Looking for an uplifting watch this weekend? Consider Kiki, a 2016 documentary that’s considered an unofficial sequel to Paris is Burning. Kiki, available on Hulu and Amazon, picks up where earlier docs left off, painting a portrait of New York’s drag and ballroom and voguing scene. It’s also somewhat unique in that it was made in close partnership with people who are actually in the scene, providing a more confident, trustworthy glimpse of a thriving queer subculture.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with ballroom documentaries lately as part of my YouTube series Culture Cruise, where I take a close look at queer milestones from TV and film. In recent months, I examined 1968’s The Queen, which provides a glimpse at a contentious pageant that laid the foundation for the later ballroom scene; and Paris is Burning, one of the most important records of LGBTQ+ life in the 1980s. And now, by combining footage from those documentaries, Kiki, and a couple others, it’s possible to reconstruct the often-overlooked history of the scene and ask: After generations of ballroom, how much has changed and how much is exactly the same as it was?
The Kiki scene is a relatively young offshoot of more familiar ballroom — a youth-focused community that grew out of a project to provide young people with safe sex materials. And while the documentaries tend to focus on New York, it’s everywhere: Seattle has a scene of its own, although Emerald City Kiki Sessions has had to postpone all future functions due to the pandemic.
Ballroom’s roots are relatively underground, which means that like many queer subcultures, a lot of its documentation and history are spotty. But Kiki does some impressive legwork to shine a spotlight on the culture’s past, recreating a century-old venue and referencing the drag balls of 100 years ago.
The documentary is particularly impressive when juxtaposed with other recently restored works, like 1967’s Queens at Heart. In that short film, four people (identified then as “homosexual,” but today they might identify as transgender) talk about dressing in femme-gendered clothing and seeking what were then called “sex changes.” Brief glimpses of queer dance parties are so similar to contemporary nights at Kremwork that it’s almost shocking to see.
Taking a long view across multiple documentaries reveals another significant change: Family acceptance has dramatically improved. Fifty years ago, interviewees talk about their family possibly killing them if the truth was revealed; now, in Kiki, biological parents support their kids and attend balls like proud drama-club moms.
For ballroom participants who are transgender, a massive amount has changed — medical care, social acceptance, terminology, and more. But what hasn’t is the deep-rooted knowledge that the freedom to express one’s gender authentically is vital. In the 1960s, documentary subjects talk about how a “sex change” will make them fulfilled; in the 1980s, subjects laugh and celebrate their transition on the beach; and in 2016, subjects express relief that the ballroom scene has made it possible to live their true selves.
But the single biggest change from then until now is behind the camera. There have been times when it was dangerous or criminal to attend drag and ballroom functions; as a result, a ton of queer culture is simply lost. And for many decades, the means to document one’s life were expensive or out-of-reach for marginalized communities.
But today, more people than ever from within the ballroom scene are recording their lives and documenting their art. What was once lost, overlooked, or endangered is now uplifted and celebrated — and it’s made me more impatient than ever for this pandemic to pass so we can kiki again.