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Legendary: Inside The House Ballroom Scene

by Kay Bourne
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Sunday Dec 29, 2013
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A lovingly devised coffee table book, winner of a now well established photography prize, "Legendary/ Inside The House Ballroom Scene" (photographs by Gerard H. Gaskin), welcomes you into a fabulous world. This hall of mirrors is akin to the dazzling Emerald City of "some where over the rainbow" fame.

There are some 90 photographs, some in black and white and others in color, first displayed as portraiture and later indexed with the skinny on who’s who. The freelance photographer, himself straight, was welcomed into the dance halls as few outsiders are, and he has returned the favor with this celebratory memoir.

This underground capital of dreams about gender realness and elegance is reached only by gliding, strutting, stopping to pose, getting on the uptown subway if that’s your ride, and getting down for the runway jaunt.


A still from "Legendary/ Inside The House Ballroom Scene"  

Even then it’s the green light or not from the magisterial gatekeeper and awards bestow-er, who know who lives in the houses, which is to say, the self-made families of gay men within this realm.

The arbitrators will give you the eye to assess whether you fit in, because this destination is only for urban and (mostly) urbane African American and Latino gays with attitude. It is so exclusive that unless you are one with its glittering, haughty inhabitants, you’ve likely never been asked in. It’s about the children, as the paid up members affectionately refer to themselves.


A still from "Legendary/ Inside The House Ballroom Scene"  

All of this arch fabulousness was a secret well kept until 1980. In that same year Jennie Lessington’s documentary film about ballroom house culture was released to a broad movie-going public, "Paris Is Burning," while Madonna released her now-classic video "Vogue," which had been inspired by dancers and choreographers Jose and Luis Xtravaganza, from the Harlem house ball community. (The Xtravaganza house gets prominent coverage in "Legendary.")

Scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who is an important dance theorist, the original archivist for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, formerly a professor of dance studies at M.I.T. and now on the faculty at Duke University, spoke to EDGE about "Legendary/Inside":


A still from "Legendary/ Inside The House Ballroom Scene"  

It provides, he wrote," a startling, poignant, and unflinching look at the life of performance that links together queer and transsexual, gay and lesbian, same-gender-loving people of color. The book, published by leading university publishing house Duke University press, offers an important and unexpected attention to be paid to people whose lives intersect through non-normative gender performances.

Gaskin has created an indelible document and provided a crucial service to the lives of men women, and all of us who live in-between these categories, as he shows us back to ourselves as we are in these balls: proud, confident, exuberant, in anticipation, glamorous, thrilling, and hopeful." (DeFrantz, as stated, teaches at Duke. This writer, however, solicited his opinion because of his status in the dance world.)


A still from "Legendary/ Inside The House Ballroom Scene"  

The book was chosen out of two hundred entries in the sixth biennial First Book Prize competition, which is sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Honickman Foundation in Philadelphia. The competition is open to American and Canadian photographers.

Eminent photographer, writer, and curator Deborah Willis writes a cogent introduction to the book, which she styles as "opening our eyes to an extraordinary community of artists who are creating beauty." An afterword that is scholarly and entertaining is provided by Frank Roberts, a noted writer on black popular culture. Both these commentators are African American; Gerald H. Gaskin originates from Trinidad and Tobago.


by Gerard H. Gaskin

"Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene" by Gerard H. Gaskin. $45.00 cloth trade. Duke University Press in association with CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies. November 2013.

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