The Untold Story of Marcel Christian LaBeija, Ballroom’s First Major Historian

As I studied the papers, I learned the historian began writing them in 1986, at the height of New York’s Downtown Scene and right before voguing was about to hit the mainstream. He would sell or give out these packets at balls as a kind of community newsletter, so folks could kill “idle time” before or after the function. The packets included meticulous documentation of the scene’s current, extinct, and near-extinct houses, their active and non-active members, lively commentary on new and existing categories and individual status in the scene, and even community gossip in the form of the occasional “Scandal Sheet.” For instance, in Idle Sheet III, he sub-reads certain ball promoters who didn’t give out all the cash prizes without naming names, noting that, “The good thing in 1986, most cash prizes were paid for most cash promise categories. Like I said, ‘Most.’”

Marcel’s Idle Sheets reflected the ingenuity of the scene he captured, at times invoking wholly novel forms to illustrate the beauty of the balls. One device Marcel employed was what can be understood as “choreo poetry,” or a whimsical form of musing combining poetry, dance, music, and song. As he wrote in a poem entitled “The Merry-Go-Round of the Marathon Circuit,” from Idle Sheet IV: “Get your money and the awards / So you can pretend you are bored / With this and that and all and such / Oh Please, Miss Thing, you are too much / Too much for coffee / Too much for tea / If you walkin’ Grand / You’re too much from me.”

Holding up the stories of ballroom forebears like Marcel Christian is especially significant as our culture once again enters the mainstream. Last year, Beyonce’s “Renaissance Tour” earned $579 million and highlighted ballroom on a global stage. Songs like “Pure/Honey” that directly sample ballroom classics rang out in Stockholm, Detroit and Vancouver as ballroom veterans like Honey Balenciaga, Carlos Basquiat and Darius Hickman vogued and pirouetted around Queen Bey on stage. Taylor Swift’s backup dancer and ballroom alum Kameron Saunders brought voguing to the “Eras Tour.” Meanwhile, Mother Madonna honored the community again during “Vogue” with mini-balls on her “Celebration Tour.” I believe that today’s global appreciation of ballroom would not be possible without the foundation built by ballroom stalwarts like Marcel.