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Oakland's "ballroom" scene thrives on fierce competition and community

Performer finds fierce competition and community in Oakland ballroom scene
Performer finds fierce competition and community in Oakland ballroom scene 03:47

A trend that started in New York City as a way to help young gender fluid and trans people of color find a safe space to be themselves is thriving in Oakland.

Welcome to the glittering world of "ballroom," where the colors are bright, the drama is high, and the heels are even higher. 

"Ballroom was very much an escape for me. A place where I could come and be a different person," Soho Tisci said. 

In 2021, Tisci moved to the Bay Area from Brooklyn looking for acceptance. He found it in Oakland's ballroom scene, where he learned to "vogue."

The dance style, popularized by Madonna's iconic music video for her song of the same name, is rooted in the ballroom culture of New York City in the 1980s, where gender fluid people of color formed groups known as "houses" — chosen families that provide its members with protection and a sense of belonging.

Houses face off in fierce but friendly ballroom competitions that include different categories. 

"Ballroom for me is like Hollywood for the gay community. And here I am a celebrity," Tisci said.

Tisci was competing in the runaway category at an event in downtown Oakland, where he was judged on his walk, confidence and overall look. For this competition, he dressed in a purple leather outfit covered in googly eyes. 

"I'm very much a big anime geek. And I just wanted to create my own version of [an] anime character and I wanted to kind of be, when I step out, all eyes on me. So I took it literal [sic]," he said. 

In recent years, the underground Ballroom community has stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight, appearing in Beyonce's Renaissance Tour as well as hit TV shows like FX's "Pose," Max's "Legendary," and "RuPaul's Drag Race" on MTV. 

"It's the attitude you command the room," said Eve Bodega St. Laurent, who served as the evening's host. "You want to get them to gaze into you."

St. Laurent, the mother of House of Bodega, said Oakland is quickly emerging as one of the most active ballroom scenes in the country. 

"It just brings unity and community together," she said. 

The event included eight different houses, each competing in its signature color. 

 As Tisci hit the dance floor decked out in purple, he focused on serving up the perfect amount of attitude to secure the highest score from the judges. In the end, he took the prize.

"You have to make people in the audience feel every bit, every moment, every morsel that you do. It's really kind of like an out of body experience," he said. 

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