"It took me months to get the drawing; it took a month to make the outfit. I stood in it for two hours, and I walked in it for two minutes,” Slimthick Monroe sighs.
But no, that’s not a Halloween costume she’s talking about; it’s her runway look — and how you work the ever-changing rules of a ballroom can make or break you on the runway. Indeed, for whatever conceptions people might hold about ballroom culture — these generally include drag, voguing and the film Paris Is Burning
— the importance of your overall effect cannot be understated. At the balls — runway competitions dominated by fashionable, fabulous queer youth of colour — nothing can be half-assed.
“Balls were meant to be very intense competitions, like pageants, where costumes play almost the most important part in anything. That’s how ballrooms started,”Twysted Monroe says.
The ball is getting more intense as the tradition becomes more deeply embedded in Toronto. This year, Canada’s first and only house (essentially a gay ballroom family) celebrates it’s fifth anniversary with a time-travel-themed ball at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
Originally founded as a chapter of the legendary House of Karan in 2006, the House of Monroe soon after voted to create an independent name.
“[Marilyn Monroe] was the only name that we could all relate to,” long-time housemother TKO Monroe explains. “We all thought that we were young and fresh and innovative and sexy. The only thing we didn’t have was blonde hair, and the only thing we weren’t was actual girls.”
Although it has shifted faces several times — shrinking, growing again and changing members — the House of Monroe is collectively responsible for creating the city’s thriving ballroom landscape. Throwing balls, performing at Pride and other events, and helping to mentor dozens of youth with the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, the house has enabled the scene to expand across the city.
“There wouldn’t be ballroom, period, in Toronto if it weren’t for the House of Monroe,” declares TKO.
The Monroes have built a community here, and the years to come look bright, at home and on an international scale.
“The future is to become legendary,” Twysted Monroe says confidently, referring to the highest authority a house can achieve. “No shade, but we’re the first house in Canada, and it makes no sense to be doing what we’ve done so far and not become legendary for it. You can’t be legendary under 10 years, so the idea is the first five years we made our name, and the next five years we have to take over the scene.”
That means not only maintaining the magic here in Toronto, but also storming balls in the States and coming away with prizes. Widely
known for their fierce voguing dominance in the butch queen competitions, the Monroe crew have also been stepping out on runways in Buffalo, New York City and elsewhere in categories such as body, best dressed and face. In the meantime, it re- mains to be seen whether another house in Toronto might surface.
“Do I think it’s gonna happen? Yes. Do I worry that it will never happen? Yes as well,” TKO says. “We’ve all encouraged other people to start their own house or start a chapter of a house here, but that hasn’t happened. Monroe is not for everyone, so just because you’re not a Monroe doesn’t mean you can’t vogue or can’t walk balls . . . the biggest misconception is that everyone who vogues [in Toronto] is a Monroe.”
Indeed, the ball scene is rarely what newcomers expect it to be. For one, although voguing does enter into some categories, the majority of them are based on fashion, swagger and runway confidence. Fierce competition on the runway for the face or best-dressed prize can be just as intense and riveting as a serious dance throwdown. And when the arms do, inevitably, start flailing, it might not be the vogue you’d imagine based on Madonna’s video — several Monroes specialize in vogue femme, a more theatrical sub-style that is a marked departure from the classic “old way.”
Finally, despite the sometimes overwhelming fierceness of experienced walkers, the ballroom really does have room for everybody to compete. The 19 time-travelling categories of the anniversary ball speak to this inclusivity; they range from Buddhist monk effects to buff-body gladiators.
“We don’t just do this for ourselves,” Venus Monroe insists. “So don’t just come — participate!”
“It’s not a show, per se,” TKO says. “It’s show and tell.”
The Time Traveler's Ball is at 7pm on Sat, Nov 3 at Club120, 120 Church St. $15 advance, $20 door.
Photos by Christopher Cushman