In color, left to right: Oakland to All ball organizers Shireen Rahimi, Guerrilla Davis and Ashlee Banks. Black and white: performers from the Back with a Vengeance Ball at Oakland's Lake Merritt in Sept. 2021. (Photos: Beth LaBerge and Estefany Gonzalez; design: Kelly Heigert)
Editor’s note: Two years into the pandemic, artists are charting new paths forward. Across the Bay Area, they’re advocating for better pay, sharing resources and looking out for their communities’ wellbeing. Welcome to Our Creative Futures, a KQED Arts & Culture series that takes stock of the arts in this unpredictable climate. Share your story here.
In 2017, Alora Lemalu and two friends packed their clothes in a car and left their hometown in Missouri for the Bay Area.
Back home, Lemalu and her friends felt alone, without any spaces where they could safely connect with other queer people of color. “The decision to come out here was because of the lack of community that any of us had in Missouri,” says the 27-year-old Oakland resident.
Tumblr and other social media platforms gave Lemalu a window into what queer spaces were like in the rest of the country. By watching Paris is Burning and competitions on YouTube as a teen, she learned more about voguing and ballroom scenes in places like New York and the Bay Area.
“Seeing these women, specifically Black trans women, perform was amazing,” she says. “It was so graceful and so beautiful. But it was also so empowering. In vogue and ballroom you have to have nerve and a certain amount of self-belief and attitude that carries you.”
She also learned that vogue was a lot more than just a dance style. Voguing is deeply rooted in the Black ballroom scene of 1970s and 1980s New York City, where queer and trans people of color formed houses—chosen families that provide their members with protection, offer emotional and material support and celebrate each other’s growth as dancers, musicians and artists.
Houses face off in ballroom competitions that include multiple categories and cash prizes. Categories can change from ball to ball, but typical ones include runway, where contestants pull up with ornate outfits they create themselves; selling face, where the emphasis is on the make-up and attitude; and of course, vogue performance.
Vogue performance is the opportunity for dancers to come in and give it their all, each with their own style, using their own original techniques and those crafted and refined by previous generations. Hand performances come together with spins, duck walks and drops as the commentator injects energy into the crowd and hypes up each performer.
The ballroom scene grew across the West Coast in the ’90s, and that legacy lured Lemalu to the Bay—along with the promise of being able to live safely as a queer person of color. Once she and her friends made it to California in 2017, they began taking classes and going to functions. Eventually, Lemalu was adopted into a house and expanded her chosen family.
It was through attending small events that she met Ashlee Banks, Shireen Rahimi and Guerrilla Davis. The three artists are close friends who’ve been part of the scene for years. Banks, a.k.a. Ashlee Basquiat, is a dancer and currently the lead youth wellness coordinator at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center; Rahimi, a.k.a. Hype Kitty, is a choreographer, dancer and event producer; and Davis, a.k.a. Guerrilla Pump, is a photographer, DJ and organizer with We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, a mutual aid collective that provides self-defense gear and other forms of assistance to trans femmes.
Since 2020, the three have worked to transform the voguing scene in the Bay Area—organizing balls, renegade parties and teaching dance sessions promoted by Oakland to All, a platform the group created back in 2017. Each of these events is produced with intention, centering issues like mental health, substance abuse and efforts to resist police brutality. By doing so, Oakland to All is building on the legacy of balls from the 1980s and 1990s that connected voguers to HIV/AIDS testing and treatment at a time when queer Black and Latinx communities had limited access to these resources.
“Our prerogative has always been to provide a safe space for people to just exist,” says Davis. “For trans femme people who exist in the world and get stares and catcalled, balls are one of the few spaces that you can exist without all the bullshit.”
Bringing Together a New Generation
Over the years, Banks, Rahimi and Davis have supported Lemalu and other young members of the scene by organizing mutual aid funds for emergencies, helping to find housing and connecting them to mental health resources. 2020 was an especially rough year as pandemic health restrictions severely limited balls and other in-person events at a time when Lemalu and her friends felt the world was falling apart.
Lemalu wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Banks, Rahimi and Davis heard from young people all over the Bay Area who said they needed some sort of space to come together, see each other, dance and hype each other up. “The kids were asking for balls. The kids are asking for sessions,” Banks says. “We wanted to give them that, but we also wanted to make sure everyone was safe.”
The trio had to make sure any event they organized was outdoors to protect against COVID-19. Securing an all-ages space was crucial because ballroom is an important outlet for many queer and trans young people under the age of 21.
On Aug. 30, 2020, the trio, along with other community groups, threw the Amerikkka is Burning Ball at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater. The categories were designed to address the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. One category asked voguers to honor victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, as well as slain trans women such as Monika Diamond. Another asked participants to create a bizarre look that showed their “resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity focused on protection and survival from the rona or police brutality.”
The turnout and energy that pulled through exceeded what any of the organizers ever expected. Although there were plenty of balls in the Bay Area before Amerikkka is Burning, few had sought to engage the younger generations that came of age during the pandemic and weren’t around to experience what the scene was like in the ’90s and early 2000s.
Rahimi remembers meeting young people from all over the region, from places like San Jose, Antioch and Palo Alto—something she had rarely seen before. “2020, we connected and changed the motherfucking game, for lack of a better word,” Rahimi says. “That’s when a whole new generation birthed.”
Community Care Through Mutual Aid
After Amerikkka is Burning and other events at Lake Merritt, Oakland to All was getting requests for more balls. The community support was there, but now the question was where to throw the events, Davis says. While Lake Merritt provided an option that was both outdoors and open to all ages, the group was concerned about safety around the lake following a series of shootings in the area in 2021.
Last April, the group threw a Battle of the Bay Ball at the Continental Club, a historic venue in West Oakland that hosted many notable Black blues and R&B artists for decades and reopened at the start of 2022. Plans to have a second ball at the Continental in May were scrapped after the nonprofit Hip-Hop for Change and other event organizers in Oakland accused the club’s new owner of racism, homophobia and sexism.
Each ball is made possible thanks to a support network that Banks, Rahimi and Davis have built across the Bay Area since before COVID-19. Friends volunteer to run the sound system and bring chairs; audience members’ donations go to the cash prizes for performers.
“The idea of mutual aid is more than just raising money,” adds Davis. “It means what resources do we have and how can we share [them] together so that we are all empowered together so we can all survive.”
Oakland to All has also partnered up with public health nonprofits, such as CAL-PEP, which offers health services for sex workers. Agencies like Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services connect ball-goers with HIV/AIDS testing, mental health services and substance abuse treatment during the event. These organizations are invited to table at the balls so they can answer questions and educate attendees about resources like the HIV-prevention drugs PrEP and PEP.
“Vogue is not a dance class. It’s not just here for entertainment,” says Rahimi, adding that vogue and ballroom culture has been highly commercialized in the past few years by those not from the scene. Vogue at its core, she explains, has always been a radical space for queer people of color to protect, celebrate and care for one another.
When Oakland to All links their community with health resources, that’s part of a greater history of the ballroom scene. Balls across the country have prioritized HIV/AIDS education and healthcare access since the 1980s.
From their daily conversations with young people in the scene, Banks, Rahimi and Davis have noticed a similar pattern locally during the past two years. They’ve also noticed more folks dealing with substance abuse. They say the stigma and lack of information about available resources have made it difficult for people to get help.
“Substance abuse and mental health go hand in hand,” Rahimi says. Crystal meth has really taken a toll on the scene, she adds. “We’ve lost people that are legends and icons, and those that are up-and-coming.”
That’s why the group is putting mental health front and center in the Kunty Mental Ball. The name itself is a reminder that caring for one’s mental health is an indispensable part of self-empowerment. All the categories will be related one way or another to mental health. Several are asking participants to involve green (representing the green ribbon, symbol of mental health awareness).
For the face category, voguers will have to “meet [their] reflection in the mirror and send [themselves] loving and self-affirming affirmations.” The tag team performance category invites dancers to show how they are physically, mentally and emotionally present for a loved one.
The group hopes that what happens on the runway will impact life outside of it. “We can still have fun and teach other. Care for each other,” Banks says. “You’re around people that are telling you it’s OK. That are telling you, ‘I’ll go with you. If you need me to hold your hand, I’ll hold your hand.’”
Alora, who came to California to seek refuge in the Bay Area’s ballroom scene, has now found an additional layer of comfort in the balls organized by Oakland to All. She doesn’t just talk to Banks, Rahimi and Davis, she also receives their care and love—and the love of so many others. Both her talent and mental health are valued and looked after.
“I’m in a place where life is kind of overwhelming, but I’m finding so much groundedness in ballroom,” she says. “There’s just so much collective trauma both in this country and in the air. All of us are going through it. But the one thing that literally keeps us going is meeting every week and just voguing down.”