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Ball competitions

A black gay subculture strikes a pose for cash and prizes.

Photograph: Pierre Cameron
IN VOGUE Ball competitions find their niche in Chicago.

There’s more to Arnold Jordan than just a pretty face, though the man does possess a winning smile—literally. Jordan, 27, travels around the country competing in ball competitions, high-energy dance contests in which participants, usually black gay men and transgender individuals, create highly stylized runway-style poses and affected facial and hand gestures for cash and trophies.

Jordan competes in the Face, Sex Siren and Old Wave categories. “With Face, I’m selling a straight nose, no missing teeth, good skin,” he says. “With Sex Siren, I’m selling sex appeal, like what advertisers do with a magazine cover. Old Wave is old-style voguing, like Paris Is Burning and ‘Vogue.’”

In 1990, both Paris Is Burning, the acclaimed doc about New York’s underground ball competitions, and Madonna’s “Vogue” video introduced the mainstream to the thriving subculture. Around that time, competitions here in Chicago were just starting to flourish. Today, several dozen events with cash prizes in excess of a thousand bucks happen annually at venues all over town, including this weekend’s Painted Khaos 2, an evening of fierce competition in which hundreds will dress as the four elements and compete for a $1,000 grand prize for the best performance. The event is presented by Jordan, a.k.a. Father AJ Ninja of the House of Ninja.

In ball culture, participants usually join houses or families that are presided over by a mentoring mother or father. Jordan, who’s been competing since he was 19, presides over the House of Ninja, a Chicago-based family that has chapters nationwide. “We are ninjas,” Jordan says. “We represent peace, friendship and tranquility. [But] when it’s time to battle, we hit fast and strike hard.” His family members, or “children,” begin competing as teenagers and perform in different categories based on their place within the gay community. For example, gay men compete as Butch Queens, regardless of how masculine/feminine they are, while men at varying stages of gender reassignment compete as Femme Queens. Masculine women compete in the Butch category while “BQs in drag” refers to gay men who don drag for performance.

Tommy Sampson dates the emergence of ball culture in Chicago to 1986, with the formation of the House of Avant Garde, to which he belongs. “Back then, our ball scene was very limited because the Midwest was just gaining knowledge in it, and we were the only house that was here,” says Sampson, 41. More than 20 years later, Sampson has earned “icon status,” a title reserved for the ballroom community’s cream of the crop.

Now, Sampson gives back to ball culture through the School of Opulence, a training venue he started for the creative and professional development of ball kids. “I’ve created a safe space for them,” Sampson says. Its initiatives include mentoring the younger generation through volunteer teachers from Columbia College, inviting volunteer stylists to teach the transgender kids how to do hair and makeup, and teaching HIV prevention. “When the AIDS epidemic was really hitting hard here, I saw men die,” Sampson says. “The new generation have some of those old habits. That’s why I do my prevention work. I refuse to watch this new generation die.” Jordan, too, feels a special kinship for those he mentors: “It’s hard out there,” he says. “It’s bad that we can’t be comfortable in our own neighborhood because we get harassed or we’re afraid we’re going to get jumped.”

Inside the ballroom, it’s a different kind of cutthroat as competitors throw down their best moves in hopes of winning a new title. “It gets to the extreme when people fight over that one $10 trophy,” Jordan says. Sampson agrees: “Our kids are very dramatic in their attitude,” he says. “Any time they’re voguing, it’s very high energy. Everybody’s always on a ten.”

Painted Khaos 2 happens Saturday 27 at Logan Square Auditorium.

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