An interview with Marquis Revlon Clanton and Joseph Plaster on the historic collaboration between JHU Peabody Library and Baltimore’s ballroom community
The JHU Peabody Library is one of Baltimore’s architectural jewels. It’s a fully functioning library and open to the public, but it’s also an intimidating venue often reserved for fancy weddings for wealthy white patrons and research for the academics who work there. Within its reputation and context, it’s a radical idea to open up the venue to Baltimore’s ballroom community, queer people of color for whom ballroom culture and performance has been an essential and life-affirming experience.
Dr. Joseph Plaster, Curator in Public Humanities at the Sheridan Libraries, saw potential for a historic collaboration between the institution and Baltimore’s ballroom community. He reached out to Baltimore veteran vogue dancer Marquis Revlon Clanton and leaders from the Baltimore ballroom community. The group engaged with JHU/Peabody students, staff, and the ballroom community in planning the Peabody Ballroom Experience, for which they asked competitors to “bring to life a selection of over 300,000 books, dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century, at the Library.” The performance categories of the night included fashion, “realness,” “sex sirens,” voguing, and more.
I went to the ball, which took place on Saturday, April 13, then interviewed the organizers, Plaster and Clanton, about their collaboration, the research competitors did in preparation for the ball, their favorite performances, and more.
Photo by Gerard Gaskin
Cara Ober: How did this collaboration come about?
Joseph Plaster: I moved to Baltimore for a curatorial position at the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. My job is to conduct original research at the university’s museums and libraries and interpret the collections for the public in ways that surface marginalized histories. I decided to partner with artists in the ballroom community to interpret the Peabody Library collections. It seemed like an incongruous match at first: most of the Library books were acquired by Baltimore’s white male elite in the late 1800s and reflect their interests. But one of the most powerful things about ballroom culture is its ability to adopt elements of mainstream culture—even those elements that are built on unjust privilege—and reinterpret them as something beautiful and life-affirming for the queer people of color who make up the community. (Academics might call this “queer performativity” or “disidentification.”)
What was your earliest experience with dance and/or performance? What drew you to this medium of expression?
Marquis Revlon Clanton: My mom said I came out the womb dancing. She called me her dancing baby. My earliest experience with dance was from a very early age. I’m not a trained dancer. I’m self-taught. But if I can remember, I was always dancing.
JP: I grew up playing violin. Music was an alternative world I could enter and explore and feel transformed by. This was important to me as a young queer person who felt of place in my conservative Florida hometown. In graduate school I wrote a performance studies dissertation about the ways queer, marginally housed youth draw on religious ritual, storytelling, and dance to reinterpret social stigma. So performance and queer cultural expression has always been important to me.
“One of the most powerful things about ballroom culture is its ability to adopt elements of mainstream culture—even those elements that are built on unjust privilege—and reinterpret them as something beautiful and life-affirming for the queer people of color who make up the community.” – Dr. Joseph Plaster
How did you first become aware or involved with Baltimore’s ballroom culture?
JP: A Lyft driver asked me if I was “in the life” and told me to check out Club Bunns, the epicenter of Baltimore’s ballroom culture. This happened the day I moved to the city in July 2018. I’d also just been to Berlin, where a friend introduced me to European ballroom culture. I was blown away by the talent and creativity I saw on the runway. The balls I saw in Europe were opulent, larger-than-life affairs. When I walked into the George Peabody Library, with its dramatic atrium and cast iron balconies, it just seemed to cry out for ballroom performance. I checked out Club Bunns, reached out to a few ballroom leaders via Facebook, and the rest is history.
MRC: I was aware about the ballroom culture and scene in 1998-99 through my friends during my early days of being a part of the New Edition Community marching band. We were all were members of the organization. They introduce me to the scene and the lifestyle and the house of Revlon.
In your opinion, what has been the historical function of Baltimore ballroom and vogue dance culture and how has it evolved? Where does one experience it now vs. where would one have experienced it earlier on?
JP: I’ve been recording oral histories with Baltimore’s ballroom community as part of the larger project. I’ll quote my interview with the Legendary Mother Monique West, who talked about change over time: “Ballroom was underground. It was the only place where we could go. Black/gay/trans people weren’t privileged at all, in any kind of way then. So they had to build an underground forum for people like us. We went to ballrooms to express who we were. [But] people can express themselves anywhere at this point. They can get on TV and vogue. Beyoncé dances vogue. [The mainstreaming] has its good and it has its bad. The bad points to me is that other people are getting a lot of credit for something that we went through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to build, and we don’t really get much from it. The good part is some people are getting off the streets, getting picked up for gigs. So it’s working in some people’s favor.”
MRC: Ballroom started in NYC. As it has grown, it began to travel to different cities and Baltimore was one of them. And over time it has grown and grown and has now gone international as well. I started voguing in 1999 and through time I learned, walked, battled, won, and being consistent with it allowed me to become one of the legendary icon masters of vogue. I now teach vogue and share the history with people all over Baltimore and across the world.
I heard many speakers and performers talk about the evening as historic because the Peabody Library has not been a place open to “people like us” in the past. Literally, they pointed to the glass ceiling (gorgeous!) and said that the experience was, for them, tantamount to breaking a historic barrier in Baltimore. Can you talk more about what this means to you?
MRC: Ballroom was an underground community and a culture for the black and Latino LGBTQ community of color that has now gone mainstream. For the community to have the chance of hosting a ball in the Peabody library, no one would have ever imagined. So to be able to accomplish that is a blessing and a milestone within itself, a humbling experience, one to never forget. We made history.
JP: Ballroom is having a mainstream moment. The past few years have seen TV shows like Pose and My House and events at major art museums. One of the dangers of mainstreaming is that outsiders can co-opt and appropriate the culture, often for their own financial gain. One of the first things I did when I launched the project was create an advisory group of ballroom leaders to organize an event that was by ballroom, for ballroom. The board included the Iconic Sebastian Escada; Legendary Mother Marco Blahnik of the House of Manolo Blahnik; Londyn Smith De Richelieu (Mother Miyake Mugler); Legendary Enrique St. Laurent; and Keith Ebony Holt, Father of The House of Ebony. We also prioritized ballroom attendance at the event.
Performance by Marquis Revlon Clanton at The Peabody Library, Photo by Gerard Gaskin
How did you co-curate the ball?
JP: I worked with the advisory board and Peabody staff to co-curate the competition categories. Library curator Paul Espinosa presented a selection of the Library’s existing collections—over 300,000 volumes dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century—at workshops and informal gatherings. The advisory board then discussed how to interpret Library materials through ballroom performance traditions. We ultimately co-produced the twelve runway, vogue, and realness categories, outlined here, that made up the ball.
How does a partnership between JHU/Peabody and Marquis Clanton impact students and Baltimore’s queer communities of color? What does it mean to you and what do you hope students take away from this?
MRC: The partnership was everything I thought it would be. A perfect match. Everyone was sweet, well-mannered, and welcoming. They were so open to listening and learning. With that good energy I had no doubt in my mind; I knew the performance was going to be special.
JP: Ballroom culture insists on the value of queer and trans black lives. That’s a message Johns Hopkins should be promoting. I also loved the intersection of different performance styles at the event. The Peabody students were performing a kind of fusion of vogue and classical dance styles, which was exciting. We’re already talking about possibilities for a second ball. Collaborations between ballroom DJs and Peabody classical musicians? Runway Icons in conversation with MICA art professors? Ballroom commentator/historians collaborating with Hopkins historians?
What were your favorite performances? Or if you feel uncomfortable naming names, can you describe aspects of performances that night that stood out for you?
MRC: I personally don’t have favorites. I enjoy watching everyone because they all bring something different to the table to be honest. The creativity, drive, and out-of-the-box moments. And talented individuals is why I love ballroom. I was so proud of my students from Peabody Dance school. They did an amazing job and it was a pleasure to work with everyone.
JP: The vogue fem category was based on illustrations from the George Peabody’s 1688 edition of Paradise Lost. The category asks performers to “tell the story of this war between Heaven and Hell.” The vogue fem performer who won the category brought it in all black body paint and horns. It was incredible to see him dancing in front of an image from the book projected behind him. The runway category directed competitors to “make your own moment using only items that you would find in a library.” One competitor arrived in a body suit made out of newspapers and maps. They wore a gorgeous headpiece that looked like three books sitting on top of his head. One was titled “Ballroom 101.” The Sheridan Libraries plans to archive the headpiece along with a few other ball costumes.
So many people were jealous they weren’t there! Are you going to do any more performances? Can you let readers know what you have planned, either together or separately in the future?
MRC: I have a lot of cool things coming up. I have vogue class workshops and performances coming. To get more information I would say check out my pages on Instagram or Facebook under @marquisclanton.
JP: Students in the Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies MA program have been documenting George Peabody Library workshops, advisory committee meetings, and profiling several members of the ballroom community. They also filmed the April 13 ball. They’ll be producing two documentary shorts and screening them for the public in Fall 2019. You can stay informed about upcoming film screenings and public events by joining our Peabody Ballroom Experience page on Facebook.
Photos by Gerard Gaskin
Photo courtesy of JHU Ballroom Instagram
Photos by Cara Ober and Gerard Gaskin, courtesy of Peabody Library
The team that made this event happen:
Director: Dr. Joseph Plaster, Curator in Public Humanities at the Sheridan Libraries
- Iconic Sebastian Escada
- Legendary Mother Marco Blahnik of the House of Manolo Blahnik
- Londyn Smith De Richelieu (Mother Miyake Mugler)
- Legendary Enrique St. Laurent
- Keith Ebony Holt, Father of The House of Ebony
- Dr. Gabrielle Dean, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Johns Hopkins
- Paul Espinosa, Curator of the George Peabody Library
- George Ciscle, founder, MFA in Curatorial Practice; Curator-in-Residence at MICA
- Blair Franklin, Executive Director of YES, Youth Empowered Society Drop In Center
- Dr. madison moore, assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University