Harlem’s role in the 1970’s ballroom scene and many other earlier iterations of trans expression, is well known. What may not be as well known are the linguistic contributions that originated in this musical/fashion/identity/dance scene.
Slang words like “shade” — to speak ill of something or someone –- or “werk,” as in “werk it,” or to do something well, both came from this Harlem scene. In addition, popular trans programs and stars – like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – have also been heavily impacted by Harlem ballroom.
In 1990 Jennny Livingston released a documentary called Paris is Burning that revealed to theater goers the rich underground ballroom scene in Harlem during the 1980s.
The film focuses on one key venue for the ballroom scene – the Imperial Lodge of Elks at 160 West 129th Street – just east of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.
Where does voguing come from, and what, exactly, is throwing shade? This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. Made over seven years, Paris Is Burning offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion “houses,” from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women—including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza—Paris Is Burning brings it, celebrating the joy of movement, the force of eloquence, and the draw of community.
Today the space is no longer an Elks Lodge, but a church:
And, for a fantastic examination on how post-Civil War drag balls led to Harlem Renaissance era extravaganzas, and then to Voguing in the 1980’s, see this great article:
Harlem Lane was originally a trail that the Lenape people used to travel from what is now Central Park up to Inwood and The Bronx. This trail is one we travel today, but the name has changed (and the route somewhat modified) to St. Nicholas Avenue.