In 2016, writer/director Sara Jordenö released the documentary “Kiki,” delving into the lives of LGBTQ youth of color participating in ballroom — informally known as “ball culture” – in New York City.
Two years later, Clark University students and faculty were lucky enough to sit in on a screening and engage in a question-and-answer session with Jordenö and Gia Marie Love, one of the main subjects of the film. The Nov. 8 event in Traina Center for the Performing Arts’ Razzo Hall was sponsored by the Screen Studies Program.
Ballroom entered the mainstream in the early 1990s with Madonna’s “Vogue” video and the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.” More than 25 years later, “Kiki” was released as Black Lives Matter had become an international activist movement and trans rights had reached the forefront of national conversation, reminding audience members that issues popularly thought of as political are, first, fundamentally personal.
The documentary explores the lives of several youth heavily involved in this New York subculture, competing for trophies and prizes at events known as balls. Ball culture shares origins with the voguing and drag scene, often characterized by dances and costumes that value authentic gender expression and self-empowerment. The culture gives underrepresented and marginalized youth a space to explore their developing personalities and connect with like-minded individuals who share similar backgrounds and stories.
In “Kiki,” the audience is privy to various shots of dancers practicing for, or competing in, these events. Adorned in extravagant and avant-garde costumes, they take on fierce, beautiful stage presences while an enthused crowd cheers them on. In addition, the documentary captures more intimate moments between members of this community.
Most participants belong to groups known as “houses,” which often serve as surrogate families for those who have been written off by their relatives — they are spaces of safety, guidance, and love. Jordenö documented the changes in the lives of several young people over the course of four years. She noted that people were “growing up” throughout this project, and that they speak for themselves rather than as representatives for others of the same identity.
“Kiki” does not shy away from the bitter realities that many house members face, such as the prevalence of homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and fractured relationships with family members after coming out as gay or transgender. During the post-screening discussion, Jordenö told the audience that the intimate stories of these individuals must be told without being sensationalized, as this runs the risk of dehumanizing a culture that, in the words of Gia Marie Love, is already “pitted against the real world.”
Love is a transgender woman who transitioned while the documentary was being filmed. She expressed her frustration with people who try to alienate ballroom from “real life,” as if the participants do not go home to families, apartments, and jobs like the rest of the world. Ballroom is the real world, she insisted, and the issues many of these individuals face on a daily basis are equally part of the real world.
Love said ballroom has proved to her and so many others that you don’t have to fight to win a battle being waged against you; that the power of self-advocacy learned through this culture is enough. Ultimately, “Kiki” is a hopeful story. It shows how a creative and communal space can deeply affect the lives of people of historically marginalized identities, encouraging them to practice self-expression in spite of their mistreatment by mainstream society. Dance, fashion, and newfound families are freeing; together, they craft a platform that lifts people up and allows their voices to be heard. “The support and the love we have for each other is what helps us get through these things,” explains Twiggy Pucci Garçon, cowriter of “Kiki” and a leader in the New York ballroom scene, “And…we’re strong as f—.”