Keeping Gates Open-
Building Ballroom Culture in Singapore
Notes from the session
Kasicunt house is a kiki house which is a slightly less formal house system, there are major houses and there are kiki houses. 007 is what we use for people who don’t have a major house yet.
This topic is really about our scene coming together, we see this big rise of ballroom culture globally. When I open tiktok, there are kids voguing down, which is amazing to see. So what are the things that excite you about, where the sg ballroom scene is at right now?
What really excites me is the fact that we have so much potential. It's really refreshing to see how we can grow. The more we keep pushing, the bigger and better we will become. Sometimes in the bigger scene everything is set in stone. that’s not the case for Singapore
So you’re saying that it’s still the early stage, that we can all define together.
The recognition that we get from our people. For example, recently we got featured in Female magazine. Also how the community is growing, how everyone is feeling comfortable to be in our space. The most important thing is how we are always there for each other, making sure that everyone is not being left out. ballroom makes us one, and a little bit closer to each other.
In what way? I’m curious to hear more about that.
Whenever there is someone in need, I feel that ballroom pushes us to always help that person.
Yeah. Help comes in many forms right. Say if you run out of glue, or someone needs help with their zipper. There’s also a broader house system within the traditional ballroom scene. If you have seen Paris is burning, that’s kind of where that evolved from, where the most ostracised members of the queer communities, often minorities or people of colour, they really created this separate ballroom scene and started their own house system because they felt that they needed a safe space. So I think that’s what ballroom is really founded upon.
A lot of ppl in the scene didn’t really want to show themselves, im glad that the Singapore ballroom scene made them confident in themselves. In the recent Kasicunt ball, there are a lot of new faces. I’m super shocked by how they have improved in their own way, and they show it in the categories they join.
10-15 years ago, when some of us tried to follow the moves, copy them from the youtube, it was so unsafe for us to just go to the esplanade and vogue out. I felt uncomfortable. I have to mention Izzy (?), and his team voguelicious (?), even though at that time they had no idea what the ballroom scene is about, they were doing things that were essentially queer, flamboyant, ultrafeminine,and that made a lot of people walking past extremely uncomfortable. Now what I’m excited about is that it’s a lot safer here to express ourselves in public. A lot of exciting things can happen in terms of creation, in terms of even inspiring ppl outside of the bubble. They are like oh, there’s this group of people doing things that make them feel good about themselves. Ppl come to us and be like what is this. Now we can do it safely without people judging us. For us we just keep doing it. Now we see us atthe toddler stage, we are done with the baby phase. The best thing about this stage is that you can try as many categories u want without being judged. Because once we reach the stage where internationally sg is out there, u have to be cautious. I’m this, and I should focus on this. And now because we are young, we encourage everyone to join as many categories as they want. Yes, you may get chopped, but it doesn't matter. It’s the experience that matters.
Ballroom’s really interesting in that way. In that way, it’s a v American export, there are very clearly defined categories, it has a competitive aspect, but it is also about celebrating your individuality. As a scene we are navigating now, as you bring the scene here, what does that structure look like? Do we want to take from the root culture or do we wanna kind of figure out our own way? In ballroom u typically choose one or two specialisations to work in. There are many different categories. There is realness that looks at passing as cishet, there is also voguing, movement, which has 3 sub-categories: old wave, new wave, vogue femme. And runway, which is really pulled from the 90s runway with all the supermodels. In the more western context it’s more specialised and ppl choose to excel in one category. Now we are kind of a young scene, people can experiment and choose from a lot of paints and pallets, figure out who they are and what they wanna look at.
It's also cool that we have dancers from other scenes coming in and bringing their own influences.
What do you think we can learn from voguing in other parts of the room and how can we adapt those to the Singapore scene?
Taking Japan, Taiwan and Germany as examples. What I like about Japan is that they are very efficient and on time. We say 7pm, we gonna start at 7pm. I think personally I just value people’s time. I learn a lot from the way they organise their balls. They are specific about their categories, everything is planned out very thoroughly. I learned a lot from the Japanese balls. In Taiwan they are very dance centric, I think it’s not about what I can learn, it’s also about what I can not learn from. They are so good at their voguing categories that a lot of the time they don’t emphasise on the other categories. What I feel is that ballroom is inclusive, because it’s not just about voguing there's runway, realness, the fashion categories like bizarre, bazaar (?), best dressed, etc.. They are so hyperfocused on their dance which makes their dance amazing. Taiwan is a great place to travel to, which makes it a great place if you want to push your voguing to the next level. Germany on the other hand, it’s very open in terms of how you present yourself. I think it’s a very European culture, you can dance and suddenly things are flashing around, and people are like it’s okay, it’s just body, you know. And the openness of how you interpret the categories. That’s something we as Singaporeans are very careful, because we don’t want to appropriate the culture. What I’ve learned from the German ball is that we gotta find out our own identity and try to put "us" in that category. Because that is the only way we can stand out amongst great community members.
What about the German scene?
My impressions: they are really passionate about ballroom and making it a safe space for queer youths. They are really really organised. They really go out of their way to reach out and bring ppl in. they are really open in the sense that they don’t question your identity. They ask more what you are bringing to the table in terms of the category. I think we can learn from that because yeah, we don’t need to question each others’ identity like that. We can work together and create a community. Because we are all passionate about ballroom.
What inspires me the most about the German community is that ballroom essentially comes from New York and it’s very binary. The fact that there is a nonbinary category in Germany inspires me as a ballroom maker here to consider it very highly. Because we are very used to the masculine, the feminine, we don’t think abt the "in between". There's the male, female figure in sex siren, but we don’t think abt the in between, why not catboy? Why not non-binary category? I hope to incorporate that in the local scene.
You mentioned that ballroom provides a safe space for queer youths, what does that look like in practical terms?
When it started we were literally training in basements. We put everything together so that we can have this space. That was essential. There were people from major kiki houses who were there to teach. The fact that the space existed in itself and there were people to teach and nurture. That really created a space to grow.
From voguing in the bedroom to doing balls, what excites you as a house parent?
What im most excited about for this kiki house is that the kids are not just comfortable here, but internationally they will be comfortable to meet people from other countries and have interactions with them. Maybe the house can expand internationally too. What I most look forward to for the house to attend more balls.
Have you ever had a conversation where you had to sit someone down and say, hey this is not the way, I want to share my perspectives on that because I want us to develop the right way?
There are instances where there is a lot of confusion about the ballroom community. Most obvious is that they feel intimidated. And for that I have to share my experience. I have to share out there that this ballroom community is not like that. I would ask them to join us for our sessions, maybe workshops to understand better. It is kind of a difficult journey that I had to tell them what they did is wrong. I had to learn the different approach to tell them that you cannot do it in that way, because some of them may take it too personally. I have to calm them down, or my children have to calm them down. I think that is the scariest part for me. Because I’m part of the reason the kiki scene is growing here, I want it to be right and sometimes its very pressurising on me. But I’m glad to push myself further, and make it right and make it a comfortable space for everyone to join our community and have fun.
It is a big responsibility to be a house parent. How can we – is ballroom open under certain conditions, how can we make sure it stays accessible, what is the ideal of a great scene to you?
By you approaching any of the ballroom community and just learning, understand the community and getting close to the community. Sometimes you don’t have to walk a ball to be part of a community. The way you contribute to the community in a musical event. Sharing knowledge. Is already a contribution that you are a part of the community.
Regarding vogue as a dance, we do need to gatekeep it in a way. Vogue by now is a cultural dance, just like chinese dance and Indian dance, you don’t anyhow do, you learn from ppl who know how. Nogueing is voguing without knowledge. When someone from the community reaches out to someone who is nogueing, it’s from a place of frustration but it’s also to teach you, also it’s an invitation. We are here to push our community but sometimes people from the outside also have to be reciprocating to that.
I think there is always that tension. Because ballroom comes from the most vulnerable parts of the queer community, from Harlem, New York, if you watch Paris is Burning. It comes from a very vulnerable place that transforms itself into strength. Custodians of that tradition is very protective because of that reason, wants to make sure it continues on in the right way, especially as we see it exploding globally now.
To add on, why it's very intimidating to a lot of people is…nature of a ball is that, if everyone dances other dances, if you didn't get through past preliminaries they just don’t announce your name. But in a ball if you get chopped, everybody knows you got chopped. That is something we have to get used to. Be Thick-skinned, just go for it, learn our lesson, get better. A few years ago there was this joke, but I take it very seriously now. It said that nobody in Singapore should teach voguing unless they won a grand prize in New York’s major ball. What that entails is that a) for all of us to train hard, and b) for an open opportunity for everyone to penetrate into the scene. We are very open and we want to spread this culture as much as possible. Don’t feel intimidated at all. Yes we are very fierce when we battle but that is beside the point.
In one sentence each, what does the ideal ballroom scene look like to you?
We may look exclusive but we are inclusive.
A space where we come together to push ourselves as queer ppl, to nurture each other.
I think that I would like to see more ppl just come to us and just learn and just be comfortable with the ballroom community in sg.
So opening doors, making each other better, pushing ourselves, keeping a certain standard while still being open to new people coming in.
I've had the privilege of going to balls in Manchester, New York, london and vienna before. As ballroom internationalises, we start to see divergence of what the ballroom can be. There’s a big discussion happening in the ballroom scene now regarding how much the custodianship needs to stay, how much innovation can be done in ballroom. There’s a house that is mainly made up of Southeast Asian dancers, they bring a lot of their dance moves into, when they are walking the catwalk. From your perspective, how do you negotiate that, how much of ballroom is, how much can people accuse people of appropriating what is a kind of dance that comes from a very specific time and space, a specific culture, how much can that be interpreted in the contemporary place in sg?
Vogue is both your personal flavour as well as a training of techniques. A lot of times when we see people nogueing it is purely because that the techniques are not there. But all of us individuals when we vogue we always add elements of ourselves and our culture. I think there is a lot of spaces actually very open to interpretation. But you need to have your ground work, your foundation, then you can really explore your own essence of voguing.
You have to understand the essence of your category. Old wave- inspired by old magazines, models, martial arts. New wave – contortions. Vogue femme – five elements that came from trans women, the femininity. For example New Wave is about lines and position, adding your own culture. Once u understand the basic, u can play with the fingers. If u do the Vogue Femme, u learn some Chinese bellton (?). Learn the basics and then you can incorporate your essence to it. The most important is understanding how it is – for example old wave always poses from magazines. That idea already creates so many things. Pop dip and spin, how can you create your own way of popping, dipping and spinning. There are basics but you can always add to it and create your own way of doing. Understand the basics, then you can play around.
It's about understanding the categories and the elements of each category. If you understand the history or the culture behind that category, when you do it, we can see that you understand them. We know that some people do it because they like the category, but they don’t really learn the essence or the elements of it. I think it’s important to go back to the roots of that category. Nowadays vogue femme is really huge. Five elements. It comes from trans women. You have to understand the five elements, and why it is that five elements.
Even in the ballroom femme queens have had to fight hard for themselves to do what they do. At the start there was a lot of push back in the community, to say what is this? This is not the way that we know. New Wave technically is an older way now. In any arts scene it's important to be cognisant of the wider dynamics as well. For example if there is a category that’s runway, and I as a cis Chinese woman decides to walk in a sari or something, I don’t think that’s on either. You have to be conscious of the privileges you carry in and outside of the ballroom. It's important for neither thing to be in a silo.
How do we evolve? Honestly as Asians we are very polite, we wait for the americans to do it first. We wait for them to create new categories. That’s how we show respect to the original community. Hair weave category, for example. Some people ask their international mothers and fathers, can we do this category? And if they say why not, go for it, then they will do it. If they say no, then it’s a no go. That’s a limitation. I’m sure in 10 years time, you will see tons of other categories you’ve never heard before.
Inclusivity, being a supportive space. Being very expressive. Do you think being involved, being active in the comm is dependent on how extroverted or introverted a person is? Do you think it’s more accessible to people who are more extroverted or it’s inclusive to people who are introvert too?
Members of the ballroom scene who consider yourselves introverts, raise your hand… 4! I guess it does take a lot for the introverts.
It’s not really the question of whether you are introverted or extroverted. It's more the question of, when u are on the floor, are you that bitch, can you give that? It’s the deep personal inner confidence that really shows when you walk a ball, when you dance, or when you practice as well.
I think as an introvert the word I can give you is self-love.
That’s why you have the community there cheering you on. That’s why there are the commentators. There's community who will hype you up. Its ok if u are an introvert, its ok if it will take time to show yourself on the floor. But never give up, keep on practising. For me I keep watching ball videos. When I look at them, I just feel very skdjksjdksj. That’s how I get confidence.
Showiness and performance. Does being more showy in your category guarantee you a win? It comes down to a lot of things. Performance is subjective. In a ball the judge gives a decision, sometimes the house does not agree, or the (inaudible) does not agree. That’s just part and parcel of the scene. Do I have to vogue loudly, vogue big, do I have to have the most extravagant outfits? For me not necessarily. I think for me if voguing is something that comes from your truth, you can execute a movement, if it’s really subtle, if you pull a tension instead of push it, these are all tactical performance things that can come into play as well. I get what you mean that you say I am not the loudest person, not the showiest person. Then what do I bring to show? That’s a question that competitors have to ask themselves.
I have a few questions. I didn’t know that there is a ballroom scene here that was so established until I heard about this panel. I was fascinated by what you said about esplanade, I thought it’s just full of orientation groups. I am interested in the stories of your beginnings. I am curious about how race and religion has played a part in the identity formation, language, struggles with religious criticisms.
2008 there's this group of dancers - their leader then, he is known to go against the grain. imagine that time, his six pack and high heels walking down the mall. It is almost unheard of. Back then, I was like can meh? Actuallyhe went the the US for voguing and came back. Everyone around me was giving the disgusted face. I was also quite taken aback. At that age it was mildly disturbing because I was like, can we really do this in public? They were really going full on with it and I couldn’t understand. Everyone was hating on this group. He was really stirring the pot, making feminine boys, flamboyant guys more accessible. It made me curious. it inspired me to take my first voguing class. I didn’t like it because I was a very "polite" kind of guy I didn’t really like the pussy pussy cunt cunt.
I didn’t really appreciate voguing until the tv series Pose. I even went to the US to learn. I just wanted to learn but I really couldn’t grasp. Until Pose, I learned about the concept of house. At the time there was an event , they combined all the feminine categories into one category and I was asked to judge becos I was into waacking (?), also a form of dance from the queer culture. I was just judging based on my feel. we got a lot of hate because the event wasn't authentic. 2016 That was also the same period when I j started watching Pose, and only then I understand the culture more. Pose made me appreciate what ballroom is about. We decided to form a team , why don’t we make things right, let's learn things properly and do it the right way.
Loveball happened first, before the official crystal ball in 2019. Invited a legend to come and teach us. that’s how the whole thing starts. It took quite some timeI was hoping during my 2010-2015 phase someone would start a ball. But no one was daring enough. A lot of Singaporeans are very conservative, people were like, "that’s too much". Even our Malaysian neighbours were more daring, more radical. Between 2010-2015 there were ppl who were learning voguing, but they were just learning and keeping it for themselves. What made us trailblazers was that we decided to spread the culture, create a ball, create a kiki house. The most important thing about this whole thing is that it changed our lives for the better.
It started off w me watching ballroom videos. That’s where I learned the culture myself, by googling also. The part where I decided to share my knowledge w everyone was when I noticed a few ppl were doing the wrong move, a few ppl said they were voguers but they were not part of the ballroom scene. That’s when you make a kiki house to show them the right way and share the knowledge with everyone.
When you’re a poc in a European country growing up, having to face a lot of discrimination as well as identity problems, it is really really frustrating and really terrible a lot of times. Ballroom gives you space to show up, to wake up in the morning and have something to look forward to. Stepping into a already established scene it’s very humbling. You’re honing your skills. I really developed in the ballroom, I hope for others to have that as well.
It’s very intersectional too. When you’re a woman coming into the ballroom space, and fat - it felt very empowering that all these marginalised communities can step up and say that hey this is my story, this is my truth, I’m gonna perform it in a way that I don’t give a fuck whether you like it or not. this is me.
What's a great Singaporean ballroom scene to you? What’s your aspirations?
I felt that its when there are more international houses come here to compete in our ball.
We are on the map. We really go and sign up, it’s an investment of a lot of time, money, resources.
I come from an artists’ perspective. For me in 10 yrs it’s like oh, sg ballroom, they are so good at this and that. It's more of from an international perspective, oh sg has this this this. If you want this this this, you go to sg.
From a utility standpoint, I would like to see sg ballroom have a lot more initiative, a lot more structure created. To the point that anyone can just join a class, join a session. They will immediately get the vibe of the scene. We start at the ground level. We need a foundation that is nurturing and welcoming, enriching for people.
In the states they have had that tradition for 40 yrs, they are getting to a stage of maturity. And we are trying to do it in 5? Recognizing the local context.
Where can we go to find out more about the ballroom scene?
City hall mrt. Esplanade underground. Follow our insta instagram.com/vogueinprogress