meet the ballroom legends of atlanta's underground voguing scene
Leikeli47 and Cakes da Killa headline an extravagant vogue ball in Atlanta — where one of the last great American subcultures has been quietly thriving for decades.
Photography Christian Cody
There’s a certain energy in the air when a party is truly lit — when every element of the complex social chemistry fuses perfectly, the outside world dissipates, and the room collectively elevates to a higher vibrational plane. Disco DJ David Mancuso, who presided over New York’s first underground dance party The Loft, compared this feeling to an airplane taking off on a runway. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you can feel liquid adrenaline coursing through the atmosphere like jet fuel, burning as it licks your skin.
It took no time at all for “Atlanta is Burning” — a vogue ball thrown by LGBTQ party crews Morph and Southern Fried Queer Pride (SFQP) in collaboration with Red Bull Music — to hit this feverish peak. On a chilly November evening, hundreds of colorful club kids draped in glitter, sequins, and fur poured into an industrial freight depot in downtown Atlanta. After performers like Cakes Da Killa and Divoli S'vere spat bars over blistering ballroom beats, headliner Leikeli47 stormed the stage. “This shit is a girl blunt! I only smoke girl blunts!” the Brooklyn MC chanted over skittering 808 drums, a white bandana wrapped around her entire face. When she raised her arms triumphantly, the crowd exploded in a deafening roar as the air crackled electric, and I was consumed by that familiar feeling of liftoff.
One of the last great American subcultures, ballroom began in Harlem in the late 70s with Black and Latino drag queens. Dancers imitate the freeze-frame model poses in Vogue magazine as they face off in nightclubs and rented banquet halls, competing in various categories to win cash prizes and glory for their “Houses.” Thanks to TV shows like Pose and My House, ballroom is back in the mainstream glare, nearly two decades after Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning first brought it to the wider public’s attention. While the culture originated in New York, it has been quietly thriving in Atlanta for decades — and “Atlanta is Burning” was a rare chance for all 18 local Houses to converge under one roof.
There are a few cities in America with reputations built from the outside looking in — which is to say that you get to know them from afar through their movies and music. Atlanta is one of those cities; to most people, it’s all about hip-hop and trap. But it also has a less famous and equally deep history of house music. Vjuan Allure, who has been DJing at balls for decades, told me that ballroom landed in Atlanta in the late 80s, when four friends at Morehouse College started the House of Escada. Bopping around in a cartoon monster backstage, Allure listed all the DJs and Houses that have been established in the city since: DJ Brooks, DJ Envy, DJ Taj… the Houses of Mizrahi, Ebony, Escada, Mugler, Chanel… “Everyone is like, ‘Atlanta doesn’t have a ballroom scene!’” He exclaimed, rolling his eyes emphatically.“ Why yes it does! New York is the largest, DC is second, Atlanta is third.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to agreed that ballroom in Atlanta remains strictly underground, unlike New York’s scene, which is attracting many outsiders (including several Hollywood celebrities) with its increasing fame. Local ballroom DJ and producer D’voli Svere explained that balls happen at least once a month in Atlanta, but you might never hear about them if you’re not plugged in. “It’s very word-of-mouth and who you know,” he said with a grin, adjusting a pink homemade crown on his head. “Atlanta Is Burning” co-organizer Taylor Alexander added that staying under-the-radar can be a form of self-protection for queer and trans communities. “After so many years of being appropriated, they have to be defensive,” she explained. “That’s why they have to be so secretive.”
Teaming up with a corporate sponsor like Red Bull Music — the modern-day Medici family for the underground electronic community — allowed Alexander and her co-organizers, Leonce and Jsport, to dream big. “If it wasn’t black queer people like us working with these large corporations, it would be somebody white taking the job but doing it all wrong,” said Leonce, who told me he’s been going to balls since he was 19. “We have to be here, to make sure there’s attention to detail and sensitivity.”
“Usually balls will be in run-down warehouses in far-out parts of town with no AC,” he continued. “Atlanta is Burning” took place in a polished venue with expensive lighting and painstaking attention to detail — down to the texture of the ground, which has exactly the right give for the dancers’ vertigo-inducing drops and spins. (Masonite boards, in case you’re curious.)
Making sure prominent members of the local ballroom community were involved was crucial. But according to Jsport, earning that approval wasn’t easy. He first reached out to Andre Mizrahi, an esteemed vogue dancer who founded one of the first houses in Atlanta. “He wasn’t responding, and was like ‘Leave me alone!’” recalled Jsport. “But I hit him up again because I knew we weren’t trying to exploit the scene. Finally, he was like, ‘OK call me.’ Then he told me, ‘The first thing you need to know is that ballroom is built around shade!’” Jsport chuckled as he noted, “It’s like an initiation: can you handle this environment? You gotta have thick skin to be one of the girls.” Once Mizrahi was in, they were able to get the rest of the community on board.
Leiomy Maldonado, a statuesque vogue icon who is the mother of the House of Amazon, and an actor and choreographer for Pose, was another vogue celebrity that graced the Atlanta ball. Amidst the buzzing backstage din, I spotted her posing by the mirrors and preparing to step out onto the runway, hair swept into an elegant bun.
“Yes, ballroom can be for everyone — but you can’t just take something and call it your own, and I’ve seen a lot of people try to do that,” she tells me in her quietly powerful voice. “The most important thing is for people to understand that the ball community might seem like entertainment — but it’s a culture first.”