the cunt guide to ballroom music (NY Mag)
Ballroom culture is in vogue once again, this time sashaying straight into America’s living rooms thanks to the smash success of FX’s Pose — Ryan Murphy’s dance-musical series set in New York City’s 1980s vogue scene. Started in the late-1970s by black and latino drag queens in Harlem, ballroom is a quintessentially queer, New York–bred underground subculture that has always been rooted in the city’s late-night streets and clubs.
The music played at balls, which often take place in community centers and banquet halls, is primarily functional. The action centers around voguers competing in various categories to win cash prizes and glory for their respective crews or “Houses.” DJs are usually stationed off to the side, and must know how to play the right tracks for each category at lightning speed while working with the night’s MC.
Vogue battles also go down on nightclub dance floors, and during its early days, ballroom was soundtracked by popular house and disco tracks played in clubs like Paradise Garage and The Sound Factory, where Madonna is said to have seen vogue dancing for the first time. Certain tracks became so synonymous with voguing that they acted like bat signals calling dancers to the floor.
As the music got faster and harder over the decades, the dancing also shifted into more dramatic and athletic styles, with voguers gravitating toward songs with cymbal crashes, sharp synth stabs, and other dramatic accents that punctuated their poses, splits, and dips. Today, a new generation of producers are bringing ballroom into the present by recontextualizing the past — sampling classic vogue tracks from earlier decades, alongside clips from pop songs and internet memes.
The anthems that define ballroom culture are more than just old club hits. They also glorify the spirit of queerness and femininity, flipping words like “cunt” and “pussy” from put-downs into the highest praise. “It’s more than music — it’s an attitude,” says Niall Connolly, a U.K. ballroom DJ who goes by CVNT TRAXXX. “Society says you’re worthless, but the music says no — that’s a great thing, and you’re not alone.”
Here’s a rundown of 20 tracks that defined the sound of ballroom, from early inception to current day.