“When people usually think of the Ballroom scene it this thing that happens indoors as though were always inside, in the dark. But here you see something common—a family picnic at the park. You see us outside.”
When an outsider enters the room, many things can happen. One, of those things can be the act of not acting, of simply allowing the other to observe and to be present among the life that is already happening. Chantal Regualt (CR) entered the New York City Ballroom scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s and was allowed to be present with her camera. Over 30 years later, Regnault, now 75, sits with a skinny cigarette dangling between two fingers. “I’m an old addict,” she says laughing. She is joined by photographer and activist. Luna Luis Ortiz (LLO), one of the “kids” she captured during those few years when she became the part of a community that is present to simply record. Over Zoom, Regualt is seated continents away, but also close to Ortiz, as they try their best to remember the stories of Chantal’s images, the people in them, and a real moment in time—the ballroom untouched by the outside world.
“Our sisters, they’re voguing.”
CR: Imagine that I am a [Parisian] photographer in New York City and I am photographing like crazy. I started photography late and I had already been in New York for ten years. I had a link here in Paris with some girlfriends who had a gay magazine—Gay Pierre, it was the first French gay magazine. I had friends there. They were journalists at Libé—Libération. They started to ask me to send them pictures concerning the gay culture in New York.
In 1988, I saw an article in The Village Voice. That’s how I first became aware of the Ballroom scene. And, naturally, I’m a photographer and it looked so beautiful. I say, wow, this is incredible so, I went to my first ball, Luna. And back then it was like that. You go to the first ball. It was not advertised, right?
“We had and have full lives, day and night. We were not in hiding, especially when we were together.”
CR: But once you get into the circuit, then you’re informed, right?
LLO: Yeah, you go to a ball and get a flyer at that ball for the next two balls.
CR: Exactly. Well, I was already 40 years old. I was already an old lady. I was at an age where I see all those kids could have been my kids, you understand? They were very young and very touching and very sweet and you could see what the ball would give them. It was a space where everybody could be together free. And even though there was this cloud outside of AIDs, right? You were stepping into this world. And, I was happy that I was tolerated. Now, Luna and I did not really meet.
LLO: No, I saw her.
CR: You saw me?
LLO: Yeah. Our meeting and my introduction to the ballroom scene was actually quite accidental. A friend of mine in- vited me to a Thanksgiving dinner at a youth center here, in New York. at the time, it was called the Institute for the Protection of Gay and Lesbian Youth. It’s now called Hetrick-Martin. The Center was literally across the street from the Pier. If you remember, in Paris Is Burning, you see something that looks like a waterfront. You can see that same body of water from the Center. It is literally across the street. A lot of the kids who didn’t have homes, lived at the pier in the summer or on warm days, and they would cross the street to wash up or to have a meal be- cause the Center had snacks and food. But this day was special because it was Thanksgiving, which meant they were going to give us turkey and cranberry. So a lot of young people were there. It was my first time going into this environment. I’m going up these stairs, and I can hear this bass, his beats, like music—the Vogue music of the time. This is 1988. And I’m like, what is going on with this strange music?
I always use this, but remember The Wizard of Oz, the opening scenes? Remember when the house landed in Oz and the film was black and white. And when Dorothy opened the door, everything was in full Technicolor? That is the only visual that I could compare this to so that peo- ple understand what I’m talking about.
When I reached the top of those stairs everything was in full on color. It was beautiful. It was nice to look at. The kids were doing the lines and making all these beautiful shapes with their bodies. I said to my friend who invited me to this event, I said, “What are they doing? What is that?”, and he said, “Our sisters, they’re voguing”.
Everybody was in cliques. You had the House of Red Blonde over there. You had the House of Extravaganza, the House of Pendavis. So I walk in, I’m the new kid. And everybody’s like, who is this cutie? But for some reason, the people that were the House of Pendavis were much nicer to me. So, I started to hang out with folks that were in the House of Pendavis, and eventually became a part of that House. A few years later, I went to the Red Zone for I think the Viva La Glam Ball, what was it, 1990? Was that the one you photographed? Or was it ‘90?
CR: ‘90 because ‘92—I don’t know, what was the last one? Maybe the one that Pendavis won.
LLO: Yeah, it was the one that Temperance won. You know, that could have been 1989.
CR: No, it was 1990.
“Chantal captured the what can be considered the golden age of Ball Room. Chantal’s images captured the innocence and the connection of family, the love.”
LLO: Yeah, yeah. I was at that Ball and that’s where I see Chantal. Of course, I don’t know what Chantal is doing. I just see this lady—I’m going to say old white lady—taking pictures. In a sea of black and brown skin, you notice a Chantal in the room. It’s like, who is that? I was already intrigued with photography, so I just I kept looking her way, and I was kind of trying to get her attention, too. I know photography is forever. So I was trying to get Chan- tal to take my picture in some sort of way. I don’t think she even noticed that I was there, there were so many beautiful fem queens.
LLO: Chantal captured the what can be considered the golden age of Ball Room. Chantal’s images captured the innocence and the connection of family, the love. She captured the community at a time before the losses that we endured, before Paris Burning, before Madonna’s Vogue song. After Paris Is Burning and Madonna, Ballroom just went insane. So Chantal’s images captured the inno- cence and the connection of family, the love.
“When people usually think of the Ballroom scene it this thing that happens indoors as though were always inside, in the dark. But here you see something common—a family picnic at the park. You see us outside. You see us in society. And, perhaps that gives a different perspective. A lot of people who pay attention to the more popular depictions of the Ballroom scene, and the culture that surrounded it, think that we slept all day, that we were all waiting for the next Ball. No jobs, no life. But that is not the case. We had and have full lives, day and night. We were not in hiding, especially when we were together.” –LLO