Our 2019 Fall Pride Guide, in collaboration with VA Pride, comes out at PrideFest this Saturday! In this article from the magazine, we take a closer look at Virginia’s newest ambassadors of ball culture: the House Of Hashi.
Seldom does the Byrd Theatre witness a standing ovation, but this past Pride Month, the House of Hashi had a 400-person crowd roaring with applause. On the fourth night of the queer film series, MonGays, Health Brigade sponsored a screening of Paris is Burning. People from every corner of Central Virginia turned out to see the cult classic on the silver screen for the first time. However, few knew that VA Pride board member Jamal Brooks had a surprise waiting in the wings.
When Wynter, Ken Ken, Gio, and Chloe strutted down the aisle to the front of the theater, a hush descended over the audience. As soon as the voguing began, however, everyone was on their feet, staring in awe as each performer brought to life the movement and dance that defined Madonna’s career and electrified a generation. The precision and athleticism of twirls, poses, and death drops can be taken for granted at a ball, where top-notch performers face off with such moves for hours on end — but for the Byrd Theatre audience, the show was a stunning treat.
This performance birthed the House of Hashi, and marked a rare moment in Virginia in which black, queer, and trans bodies took center stage at one of the city’s most prominent venues. The importance of taking up space inside a Richmond landmark was not lost on the house’s four members, nor their manager; for them, MonGays was the perfect launching pad to become ambassadors for the Commonwealth’s underground ballroom scene.
Immediately after, Black Pride RVA booked the House of Hashi to perform at both their Youth Dance and Day of Purpose in July. Not long later, the group received an invitation to perform at the 2019 VA PrideFest with headliner Betty Who. But as the bookings pour in, the House of Hashi has not forgotten who they are performing for and why.
Much like Paris is Burning and Pose before them, the shows across the Commonwealth have the ability to use creativity and dance to break down barriers within the LGBTQ community, as well as between queer and straight worlds. By adhering to the intricate customs and rules of the ballroom community during their performances, they have the power to draw audiences into a space where they’d never normally set foot.
Ball culture arose out queer people’s frustration from being constantly shut out of straight spaces. The drag balls of the mid-twentieth century, like much else at the time, eventually split in two due to the ubiquitous cultures of racism and transphobia. Black, brown, and trans performers would only sit on the sidelines and get left out of trophy ceremonies for so long. If they wanted to win, they knew they’d have to create their own underground scene.
Ball culture in Richmond goes back, as far as Gio can remember, to at least the late 1990s. None of the performers of the House of Hashi are old enough to know exactly when queer people first began putting on their finest clothes to meet in our capital’s auditoriums, hotel conference rooms, churches, and parking lots. The prejudice of the times and the often-secretive nature of the events precluded their thorough documentation. What everyone can agree on is that some of their best memories were made at Skateland, between the hours of two and seven in the morning.
From the outside looking in, one may assume that ballroom is little more than improvised dance, flamboyant outfits, and spontaneous bravado; however, that presumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Ball culture is governed by a strict set of customs, rules, and hierarchies that often feel closer to the royal courts of Victorian England than to modern-day America.
Each ball features an elaborate — and often ostentatious — theme, which may range from the Marvel Universe to Gods and Goddesses, or from the patriotism of the Fourth of July to Cartoon Network. Large balls may only take place once a year, while smaller pageants, known as “miniballs,” happen as often as organizers can pull them together.
Each ball begins with an acronym: LSS is the portion of the night when Legends, Statements, and Stars of the scene are called to give a quick preview of their talents and let the audience know to expect a show. A ball performer only achieves legendary status, which can never be revoked, after consistently winning in their categories for at least a decade. In the old days, performers often retired after becoming legendary, but in today’s ballroom, Legends increasingly continue to walk and create memorable moments.
The only group above them are Icons — people who made their life as legends while also giving back to their community. Icons are often advocates who fight for equal rights and the health of all queer people, acting as the mothers and fathers of houses and guiding their children to legendary status. “As an Icon, you’re not just walking to win, you’re walking for a purpose,” explains Gio.
Below the Legends reign the Statements; ball performers who have a proven record of winning for at least five years. Gio and Wynter of the House of Hashi fall within this category. Having only competed for a couple years, Chloe and Ken Ken sit among the Stars. This final group consists of competitors who are relatively new to ballroom, but have already made a name for themselves on the circuit. Flagging someone as a Star notifies the community to watch their rise as they compete their way towards becoming a Statement, Legend, or perhaps even an Icon.
The key to rising through the complex hierarchy of ballroom is to compete in categories. The only thing that remains constant about categories is that there are normally 12 per ball. Beyond that, anything goes. A typical list of categories may include any of the following and more: Female Figure Performance, Face, Schoolboy Realness, Runway, Best Dressed, Labels, Sneaker Versus Sneaker, Sex Siren, Body, Urban Streetwear, Twister, Butch Queen Vogue Fem, and Legendary Performance. Many of the categories are even broken down further to make room for all gender identities.
While it may seem paradoxical that participants choose to receive this intense scrutiny and judgement from their peers — in a world already critical of their existence — for many performers, success, trophies, and the lavish praise they earn may be the only substantial affirmation they receive for their identity and skills. Before Gio was open with his sexuality, he would sneak off to balls to feel like he fit in. “The ballroom scene was the one place where I could be completely gay and face no judgement, even though I was being judged.”
When Gio first entered the ballroom scene, competitors made all of their own “effects” for signature looks by hand, using sequins, glue guns, and whatever materials they could scrape together. Perhaps due to the increasing popularity of ball culture, today’s outfits are often about showing off the amount of money invested into each effect. Wowing the crowd is half the battle, and with prizes ranging from $50 to well over $1,000, it makes sense for ballroom professionals to invest in their craft.
“Ballroom requires a lot of free time and money,” Gio explains. “It requires you to be able to travel and have a full team that supports you. It looks so fun, but it really can be a full-time job. Some people will go to balls counting on winning their categories just so that they can pay their rent for the month. Professional ballroom is a lifestyle.”
Gio (formerly of House Revlon) got brought into ball culture at the age of 21, and was groomed for his voguing talents to walk Butch Queen Vogue Fem as well as Realness With A Twist. His natural athleticism and rhythm shine in his work as a dancer, personal trainer, and fitness instructor. A jack of all trades, Gio also gigs as a stylist, designer, and bartender when he’s not advocating for better access to testing and treatment as a Greater Than AIDS ambassador. “Self-expression is key to me,” he said. “Whatever you want to let out artistically, do it. Whether it’s cooking, sewing, or acting, you just have to express yourself, because someone out there is going to feel what you’re putting out there and respond to it. You’re always going to influence somebody by being yourself.”
Chloe of House Lanvin started off in the world of pageants, and even used to be the duchess of Nationz. She wanted to do something different to change her brand from frilly dresses to “Face” — the category in which every follicle and pore is inspected to assess perfection. “I walk in Runway and Face because those categories reflect the things about myself I take pride in,” she said. “Those two allow me to showcase my beauty, hair, skin, and makeup all in one.” Her success in the balls comes from the expertise she has gained in her business, Chloe’s Customs & Cosmetics. Under this brand she has built her career as a modeling coach, fashion designer, and makeup artist, all in one. While her friends consider her most famous for her delectable banana pudding, the ballroom scene appreciates the full range of her talents.
Ken Ken, also of House Lanvin, cut his teeth in the world of performance as the first male cheerleader at Huguenot High School. “To be the first and only male cheerleader required confidence,” he said. “I had just moved here from North Carolina and wanted to make history.”
His charisma and self-belief serve him well when he competes in Realness, Schoolboy Realness, and Realness with a Twist — all variations on a theme of trying not to appear too feminine or gay, a skill which to this day can mean the difference between a safe trip home and being jumped. Outside of ballroom, Ken Ken lets his creativity flow acting at Grace Street Theater, editing videos, singing, choreographing, and writing poetry. Whatever he does, he does it with all his heart, declaring, “In ballroom you’re going to have ten people tell you ‘no,’ so you better be ready to walk that eleventh time!”
Sabrina Wynter Gabana Prodigy serves as the House of Hashi’s commentator — the person who announces, makes beats for, and remarks upon performers (the Pray Tell of the group, for Pose fans). Urged on by her friends’ high estimation of her wit, Wynter spontaneously competed in Commentator Versus Commentator at a ball in Alabama and took home the grand prize. Combined with her winnings from a voguing category, her haul for the night was a solid grand. Her natural talent for female figure performance is clear from her work as a dancer and hairstylist. She saw her first clip of ballroom performance when she was in middle school and was instantly transfixed. As the current Princess of the DMV region for the House of Gabana, Wynter isn’t afraid of responsibility, but the crowd size expected at VA PrideFest will be a new level for her.
“I’m very, very excited to perform this year,” she said. “This is so surreal for me. I never would’ve believed I’d one day make it to such a big stage when I was just voguing in my friends’ bedrooms. Ballroom gives everybody a chance to express yourself and be a part of something, and I want us to be a bridge from the ballroom scene to mainstream society. I want to continue to let people know we’re here.”
While most house names are derived from fashion names and labels like Balenciaga, Misrahi, and Chanel, the group of Gio, Chloe, Wynter, and Ken Ken chose to call their collective of ballroom ambassadors “Hashi.” It’s a word they came up with that equates to confidence and the banishing of all self-doubt. “If you’re hashi, you are who you are, and you won’t allow anyone to take that away from you,” explained Wynter. “You know what you stand for and where you want to go in life.”
The House of Hashi knows their mission: they want to continue to make ball culture known to people who would never otherwise get the chance to experience it. “We want to help educate people on ballroom,” said Ken Ken. In this aim, their mission bears a message of inclusivity and acceptance. The House of Hashi hopes to grow over the coming months and years to showcase the full diversity of ballroom. Anyone is welcome to audition — as long as they have the hashi to walk the runway.
Catch the House of Hashi performing at VA Pridefest 2019 on September 28th from noon to 8pm at Brown’s Island. If you’re interested in booking or joining the House of Hashi, email [email protected] to schedule an audition.