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How queer ballroom legends in St. Louis cultivate joy amid political and cultural animosity

Balls, like this one hosted by TENS and WerQfest, combine dancing, modeling, competition, and community.
TENS the Experience
Balls, like this one hosted by TENS and WerQfest, combine dancing, modeling, competition and community.

St. Louis’ ballroom culture was born amid adversity for queer Black and brown people. The gatherings and competitions became celebrations of dance and performance — and they provided a community for trans people and drag queens at a time when the outside world made it dangerous to be their authentic selves.

Today, despite the targeted legislation against gender-affirming care and social persecution throughout Missouri and the United States, local balls like the ones hosted by Maven Lee, Vanessa Frost and other ballroom legends continue to inspire creativity and hope for the future.

Lee is the founder of TENS the Experience, a ballroom event planning company based in St. Louis, and pops up in other Midwest cities like Kansas City and Chicago. He told St. Louis on the Air that his 15 years in the ballroom scene is more than entertainment.

“I started off really discovering myself as a Black queer person. Ballroom really helped me find myself coming from more of a church community. I realized that a lot of people can benefit from this environment.”

Maven Lee (left) and Vanessa Frost
Maven Lee / Vanessa Frost
Maven Lee, left, and Vanessa Frost

Frost, a Black transgender woman, performs as a femme queen and walks in balls across the country. She said that visibility during this year’s Pride month is more important than ever. “This is a time we want to show everyone that we're here and we want to stay here. That we want to continue on living our journey, being ourselves authentically and without straying.”

Along with hosting, Lee walks in balls, and he has noticed that ballroom culture has reached the mainstream. He hopes that the emergence of ballroom in contemporary pop culture will open eyes and change attitudes toward LGBTQ+ communities.

“There are some people who had opposing views when it came to health care (and) trans rights that have come to balls. Their points of views and perspectives have changed because they saw enjoyment,” Lee said.

The next ball to be produced by TENS the Experience will be held Thursday night. The theme is “The Best Ball Ever.” It serves as the kickoff to local Pride festivities sponsored by the nonprofit Pride St. Louis. Even though ballroom culture was started by Black and brown queer people, Lee says balls are open for everyone. “We have [cisgender] heterosexual people that come to balls, we have people from all across the world that come to balls. It's a place where everybody can really be together and learn more about each other.”

To learn more about ballroom culture including jargon like “house,” “realness” and “tens,” as well as what you can expect from “The Best Ball Ever,” listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

How queer ballroom legends in St. Louis cultivate joy amid political and cultural animosity

Related Event
What: TENS the Experience “The Best Ball Ever”
When: 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. May 25
Where: HandleBar, 4127 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."