Athens native Aquarius Funkk LaBeija returns to Maine for the Kiki Ball in Portland on Thursday, June 13, 2019, as part of the Portland Pride festivities. Credit: Courtesy of Tom Couture

Janet Mock, RuPaul, Madonna. Everyone knows these artists, and each showed a path from the mainstream to the ballroom. In the second week of Portland’s Pride celebration, Mainers can now add hometown artist Aquarius Funkk to that list.

While Saturday’s parade remains the flagship event, a “Kiki Ball” set for Thursday night connects Maine’s LGBTQ community to New York’s historic vogue ballroom scene, the origins of an influential subculture where performers of various houses “walk” for expression, status, celebration, identity and family.

Today, there are ballroom scenes in cities around the globe, from Milan to Mexico City. The Kiki Ball is Portland’s slice of that universe, produced by three members of one of the original ballroom houses — Skylaur, Rozay, and Aquarius Funkk of the House of LaBeija.

Credit: Courtesy of Skylaur LaBeija

A spinoff from pageant culture that took hold as a refuge for queer and trans people, predominantly people of color, in 1980s New York, ballroom culture has historically offered those in the LGBTQ community a space to safely explore aspects of identity and gender performance that might not be otherwise available to them. The 1990 documentary film “Paris is Burning” remains the entry point for understanding ballroom culture, though TV shows “Pose” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — and, yes, Madonna — have shined a light on the scene at one time or another.

What makes a kiki ball? Think of it as the “collegiate-level sports” version of a mainstream ball, considered the major leagues of the ballroom scene. “The kiki scene is more about the process of coming out and figuring out who you are, where you are, and why you are,” said Skylaur, who is also a DJ. “It’s about getting your bearings inside so you can gain your bearings more easily in the outside world.“

“The mainstream is where you get recognition, status,” Aquarius Funkk said. “Kiki is for the kids, for the people coming up, where you can experiment and play a little more.”

As a Mainer, it wasn’t long ago Aquarius Funkk came up themselves. Raised (with a different name) in the tiny Somerset County town of Athens, Aquarius Funkk was one of the only people of color in the region.

“It was very alienating,” Aquarius Funkk, who identifies as “they,” said. “I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, this nerdy-looking person with an afro. I got picked on all the time. I always felt like the other.”

Aquarius Funkk left home at 16, eventually moving to Portland. The city’s network of dance and underground music scenes offered a sense of community, and they began dancing to house music in clubs and performing in burlesque shows. Through friends, Aquarius Funkk discovered voguing and the history of ballroom. In 2015, Aquarius Funkk left Portland to perform in Mexico, joining with the Mexico City-based House of Apocalipstick. It was performing in a ball there that they met Skylaur.

Mimicking a family structure, drag artists are typically brought into the ballroom scene by way of “mothers” and “fathers” and “aunts” and “uncles” — mentors, essentially. Skylaur served this role for Aquarius Funkk, squiring them to New York to become a child of the House of LaBeija, just as Skylaur, rendered homeless in 2009 after coming out to their family, was brought into the house by Tiny LeBeija.

Skylaur credits Tiny LaBeija with originating of a new style of ballroom expression called “vogue femme” (think of the angular, limb-slashing style made popular when Madonna lifted it for her 1990 song “Vogue,” but softened several degrees to be more feminine). The artists expect this style to feature prominently at the Kiki Ball, which they hope to serve as a bridge to young LGBTQ communities of color in the state.

“People still really appreciate my presence here [in Portland]. They recognize that I was unapologetically myself even though I sometimes didn’t know what I was doing, or I was still learning,” Aquarius Funkk said. “If I can come here and do something that gives a person who looks like me a place to discover who they are and what their identity means to them, it’s a huge reason to continue doing this.”

As Pride celebrations have grown increasingly popular over the years, driven by mainstream acceptance and integration, this has often had the effect of rendering safe spaces for LGBTQ people superfluous. Ballroom culture is a reclamation of that project, a safe space for exploration and survival. It’s an indispensible part of LGBTQ history — and Skylaur points out, American history as well.

“That’s also what the f——-’ pilgrims did, coming over here,” Skylaur said, drawing a comparison to a drag culture that has always existed. “At some point, there was someone who was queer, whether they were black, white, red or orange. They were marginalized, and they wanted better for themselves and the people who were like them, so they created a space for them and people like them to survive and eventually thrive.”

Kiki Ball takes place Thursday at 8 p.m., at the Maine Center for Electronic Music, 511 Congress St., Portland; free.

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