On The Town

Gworl Power: Houston's Bustling Drag Ballroom Scene

On the runway in 2022.

By Xio December 19, 2022 Published in the Winter 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Participants walk the runway at the first ever Gworls: Kiki Ball in Houston, August 13, 2022.

Image: Kayla Simone

There was something different about Fairdale Lane that August night. The ordinarily quiet street buzzed with new energy. Most of it radiated from the white mansion on the corner. Awash in pink and orange lights, the building flickered and bass grooves thrummed from within, only subtly hinting at the colorful event inside.  

Pulsing on the other side of the mansion’s walls was the Gworls: Kiki Ball, Houston’s newest ballroom experience. Next to a panel of judges, Giusi (“Juicy”) Mulan chanted as she guided two voguers through an elegant battle of poses. “Hold that pose for me,” she instructed. At once, the performers froze to the sound of cheers. 

Judges called out for more light. Hands filled the air. And soon, the runway glowed from dozens of smartphone flashlights. The crowd shuffled back to make room, and an excited murmur kicked up again. No one wanted to miss a move. 

Behind the crowd, DJ Amarji King waited for Mulan’s instruction before queueing up another thumping beat. It was Houston’s first ball in two years, and, as its coordinator, King wanted to make sure everything was just right. That it adhered to proper ballroom culture. “I wanted to be really intentional about the authenticity of the experience people got,” King said. “Because, for many of them, this was their first time [attending a ball]. If this was correct, I had to ask: ‘who needs to be on the judges’ panel? Who needs to be on the mic?’” 

Not to be confused with traditional ballroom dance, this form of ballroom, often called “drag balls” or “house balls,” are themed competitions that consist of individuals, historically drag queens, walking and posing (or “vogueing”) to music on a runway in front of crowds and judges. Typically each contestant belongs to—and represents—a “house,” led by a “mother” figure, who serves as a mentor and sometimes even a guardian, both within the ballroom scene and in everyday life. 

DJ and co-organizer of the Gworls: Kiki Ball, Amarji King, is bringing ballroom culture to Houston.

Image: Kayla Simone

Drag balls date back to late 1800s Harlem as an outlet for mostly gay men to freely express themselves through performance. Over the decades, they’ve become popular in other major cities, primarily among Black and Latino members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Ballroom culture gained renewed interest in 2018 with Ryan Murphy’s television series, Pose, and again in 2020 with the premiere of HBO’s Legendary. As balls began to thrive in New York and Europe, the youth-led, economically accessible, and less competitive underground Kiki ballroom scene also started to flourish.

Once ballroom arrived in Dallas in 2018, the city earned a stream of dutiful participants hoping to bring ballroom to their cities. Mulan and a friend often traveled to Dallas weekly to compete in balls before throwing the scene’s first ball in 2020. “When [Kiki] started [in Texas], there wasn’t a ballroom scene here in Houston,” she said. “We had a sort of ‘mini’ mainstream ball function happening now and again, but it was never consistent.” 

But the scene inspired many, including King, from the moment the Houston circuit started. They had grown up on a steady diet of Paris is Burning reruns and ballroom compilations on YouTube, waiting for their chance to join the performers and DJs they admired. After moving to Houston, King started deejaying at after-hours parties around the city, often drawing a crowd for their energetic mix of house music and ballroom beats. “I came to a [vogue] practice and met Giusi,” King said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, I don’t know what y’all do, but I’ve been loving this stuff since middle school, and I gotta be a part of this.’” 

While performing at Star Lane, King met entrepreneur Waqas Syed. The two threw their first party together, CVNT, in 2022. “It was the underground party for Pride weekend,” Syed said. “It was meant to bring a bunch of different groups of people together with art and music.” 

The pair quickly moved on to planning a new party with King at the helm. To King, a Houston Kiki ball was the natural next step. “When I started playing after-hours parties, I didn’t hear people playing ballroom stuff, especially in a club setting. Once we realized people were really messing with this, [planning] shifted from an ‘Amarji King party’ to more of a Houston ballroom showcase.”

To maintain the authenticity of the ball’s experience, King turned to their house mother, Mulan, for guidance and resources. A participant in the scene since 2017, Mulan is a studied drag performer, event organizer, and ball commentator. Together, King and Mulan are members of the House of Mulan Gulf Coast Chapter, one of the active Houses in Houston’s burgeoning ballroom scene. 

King and Mulan knew the Gworls: Kiki Ball was more than another party on Houston’s nightlife circuit. As the city’s first ball in years, the event signaled Houston’s re-entrance into the Texas ballroom scene. “That was my main goal when [I entered] the Kiki scene,” Mulan said. “I wanted something to flourish in our Houston community. We have so much talent that goes unnoticed, and ultimately balls bring people out of their shells to do what they need to do.” 

Planning the ball required a thoughtful and meticulous process. Syed sourced the venue months prior, intending to use it for a rave. But soon, he and King agreed that the venue—a two-story mansion on Houston’s West side—was the best home for the ball. With help from her network, Mulan secured the ball’s judges and a few tenured performers. King provided the beats for the night, sourcing from their deep collection of Soundcloud ballroom remixes and classic riffs.

During the night, “virgin” and seasoned competitors walked for grand prizes in categories including face, runway, and performance. In the ball’s final moments, Mulan and the judges directed the closing battles, boosted by King’s rolling mix of music. 

And so ended the Gworls: Kiki Ball. For now. But King, Mulan, and the team are already considering the ball’s next installment. 

If you’re wondering who won, you’re missing the main point of the ballroom scene, which is, primarily, to nurture a safe space for the mostly LGBTQ+ community to celebrate and safely express their considerable talents among friends, fans, and most of all, family. 

“I feel like the main purpose of the ballroom was to show the world that these people on the back burner of society are equally as talented as the people society puts to the forefront,” King said. “As ballroom becomes more validated, it’s going to allow so many incredibly talented people to get recognized.”

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