Born in New York City in the ’60s, ball culture is being lovingly reared in Sydney thanks to the nurturing powers of multi-disciplinary artist and mother of the House of Slé, Bhenji Ra.
“I came across voguing very, very innocently, and I say that because I had no idea what voguing was,” says Bhenji, who received a scholarship to study at Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York aged 18. “It wasn’t until I got back to Australia that someone showed me Paris Is Burning that I was like ‘OMG I know these people.’”
For many in Australia, the 1990 documentary is their access point to the thriving underground subculture of people of colour (POC) in the queer, LGBTQIA, gender non-conforming and trans communities of New York City that popularised the competitive art of walking, posing, and acrobatic dance.
When Bhenji returned, she started to share what she’d learnt. “In New York I felt like I had a really strong community of queer POC. And I had never had that before. Growing up in a lot of different communities – the Filipino community and queer community – they have really nurtured me and molded me into the artist I am now.”
Bhenji’s active ballroom competition family – the House of Slé – comprises mostly queer and trans Asia-Pacific young people from the Western Suburbs. “We realised we can perform at community events but we can also perform at galleries. It was really empowering for us to be in these institutions of value but also perform in clubs.
“I slowly became the mother. Over the years I’ve taken that role because I’m the oldest and I had already made a step into those spaces – it was a responsibility to look after all of my children and to make sure those spaces are there for them as well, not just for city kids.”
Bhenji is quite a young house mother in global terms. Not only does she compete in balls and train with her children but she is also is a bastion of 24/7 community support.
“My kids have kind of kept me alive through a lot of my own shit, and I think it’s a system that helps itself, we’re there to help each other. Society can be quite brutal.”
In America, the life expectancy for a trans person is 35, a fact that Bhenji ruminates on and shapes her role as mother. For the trans kids in the house she is a role model: “I’ve lived that and I’ve gone through hormone therapy and understand what it means to live on the streets. There are all different things, from surgeries to boyfriends, to navigate.”
Bhenji is the creative director of Sissy Ball, a ballroom battle presented by Red Bull and Mardi Gras at Carriageworks, which had a successful second run in February. She also hosts smaller balls throughout the year and is exceptionally enthusiastic about newcomers. Bhenji teaches voguing (often with guests from New York) every Friday night at Duti Studios on Enmore Road. Follow her Instagram (@newgenderwhodis) for upcoming workshop details.
Experience a ball first-hand this Sunday May 12 at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville. A special Mother's Day edition, Muva Ball 2 will centre its categories around all things mum.