Diamond and house father Toru Tomokino.
At the YMCA you can tell they’re all friends by the way they greet each other, smiling, chatting and excited. Everyone is both eager to learn and teach. At the core of this culture is kinship as people come together to appreciate the art of Ballroom. While its reign is new to Australia, there’s no doubt this display of queer excellence is deliciously camp.
Free agents in the scene are called 007s – performers who do not belong to a House. But they are warmly welcomed at events like this big night in Leederville.
Among the crowd are pioneers of the Perth Ballroom scene. Competitive energy swells in the air. House mothers and fathers sit along the back, ready to judge the different categories participants will “walk” in: A bit like models on a catwalk, and a bit like boxers presenting for a pre-fight weigh-in. But here there’s no fighting. Only love.
The ‘hands’ category is up first – an enticing display of choreography where performers stay seated for the duration of the performance, using their arms and hands to tell a story. The ‘realness’, ‘face’, and ‘body’ categories soon follow.
While it looks like a competition all about beauty, performance and style. Tomokino says: “Ballroom, at its core, is all about survival.” He says that at its heart Ballroom is about affirming people in marginalised communities who need to put a lot of thought into the way they present.
“Ballroom, at its core, is all about survival.”Toru Tomokino
He says his role within the House of Reign is about the background noise of the community. “I’m like the dance mum who’s trying to do everything behind the scenes and make sure her children are looking good for the stage,” he laughs.
Alongside Tomokino is Diamond, the pioneer of the Ballroom scene in Perth. “In the house we have parents – so Santana is the trailblazer of the scene, she’s the mother of the House – we’re essentially parental figures,” Tomokino explains.
What really started the Ballroom culture in Perth was Diamond’s reign. It began with the organisation of a Renaissance Ball in 2022. The Ball brought members of the House of Alexander from Brisbane (Meanjin) to Perth (Booloo). The House of Alexander, is parented by community leader Joshua Taliani and trans performer Ella Ganza.
The Ball also introduced many other members of the Perth LGBTIQ+ community to Ballroom culture. As the national Ballroom scene has been growing, members of Perth have also travelled interstate to compete and kiki.
Tomokino says Ballroom culture is more than a competition, it’s a lifestyle. It is a subset of queer culture with its own language, style, dances and events. If it’s hard to distinguish from queer culture more generally, Tomokino says that’s because elements of it have been appropriated by the broader scene. He describes Ballroom as a marginalised culture within a marginalised group.
The relationship between Ballroom and the broader queer scene has flash points, triggered by things like Ballroom terminology being adopted and adapted. Giving an example, Tomokino says the term femme queens, which is used to describe trans women in Ballroom, has been thrown around in the broader culture and used to describe feminine drag queens.
Ballroom as it is known today, is often said to have been founded in the ’70s in the United States when Black drag queens Crystal LaBeija and Lottie founded the House of LaBeija and started a drag ball event. Fed up with being judged on European beauty standards in other drag balls, they paved their own way. Other tellings of the history, however, trace it back further to to 1920s Ballroom culture in New York City, saying that during the Harlem Renaissance, it created a safe space for queer people of colour.
Kiki balls and kiki houses are less competitive elements of the Ballroom scene. They’re a place for catching up, meeting new people, and competing in different categories for recognition from other performers. The kiki scene was created to allow queer youth to have a more economically accessible and inclusive space.
Australia saw the rise of Ballroom culture in 2018 when trans artist, and mother of the House of Slé, Behinja Ra organised the first Ballroom event in Australia, the Sissy Ball. The idea caught on and the scene started to flourish throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Ballroom is not only a blueprint when it comes to inclusive, functional queer spaces, Ballroom people say aspects of their culture have been adopted by not only the broader queer community, but by society more broadly through changing perceptions of what is beautiful. According to Tomokino, a lot of the plastic surgery beauty enhancements, that are now popular in main stream society, have long been essentials for trans women who are often targeted and attacked if they are deemed to be not feminine enough.
Violence against trans women and men in Australia is not a new phenomenon. Trans women are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment than other women. A 2020 study from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety found trans women from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds to be twice as likely as other groups of women to report having been sexually assaulted ten or more times.
Eligibility to enter some of the categories in Ballroom depends on the demographic of the participants. Some categories, like ‘realness’, are exclusive to trans people. Realness in this context means, how well they can pass as being the gender they identify as. The category exists to help trans men and women learn to better pass in society. While other categories are open to all such as voguing (yes, like Madonna did when she borrowed from Ballroom), hands, and body.
The host of this Boorloo kiki, Maria Bravo, talks about her experience in the Ballroom scene and how it has helped her: “I went to a workshop with Iestyn, my best friend. She was doing the realness category.
“She had just recently come out as trans, and we just needed to find an environment for both of us that was queer and full of people of colour. So, we went to a workshop then we went to a kiki and I won the ‘face’ category on my first try,” she smiles.
The face category highlights the natural beauty of the performer’s face. Judges take a close look at teeth, lips, eyes, nose, and facial structure. Hand gestures and poses are often used to enhance and frame the face.
Bravo explains that main point of kikis is to help trans women. She adds that this isn’t a strict hierarchy, but that everyone involved acknowledges that this culture “is made for trans women of colour and then under that it’s queer people of colour.”
“Just ensuring that we can talk about that and acknowledging the history and ensuring others understand it is important, and acknowledging the fact that we are on Whadjuk Noongar country as well.”
Dior Partridge, a member of the House of Dynasty, agrees and says that understanding the point of Ballroom is crucial. To queer and trans people, it’s far more than just a trend or dance. He says people who are just in it because they like the trend or like the dance are not helping the people Ballroom was made to support.
While still only small, Ballroom in Australia and New Zealand is working to help trans and queer people today by encouraging understanding of the history of the rights movements and the stories of the pioneers of the scene, who have promoted recognition of the beauty and significance of trans people.
Tomokino also talks about the importance of knowing the rules of Ballroom culture. “If you want to participate, know which category is for you and which isn’t. This community is built for trans people, queer people and people of colour. Its significance isn’t going away anytime soon.
“And at the end of the day, we’re still gonna kiki.”
Catwalk attitude. Photo: Stephanie Jacob