Denver is Burning: Following the Journey of Ballroom Culture from NYC to Denver

Celebrating queer culture and nightlife throughout the years and Meow Wolf’s partnership with House of Flora.

Contributing author: Erin Barnes

We all remember the first time we ever saw Paris is Burning. A queer cinema class in college, a gathering of friends at a sleepover in high school, at the behest of your best friend telling you repeatedly “you have to see this, I can’t describe it but it’s the most incredible doc I’ve ever seen.” I was witness to it in surgical recovery at home, sixteen years old, scrolling Netflix, freshly out as trans. Bearing witness to it was revolutionary. As I would later go on to discover the problematic actions of the director, its impact was undeniable. A constant stream of YouTube videos became a household mainstay– videos of Leiomy, Willi Ninja, Octavia St Laurent vs Carmen Xtravaganza in FQ– it was the media I became obsessed with.

Ballroom was created out of necessity, the need for black and brown queer people to have their own space. At the time of its inception, the traction of pageants began to really take off. We can reference the inner workings of these early pageants to one of my favorite documentaries of all time, The Queen. The Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant is not what makes the documentary so spectacular however. At the climax of the doc, Crystal LaBeija (who would go on to form the Royal House of LaBeija, as seen in Paris is Burning) has what I can only call a master class in reading. She (rightly so) calls the pageant rigged, that all the “true beauties” stayed home because they knew the pageant would be rigged for the white queen. LaBeija, in her righteous and poignant monologue, defines why ballroom was created. Ballroom was formed as a reaction to the racist systems that the pageant circuit was formed on. Black and brown queers demanded their own space as well, and thus created the ballroom scene in direct response. Wherever black and brown queers spread across the nation, ballroom came with them.

Caption: Photo by Evan Benally Atwood Alt text: Forward-facing view of a person dressed in green with a daisy hat and legs open, sitting inside a yellow space
Photo by Evan Benally Atwood

In the 2010s, before the arrival of Kiki House of Flora in Denver and Valentino's recruitment by its legendary founding Fxther Passa Flora, Valentino took the initiative to establish and curate Denver KiKi Sessions. Although there were some ballroom-adjacent events happening before and during this time, it is crucial to differentiate Denver KiKi sessions from these events. While the city witnessed various performances and showcases related to the ballroom scene, Denver KiKi sessions were specifically created to provide the queer community with a unique opportunity. These sessions allowed individuals to delve into ballroom culture through research, knowledge sharing, and active participation in vogue sessions.

photo copies of five people, three standing and two crouched down, dressed in fishnets and denim
Photo courtesy of Valentino Valentine

Enter Valentino Valentine, who opened a chapter of the Kiki House of Flora in Denver, ensuring that as house mother, the family became the premiere Kiki house in the city, solidifying its place in the scene.

Valentine, who is of Haitian descent, constantly found themselves curating their own scenes and art collectives to empower not only themselves, but others who looked like them, who came from similar backgrounds of intentional misunderstandings, and to create space in this world for them and who they loved. As the house mother of the Denver chapter of the Kiki House of Flora, Valentino was not only actively involved in the local Kiki scene but also participated in balls alongside the Portland chapter. Additionally, they embarked on tours, competing state to state with the Denver chapter, fostering and creating a space where queer individuals in Denver could not only be acknowledged but also flourish.

The challenge of curating a black and brown queer space was and still is to challenge whiteness. Bars often failed to recognize their responsibility to create spaces that felt safe to everyone who wasn’t white despite wanting black and brown entertainment. While the support from these establishments can serve as catalysts for unlocking possibilities and opportunities, the house demonstrated its ability to flourish autonomously and establish a distinct presence within the public sphere.

collage of photos of two people standing in front of snowy mountains wearing star tops, fishnets, and high black heels
Photo courtesy of Valentino Valentine

"Queer culture and nightlife are where we find our friends and family," explains Valentine. "We seek a sense of communion on the dance floor, which serves as our church and outlet for expression and release. There exists a longstanding history between queer individuals and their connection to nightlife, club culture, and dance floors."

Photo by Evan Benally Atwood

The Kiki House of Flora fosters an environment of learning, growth, and community as all houses do. Drawing from valuable guidance received from Icon Diva Davanna Mugler and the Legendary Malik Mugler in New York, Valentino has hosted ballroom workshops in Denver, offering individuals invaluable opportunities to delve into the art of vogue fem, and the captivating world of ballroom culture. Under the mentorship of esteemed figures like Legendary Cameo Balenciaga, participants have been able to immerse themselves in these workshops, further enriching their understanding and skills.

group of people sitting in a circle on a wood floor with string lights across the top of the room and lots of windows
Photo courtesy of Valentino Valentine

The Kiki House of Flora hosted their first ball in 2020, garnering recognition from the queer community at large. We immediately offered to fly members of the house to our Santa Fe exhibition, House of Eternal Return. However, that was brought to a screeching halt with the pandemic. Once we established and opened Convergence Station in 2021, we invited the Kiki House of Flora to continue throwing balls in our venue, The Perplexiplex. The Nintendo Ball was one of the most successful events seen by our venue, and we continue to have a beautiful partnership, hosting the Storybook Ball on June 17th (details below).

Flyer by Jaime Dimas

If someone is interested in getting involved in ballroom or participating in a house, it just takes reaching out and attending House of Flora events. Many ballroom events are still thriving underground , and are passed through word of mouth and social media.. Additionally, there is a Facebook group called Denver Kiki Sessions that provides resources related to ballroom, including terminology, films, and books.

“Reach out,” says Valentine. “We wanna know who you are. Sometimes it does feel intimidating. But we wanna get to know you especially if this is something you want to do.”

Ballroom culture has a deep legacy in queer history, influencing fashion, dance, social activism, and creating community. It has provided black and brown queer people a space to exist as talented individuals, with resilience and creativity, seen as they are. To be in community with those around you who look like and fully understand you as a whole of your parts, ballroom cultivates friendships, relationships, love, and community out of necessity and flourishes as each person comes together to contribute and pay homage to, with that same love.

"People don't receive enough praise in general, and especially in this scene," says Valentino. “Ballroom is a celebration of yourself to the highest degree.”

House of Flora is throwing the Storybook Ball during Pride Month at Convergence Station’s The Perplexiplex, June 17th at 8 PM. Get tickets here.

Watch The House of Flora's guide video here.