Books In Conversation
Ricky Tucker with Justin Sherwood
And the Category Is…
(Beacon Press, 2022)
I don’t remember meeting Ricky Tucker for the first time. He’s been a fixture in my life for nearly a decade, our paths first crossing at The New School when we were both students in the Writing Program. We struck up a conversation at some point, very likely while sharing a cigarette outside of 66 W. 12th Street, and that conversation has continued ever since via lunch dates, parties, and vacations, and most recently inside my living room on the Upper West Side where I conducted this interview with him about his new book, And the Category Is…, which comes out from Beacon Press in January 2022. This is a long way of saying that, to me, Ricky is family.
And the Category Is… is a celebration of the Ballroom scene, the subculture created in New York City by Black and Latinx queer and trans youth seeking freedom from the oppressive forces of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and capitalism through dance, chosen family, and creative expression. Rather than a history or primer on the movement, the book is a wide-ranging conversation between the author and members of the Ballroom community: Stars, Statements, and Legends, as well as community leaders, mentors, and scholar-practitioners. Throughout the book, Ricky also interrogates what Ballroom has meant to him—first as a younger queer person discovering generations of Legends like Crystal LaBeija, Willi Ninja, and Leiomy Maldonado via film and television; then as a student of the culture in New York City; and now as a member of the scene himself, documenting Balls and teaching his own voguing workshops.
When I asked Ricky how he understands his own place within the Ballroom scene, he explained that he has all at times, including through the publication of this book, sought to be of service to the community. As a writer, educator, and facilitator, Ricky’s service often includes making vital and sustaining connections between individuals, institutions, and communities. And, as someone who is called upon to teach workshops himself—on both writing and voguing—Ricky also connects people to their own creative life force, helping them to connect with a liberated and often neglected inner resource one might call fierceness. Ricky knows how it feels to be free, and whether through teaching, dancing, or plain old conversation, he’ll point the way to you too.
Justin Sherwood (Rail): One of the first of many meta-moments in And the Category Is… is your inclusion, in the beginning of the book, of what served as your invitation to write it: an email from an agent suggesting that somebody ought to write a book about Ballroom. Assuming you hadn’t already been planning to write such a book, why did you decide to jump on the offer, and what did you know you needed in order to write this book?
Ricky Tucker: I felt like I needed permission from people in the Ballroom community. And I needed permission from my mentors Robert [Sember] and Michael [Roberson], and from anybody that was going to be involved. I had already interviewed folks from Ballroom, like Lee Soulja, a couple of years prior under the guise of trying to help him get funding for building a Ballroom archive. I had already tried to be of service [to the Ballroom community] and it literally never occurred to me to write this book, and that's what made it seem right. The idea of my first book being an act of service was very enticing to me.
Rail: Your desire to be of service comes through in the book in the sense that you don’t spend much time opining about Ballroom, or providing a broad, historical narrative of the culture. Instead, you foreground the voices of the people with whom you speak via interview excerpts and transcripts of public and private dialogues.
Tucker: Every chapter is bookended with an interview with someone from Ballroom, because I wanted that credibility. I am, however, very implicated in the book. I use first person a lot, because that’s just what I do in my writing. I'm not an anthropologist and I don't want that distance there. One of my best assets as an interviewer is being able to create immediate intimacy, especially with the Black artists that I’ve spoken to. I've interviewed Mark Bradford and Hilton Als, and it’s like we meet on a common Black/gay plane where it makes the conversation a lot easier because it’s automatically more intimate.
Rail: That also informs how you structure the book. It has the texture of an archival documentary. You include transcripts or descriptions of Ballroom-related scenes in television and film, like scenes from America’s Best Dance Crew and Paris Is Burning, which reminded me specifically of documentaries like The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo’s book. Do you tend to think in terms of visual, montage-like elements when writing, or did that emerge while writing this book?
Tucker: Both. For this book, I think the structure and the medium fit the content. You know, the next book I'm working on—to your Vito Russo comparison – is loosely titled But They Did Do that on Television: Queer Dispatches in the Golden Age of Media. And that book idea is based on me just being a fat, Black, geeky latchkey kid growing up in North Carolina and watching tons of television. With Ballroom, I have an abundance of those televisual memories. It's been like 20 years’ worth of research, unbeknownst to me. So that structure is how I write anyway. And it’s how I keep from getting bored. My rule of thumb for writing is: “if I'm not bored, they won't be.”
Rail: You begin the book by describing your own early encounters with figures in the Ballroom scene via television, like Leiomy Maldonado’s appearances on America’s Best Dance Crew. I’m curious about how you think the televised version of Ballroom impacts the actual, living culture of Ballroom, and vice versa?
Tucker: Well, yes, and now the snake is eating its own tail. There’s the example of Pose—the writers on that show, some from the community, include elements of Dorian Corey's life via the character of Elektra Abundance, so we’re at a point where reality is affecting fiction and fiction reality. Actual people like Twiggy [Pucci Garçon], Michael [Roberson], and Jonovia [Chase], friends I interview in the book, have been elevated financially because of pop culture’s interest in Ballroom. And they deserve to be compensated. At the end of the day though, capitalism is the machine that's driving this whole thing.
This inevitability had me thinking about bell hooks’s notion of the enlightened witness, about having the knowledge of what you're doing when that transaction is taking place. You need to know what you’re getting, and what you're giving up. Regardless of the heights to which you are ascending, and the opportunities you’re getting, there are still going to be some bridge trolls—albeit white, upper class, industry bridge trolls. But are the working conditions getting better? Is that hierarchical dynamic improving? Do you have more power? With that said, I do think opportunities are getting better for Ballroom folks.
That idea really became clear to me when Lee Soulja was talking about vogueing Icon Willi Ninja being a father figure to him, saying things like, “This is how much money you should be asking for when you’re breakdancing. This is how much I asked for, and you need to be asking for more.” I think it’s important to note that these mentoring structures already exist in the Ballroom community.
Rail: You're careful to say that because folks in the Ballroom community understand what comes with commodification, they know to give X percent at a sponsored ball, for which they are hopefully paid handsomely, as opposed to giving X percent more for a community function which has its own rewards.
Tucker: Totally. A good example of this is DJ MikeQ. He used to do House of Vogue events at House of Yes in Bushwick. Now he’s doing House of Vogue elsewhere. He runs his own show, he travels all over the world doing his own photo shoots, along with partnerships with shows like Legendary. He’s really trying to own and do his own thing. I don't know what the formula is, but it smells like people are starting to get the hint that like, oh, girl, I don't need you—you being Karen and them.
Rail: I’m going to put brackets around this question because it's not the point of the book, but I do want to ask it. What do white people want from ballroom?
Tucker: Yeah, so I'm sure you've heard this before—I can't pinpoint it to a particular theory or person—but you know, whiteness is the lack of culture, right? White culture is the lack of culture, or the consumption of every other culture.
So, I'll give an example. I'm not just a writer, I’m also kind of a dancer, right? Our friend Nico and I went to Norway once for a DJ set because she knows all about that type of shit and I don't, I just follow along and have fun. So, we're in Oslo. We're dancing our asses off. And you can imagine in a Nordic place like that, two Black New Yorkers who come from the [American] South, and both of us are just cutting a fucking rug? And everyone's just like, what is this, right?
Rail: And they want in.
Tucker: They want in. Now, spaces aren't just colonized geographically, they're colonized interpersonally. So, we very much felt the space around us shrinking, and people just wanting to dance up on us look at us. I think white people want to absorb us. I think it's a subconscious thing. But that makes it no less insidious.
Let me back up—why do people want to absorb Blackness, and they have done it. You know, I look at K-pop, which I love conceptually. I like a lot of the music, but I can't just listen to it for fun because it is such a far-flung and far-removed—but very exact—absorption and appropriation of my culture. White America has already done it. Let's use Boyz II Men for an example, NSYNC and Backstreet Boys are all just photocopies of that boy band format. Because it happens so much in-house, and by in-house, I mean in America, that other countries feel like they are free to—and that it’s advantageous to—pilfer what is mine. And so, at this point, it isn’t just whiteness, but the world reenacting a stealthier version of classic whiteness—the looting of Black culture. It’s a tale as old as the hills—they want all of our rhythm and none of our blues.
Rail: Right, and in doing so they get further and further from the original source. And then pay less and less tribute to that original source.
Tucker: To the point of no tribute. There's little to no tribute.
Rail: Speaking of appropriation, I want to talk about Madonna. There’s a moment in the book where you include what to me is a poem, but they’re really lyrics—it’s the bridge to Madonna's song “Vogue” but you’ve rewritten it to pay tribute to Ballroom legends, whereas Madonna, as you say, used it to list a random assortment of 16 stars of yesteryear.
Tucker: All of them white, most of them straight.
Rail: What I love about these lyrics is that you seem to be interpolating them in the style of Ballroom: taking something that is extractive of Black culture, in this case a Madonna song, extracting whatever value it has, and then re-performing, rewriting, reconstituting it to give back to the culture it took from initially.
Tucker: I’d written lyrics about Ballroom before, for two courses I’d taken at The New School, including writing a North Carolinian folk song that was an ode to founding mother Dorian Corey. The “Vogue” rewrite was inspired by Michael Roberson who says “We speak your name” all the time at the end of his lectures. I felt compelled to speak the names of Ballroom icons—no offense to Greta Garbo or Joe DiMaggio.
Rail: I want to get into the notion of family. You write about your own relationship to your family in this book, but more broadly, of course, you're talking about Ballroom family, queer family, BIPOC LGBTQIA family, you talk about your “gay dads” Robert Sember and Michael Roberson—there's a lot of familial love and complication swirling around this book. Ultimately, you theorize family in a way that is new to me. You write,
“Built out of the human need for lineage and legacy, the house system is a clan barreling toward posterity with the common cause: freedom. And on an individual level, just like with biological family, these houses, Lanvin, Ebony, LaBeija, Pendavis, Mugler, et al., provide LGBTQ BIPOC youth an opportunity to metabolize centuries of generational trauma.”
I am more used to a formulation in which people say, there's the family unit, which is often a destructive unit, a unit that causes trauma, and that queer youth run from that family out into the world into some other, queer network to find healing. I'm curious about how you got to a point where you could understand a family structure as capable of healing trauma, as opposed to just creating it.
Tucker: Ballroom isn't the only example, but the Ballroom system makes it so blatant. They name it that. In my interviews with folx for the book, you see that the things that you get from your biological family still happen in Ballroom: there’s inappropriate sexual happenings, there's drug use, but there's also folx coming to people's graduations, and holding them accountable. And because a lot of these folx have been through the same traumas, there's a lot less judgement. Now, the use of my family in the book made it a lot more personal—not for me, but for the reader. Specific names and faces make our being disowned tangible, not just theoretical.
Rail: You write in the book, “modes of mothering [in Ballroom families] stem from the desire of these Ballroom legends to pass on the valuable lessons they've learned over the years, and they're an effort to end the cycle of trauma inherited from children's own mothers.” As you say in the book, mothering in Ballroom is done by many different folx. There’s a gorgeous moment where you ask Michael Roberson about his theory of fatherhood, and he responds, “Black women.” Is this matriarchal tendency in Ballroom something you were already aware of, or did you learn this while researching the book?
Tucker: I mean, I don't have statistics, but I do have eyes. Crystal LaBeija was there in the beginning of Ballroom—like, this whole thing is a matriarchy. I’ve been groomed to know that any gay man that walks into a Ballroom space needs to be paying tribute to trans women of color. So, it's hard to think back to what I might have known [before beginning this book]. But I think I have always suspected that.
Rail: I was really touched to see your parents come into the book. I love how your mother comes in—she just casually mentions in an Instagram comment that she used to go to Studio 54.
Tucker: It was a year ago that she told me that! My mom grew up with a mother who hung out with famous people, so she has no shame. She’ll just go backstage at a Luther Vandross concert and be like, “what security guard?” She once told Ruby Dee she looked good for her age.
Rail: For my age!?
Tucker: Haha! Exactly. Ms. Dee was like, “And what age do you think that is!?
Rail: And it’s not so surprising to me that your father gets into the book in… a different sort of way. You establish Robert Sember and Michael Roberson as your “gay dads” long before you mention your father—who serves as a kind of foil to them, right? Why and how did he find his way into this book?
Tucker: It was important for me to implicate myself throughout the book, as an offering to the people from Ballroom who shared their intimate lives with me … I didn't know how much I was going to say about both of my parents, but I knew that my father was my greatest example of a homophobic, estranged parent. You asked me earlier why I said yes to the book. Maybe I had a That’s So Raven, mind’s eye moment where I realized all this shit lines up, that my story could be both hurtful and useful. Maybe I thought, “Welp, dude, I told you I was gonna write a book one day, and that you're not gonna come off so good… because you're a fucking asshole…”
Rail: I want to offer another reading of your life [Laughs]. It’s somewhat similar to how you approached the Madonna lyrics. Rather than write that book—the one in which you’re settling scores with your father—which would be a fucking chore to write, and destructive, and really negative, you wrote this book instead. You present a more positive and creative version of what a father-son story could be. And I for one am appreciative that you wrote this version of the book.
And what about your gay dads, the good ones, Robert Sember and Michael Roberson, who are such huge presences in this book?
Tucker: Yeah, they have been here the whole time. Obviously, I wrote the entire book and conducted every interview, but my first task during the proposal was to write a sample table of contents. I wrote every chapter as a [Ballroom] category and handed it to Robert and asked, “do you and Michael maybe know some people who would be a good fit [to interview] for this category?’ He said, “I’ll look it over with Michael and we’ll get back to you.” And they got back to me in a week with a list of people, many of whom I already knew.
Michael and Robert also set the mandate for this book to be unapologetically Black and an indictment of capitalism. I was like, word. They’d known me already in an intellectual, classroom capacity—and personally from sitting in on men's groups and working together over the years—but I think this book provided for them a baseline for knowing exactly where I'm coming from. I’m smart, Black af, and first in line to destroy capitalism.
Rail: Regarding Robert Sember—you mention that you took another course with him at The New School in which he asked his students to get at the question, what does freedom sound like? I kept wondering as I read this book, because you're a writer who also dances, what does freedom feel like? What does it feel like to vogue?
Tucker: Voguing feels both like precision and letting go. It’s like flying. And it feels happy—I’m never voguing too angrily.
Who am I in terms of Vogue? Well, I love Avatar: The Last Airbender—I got an Airbending tattoo to celebrate this book—and my favorite voguer is Willi Ninja. All the element bending in Avatar is based on actual martial arts. Airbending is closest to Aikido, that's what they built it around, being like air and using your opponent's force against them. Lately, that’s literally how I've been thinking about my vogueing technique, but also my place in the Ballroom lexicon. Take out my opponent—corporations, cultural appropriators—by using their actions.
Rail: House of Airbender!
Tucker: House of Airbender. Totally.