Performers in leopard print, ivy leaves, and tulle fabric strut across the brown and tan checkerboard floor of a second-story room at the Enoch Pratt Central Library during the first-ever Renaissance Ball.
The cadence of emcee Legendary Father Mook Ebony’s voice is punctuated by the crash of cymbals and an uptempo beat.
“Walk the runway, be the runway, walk the runway, be the runway,” he chants during a category dedicated to looks that conceal the wearer from head to toe.
Baltimore photographer SHAN Wallace, whose year as the Pratt’s first artist-in-residence came to a close last week, wanted to mark the occasion – and the end of Pride Month – with a celebration of Baltimore’s ballroom scene and the queer community.
Ballroom community members from Baltimore and across the region walked, dipped, twirled and posed as they competed in categories assessed by a panel of judges Friday. The ball was part of the Pratt’s new Final Fridays series, with the Central Branch library hosting a different after-hours event on the last Friday of every month.
Although she only became more formally involved with ballroom competitions in 2020, Wallace said she has participated in the artform with friends since she was a teenager.
“When I was younger, we would vogue in the streets and we would do our own thing…. It was just like duck walks and hand movements and drops,” she said. “Competing against one another on the porch, competing against one another on the bus stop, at the mall, kind of using Baltimore’s streets as our runaway.”
Black LGBTQ+ people in New York City founded ballroom culture in the 19th century to create a safer space for community gathering and artistic expression, especially as they faced discrimination from both cisheteronormative society and cisgender white members of the queer community who sought to exclude them from their own spaces.
Often shunned by the families they were born into, ball participants formed chosen families and many joined “houses,” named after fashion designers, brands, models, and house founders themselves. Those houses compete against one another in balls, typically for trophies and cash prizes.
For Wallace, the community and family that the original ballroom scene provided continues to hold true today.
“I like to be in a world where there are primarily queer and gay people,” she said. “It’s a world that I love to be in. It’s where I feel the most comfortable, the most safe. It’s a beautiful, magical, colorful world that has these ideas and imaginations and experiences beyond the binary.”
She added, “I love the competing, of course, but I also love the people. I love the language around ballroom. I love how extravagant and how simple we can be. I love the camaraderie.”
That search for a safe space and home is also what drew Mook Ebony to ballroom.
“It made me look at my community as a safe space for me, so I’ve been able to feel and be free,” he said. “That was the only goal of mine. I always wanted to be seen and feel free. So once I was able to find my community, I felt at home.”
In his earlier days of ballroom competitions, Mook primarily did Voguing – movements inspired by the poses of models for Vogue magazine and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Since then, he has shifted to being the emcee for various balls.
“I am the voice of Baltimore,” he said of his work behind the mic.
Also the Legendary Father of the House of Ebony, Mook has been able to witness young queer people growing and finding themselves through ballroom. His advice: always be yourself.
“You can look up to people, you can give them all the praise, but also give that same praise to yourself so you’re able to feel love from yourself. That’s when nobody else can be able to tell you anything because you already feel love from yourself. Even if you get chopped, you still know that you did your best because it’s coming from yourself. Just stay true to who you are and love on you and you’re gonna make it far.”
Among the members of House of Ebony is Koryne Ebony, who competed in the face category, dedicated to strong facial bone structure, beautiful skin, and other aesthetic qualities.
“It was very fun,” Koryne said. “I was just very in my element. It was very calming. I feel very pretty. When you look good, you feel good.”
Koryne began doing ballroom two years ago and found a space in which she could showcase herself authentically.
“I feel like it’s the only place I can express myself,” she said.
Now, Koryne said she just tries to have a good time, and she encourages other ballroom competitors to do the same.
“Have fun,” she said. “Don’t be a sore loser.”
The ball at the library was themed around Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, “Renaissance,” which itself paid homage to the ballroom scene, club music, and the Black queer community.
“To me, the album is one of Beyoncé’s more experimental and extravagant albums, and that is exactly what ballroom is,” Wallace said. “It is experimental. It is extravagant. So let’s bring that to the library.”
Mook appreciated the Pratt library for providing a space to hold the ball.
“It made me feel good to be able to see the library giving back to our community,” he said. “It felt so refreshing. It felt like we were actually being seen.”
He added, “It’s all about making history, and right now this was one for the books…. To keep doing this is what I’m here for. To keep breaking down barriers and knocking on doors and making sure that they open, that’s what matters to me. To make sure that people don’t go through what I went through as a child coming up.”
The ballroom scene has been spotlighted in the 1990 film “Paris is Burning” as well as more recently in shows like “Pose” and “Legendary.” But even within the queer community, many are still not familiar with ballroom, Wallace said.
“It still feels very far from people,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a community that’s within reach.”
The lack of knowledge about ballroom locally is, in part, due to Baltimore’s scarcity of spaces for the queer community to gather compared to decades ago, Wallace said.
The closure of queer-oriented bars like The Hippo and Grand Central left behind a void. And while other LGBTQ-friendly establishments remain, like The Eagle and The Crown among others, Wallace said the community needs more.
“I’m thinking about making sure that all of us are safe, and that we have places to go,” she said. “As a Black queer woman or Black lesbian, there are really no places to go compared to almost 20 years ago.”
Some of Baltimore’s institutions could serve as venues for balls and other queer events, Wallace said.
Johns Hopkins University’s George Peabody Library has hosted three ballroom events.
And already the Pratt has proven to be a strong collaborator, Wallace said.
“I think the library is one of the most democratic places that we have,” she said. “I deeply love the Pratt because the Pratt really does open its doors to everybody continuously…. Libraries tend to show up for communities and show up for cities in a way that most institutions are not.”
As the queer community continues to be a target for restrictions, and libraries face challenges to the books and authors they can carry on their shelves, the Pratt is a resource for any and all who need it, says Meghan McCorkell, spokesperson for the library system.
“The Pratt library has never backed down,” McCorkell said. “We will always support all of our communities.”
All 13 of the top banned books in the country can be accessed from the Pratt through interlibrary loan by anyone in Maryland, McCorkell said.
And while conservative groups have moved to halt drag queen storytime events in other parts of the country, McCorkell said the Pratt hosts them regularly.
“We trust that parents can make decisions about what they want to bring their children to,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re providing those offerings for anyone who wants to come, so that we are a safe and welcoming space for absolutely everyone who comes in our doors and that we’re providing and supporting all of our communities.
McCorkell added, “We are a place that is welcoming for all and I think that there are very few places these days where somebody can walk in, no matter who you are, and be treated exactly the same and have open access to everything.”
For now, Wallace is happy that members of Baltimore’s ballroom scene had the chance to showcase their talents, and she hopes this is the first of many balls she organizes.
“This is their life and this is what they do and this is who they are every day,” she said. “Ball is life. Ballroom is life. And so it’s been really nice to provide an opportunity for people to figure out what ballroom is and bear witness.”
View the full gallery of Renaissance Ball photos by Carl Schmidt/Federal Hill Photography, LLC below: