Edmonton ballroom organization rolls out first runway

· The Pulse

YEG Ballroom is hosting what it believes to be the first ball of its kind in Edmonton on April 27 at The Freemasons' Hall.

This is not a ballroom ball like the European partner dance, and it's not a drag show. Instead, the Spring Dream Mini Kiki Ball will combine pageantry and dance contests in a way that crystallized during the 1980s in New York City, especially in Harlem. Ballroom was built by racialized queer people wanting a safe space to have fun, escape the challenges of daily life, including racism, and embrace fantasy.

"As far as I know, this is the first kind of function like this in Edmonton," Amelia Altmiks, YEG Ballroom's co-founder and projects director, told Taproot.

Ballroom began to enter mainstream consciousness in 1990 when both Madonna's video for "Vogue" and the documentary Paris Is Burning came out. More recently, ballroom culture has been celebrated on Beyoncé's Renaissance album, and on TV with Pose, Legendary, and RuPaul's Drag Race.

At a contemporary ball, guests should expect a nightclub environment where contestants and spectators dress up to a certain theme. There's a runway, judges, a DJ booth, and an emcee who hosts and provides a vocal performance. Some categories are about walking like a model, while others involve performing the five elements of vogue.

The Spring Dream event theme has a lot of room for interpretation, Altmiks said.

"We were thinking 'spring dream' because it has that new life," she said. "Also, there's the dreamy possibility of the ethereal, so if people want to be in more dreamy looks or more mythical looks, they could also opt for those."

Altmiks, who performs drag and burlesque under the names Lucian and Luna LaPearl, formed YEG Ballroom last year alongside dancer Mavi Tolentino. Part of her motivation was to establish a space that celebrates queer people of colour in the grand tradition of ballroom.

"I do truly believe that we have to make that space for ourselves," Altmiks said. "The intent really comes from wanting to create space for everyone."

Since the ballroom scene is still relatively new to Edmonton, Taproot set out to explain a bit of its history and how it all works.

A group of people in dance attire pose around a pole.

Edmonton's fledgling ballroom scene gets its first mini kiki ball on April 27 at the Freemasons' Hall. (Amelia Altmiks)

Category is …

Sometimes called "vogue balls" because of the dance style featured at events, balls have many non-dance categories, spanning from fashion-focused to simply how well one can sell an attitude.

The categories at the Spring Dream soirée are face, performance, runway, runway with a prop (in this case, an umbrella), best dressed, and hands. Explanations for each category are on the event's ticket page.

"For best dressed, if you're a female figure, you have to have a purse," Altmiks said. "These descriptions are intentionally there so that people have to be intentional about walking and know enough about the categories."

Four people in dance attire wave around their hands and arms.

Ballroom enthusiasts practice hands performance, one of the five elements of vogue. (Brendan Roy/Boundless Photo & Film Studios)

Get ready or get chopped

Prospective competitors should research ballroom before hitting the runway. Judges are not afraid to "chop" or disqualify you, and the commentator or chanter might just read you for filth if you don't know what you're doing.

How to prepare? Beyond learning the theme, Altmiks suggested watching clips about ballroom. YEG Ballroom is also hosting educational lead-up events. The last chance before Spring Dream is on April 22 at Temple Bar within The Starlite Room.

"The first step is taking time to do the research about the event," Altmiks said. "I think (the audience) being supportive and making a lot of noise for people, regardless of how the look is looking, is good because it takes nerve."

A person poses with arched arms in front of a mirror while a group of seated people watch.

A scene from one of YEG Ballroom's sessions, where attendees learn about performance and ballroom culture. (Brendan Roy/Boundless Photo & Film Studios)

From kiki to legendary

Spring Dream is a "mini kiki ball," meaning it's shorter and less established than a full-scale ballroom event. (Kiki is a stand-in term for the word "informal" in ballroom.) Ball organizers pay respect to tradition by bringing in "legends" to judge, DJ, and commentate.

YEG Ballroom's legends Posh Gvasalia Basquiat, DJ Blackcat "Charmed" Mulan, Twysted Siriano, Senbo Old Navy, and Tamar Telfar all hail from Toronto and Vancouver. One becomes legendary by winning titles, having longevity, or acting as the "mother" or "father" (leader) of a "house" (collective).

"They've put work into the ballroom scene … Learning from people who have more knowledge in the thing means that we're going to have more knowledge in the thing," Altmiks said. "Ballroom is a way people have been able to make a legacy, make their names, have love and adornment and meaning in a different way."

People in dance attire pose in front of a garage door.

YEG Ballroom's event on April 27 is in the "kiki" category of balls, meaning it is less formal and shorter than a full-fledged ball. (Amelia Altmiks)

Funding and partners

The Spring Dream event is possible thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Edmonton Arts Council and a $5,000 donation by the Fruit Loop Society of Alberta. YEG Ballroom isn't incorporated as a non-profit society, so Fruit Loop acted as a partner for the EAC funds. Looking ahead, Altmiks said she doesn't think her group will become a non-profit for quite some time, but said she's considering forming a "prairie coalition" with other groups. Proceeds from this event will be reinvested into future YEG Ballroom activity.

Pre-ballroom balls

Ballroom culture shares some qualities with other types of balls. The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose has hosted "fancy dress" balls for queer people in Edmonton since 1976. "Those first years were really just about having a good time," Ron Byers, a founding court member and queer historian behind Rainbow Story Hub Foundation, told Taproot.

The court is part of an international network that awards titles to community-serving members annually at coronation galas. Since the early-to-mid '80s, courts have made fundraising for HIV/AIDS and other causes core to their identities. Edmonton's next coronation ball takes place on Aug. 17 at the Matrix Hotel.

The Spring Dream Mini Kiki Ball costs $5 for competitors and $25 for spectators. Minors are welcome at the event if accompanied by a guardian or trusted adult.

Correction: This file has been updated to correct the name of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose.