Chicago Ballroom History
This account is a revised edition from an earlier published article in Cut Magazine
The "ball" started rolling with the formation of the Legendary House of Avant-Garde in 1986, by Tommy, Rico and Wardell, the latter being appointed as father. The house name came from the outlandish fashion sense of many of the group's designers, as well as the fact that they would be "breaking ground" in the Midwest. Though the Chicago south side drag ball tradition started in the mid-30s and continued until the early 90s, it had yet to adopt the format of "houses" developed in the late 1960s in New York's Harlem. in 1989, Chanale Epree was appointed as mother of Avant-Garde due to her East coast experience during the early 80s, as a member of the Legendary House of Xtravaganza.
In the fall of '89, local club promoters sponsored the Chicago Voguers' Ball, an event inspired by the New York fashion industry's Love Ball earlier that year. Both events had taken the idea of "houses", representing various businesses and retailers, competing in a variety of categories to help raise money for the Howard Brown Health Center in the fight against AIDS. The Chicago affair was successful, but just didn't seem to capture what Chanale had grown to know as a ball. For one, why call it a Voguer's Ball, when there wasn't a single vogue category offered? This misnomer would later lead people to think vogueing was all these events were about, when it was only one of many different categories traditionally being offered.
As Avant-Garde membership increased, the group became a collection of diverse talents: aspiring dancers, designers, photographers, models, etcetera. It was to be a family, providing mutual support in oftentimes non-supportive circumstances. Though the early days left the Gardes with only the clubs to showcase their talents (particularly Thursday nights at Bistro Too), they still met with general opposition from the local black gay community which did not endorse any flamboyant displays of any kind, short of the full drag pageants like Miss Continental.
In early 1990, MTV sponsored a video contest, promoting Madonna's new song, "Vogue". An entry from the Gardes placed as one of the top ten winners. The group soon came in contact with Melissa Brown, a local club promoter, and began displaying its vogueing and fashions as an opening for various benefits, including the Second Chicago Voguers' Ball. This in turn lead to other engagements in the city, as well as the suburbs.
Later, Aaron Avant-Garde [Enigma] created a working relationship with the now defunct Ka-Boom Nightclub, which sponsored The Unity Ball in December '91. It was Chicago's first look at what a real "house" ball was all about. This was later followed by two other events: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre Ball, and As The Ball Turns. The Fantasy Ball of October '92 was the Gardes' first attempt at sponsoring their own function. It was held at the original Wicker Park location of Hothouse, a still-popular jazz and arts venue relocated in the South Loop area.
Since the beginning of the Chicago community, many other houses were created, namely the House of Zandella (1991-1997). Lead by Father Jody (presently a member of the House of Enigma), this group took the first Grand Prize category ever at a Chicago house ball. The House of Royalty, an earlier disbanded DC house, was reopened in Chicago in 1992 by Father Reavis and Mother Sasha Valentino. They sponsored their own affair, The Royalty Ball, held August 1992. The House of Delegate made their debut at the Royalty function, lead by the late Mother Lindsey "Consuela".
Four houses eventually branched directly from Avant-Garde. The first was Xcel, opening early '92, and was run by Father Tommy and Mother Cassandra Gaye. Eventually this house closed and returned with additional members to Avant-Garde. During its existence, it gave Royalty a run for its money, competing at "As The Ball Turns", taking almost half the trophies awarded. Before closing, Xcel produced the House of AMIRO (A Multitude of Inspiration, Representing Oneness). Established the summer of 1992, they made a smashing debut at The Fantasy Ball, and went home with most of the trophies.
The second branch-off from A-G was Élan. Lead by Father Kenny "Kavon" and Mother Yolanda "Angel", it acquired permission to adopt the name of a local fashion magazine. They made their debut at The Fantasy Ball, and years later merged with the Legendary New York House of Omni, becoming the Chicago chapter.
Avant-Garde also produced the House of Enigma, which held it's kickoff party in November 1992 along with the Élans, later sponsoring their first event, the "Wrecking Ball" in 1993.
The most recent Avant-Garde "birth" was the Chicago chapter of the House of Shade, lead nationally by Father Mark, but founded originally in New York by Father Wari.
The family tree continues to grow, with houses coming and going, along with distant houses opening even more Chicago chapters. This is not the end of the story, only the beginning.
Copyright © 1999-2010 Aaron P. Brown. All rights reserved.