This is a reprint of the cover story from Issue #28 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
The sheer inescapable irony, that I, a cisgender, heterosexual man am recommending HBO’s new Ballroom reality show, Legendary, is not, dear reader, lost. Not unlike the show itself, I am sitting, uncomfortably, in a space where I want to cheerlead a subculture I do not own. Ballroom, an approach to dance, a method of expression and a style of fashion centered around black and brown queer culture, is something I can only ever be a tourist in. Like hosts Jameela Jameel or Megan Thee Stallion, I can dress the part and rep my favorite houses all the way to the rafters but I can’t speak about it from my chest the way the incredible Leiomy Maldonado does when she stands up in the latest episode to inform the contrary Law Roach that “Ballroom is the reason there is so much magic around the world . . . whether it’s anything, it’s because of Ballroom!”
But I think that’s OK. Because Legendary, despite some of its uneasy trappings, is a show that does a great job highlighting artists and creatives and queer folk with caring attention, rather than crass appropriation. There’s plenty of big budget corniness to go around of course: the poured concrete faux dance hall of the show’s main stage, the confusingly random lineup of celebrity guest judges, the sketchy and rushed behind-the-scenes storytelling, but there’s also so much heart, so much energy, so much love here; love that these artists show not for the camera or the assumed mainstream audience, but to each other and to others on the show who come from Ballroom and other queer spaces. Letting us, the outside audience into this space, allowing us to observe the outsized creativity and deeply rooted emotion that these houses readily bring every episode is what makes Legendary an effective, resonant showcase, that shines a light, even if through a slightly distorted lens.