Vogue in Berlin: A Night Out at the Tit Bit Ball

Christine Kakaire takes a look at the vogue scene in the German capital

Chantal Regnault

Just before the “3...2...1” countdown to hold their poses at the top of the runway, an unseen male judge can be heard, out of shot but audible over the noise of the crowd. “This is tough!”

“One more time, guys! Walk it one more time!” this voice, also off-camera, belongs to the voguing ball commentator, Georgina “Leo Melody” Philp.

On that night last November, wedged between too many other bodies and craning for a glimpse, I could only partly make out why that round in particular was such an audience favourite. Watching the filmed footage afterwards makes it clearer: the competition was fierce, and fieeeerce.

Contestant a) Zero Melody: reed-thin, snake-hipped, elegantly gothic with smoky eyes, ebony nails and a five-o’clock shadow. He shimmers in crushed velvet and a sheer metallic blouse, with a stride that is fluid and femme. Contestant b) Prince MIK: butch and barefoot, bedroom eyes, slow-motion steps, his shirt hiked up provocatively over one shoulder to expose an obscenely sculpted midsection. For their runway rematch, Zero turns it up to full vamp(ire), baring his teeth and making claws of hands, leering at his opponent’s neck. Prince is unfazed by the theatrics, moving slowly and deliberately, posing in profile with a finger to his lips.

Voguing is an especially vocal spectator sport, and this inaugural Tit Bit Ball in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district is no exception. The judges’ hand-held signs point in Zero’s direction, and the noise intensifies. Zero and Prince break from character, smile and embrace.

It’s a moment the organisers of Tit Bit Ball – professional dancer, voguing instructor, and House of Melody house mother Philp, and PR maven Mic Oala – could not have anticipated. Zero is a member of Philp’s voguing house, the first ever established in Germany, but Prince Ofori is a hip hop dancer from the German-Ghanaian Masters in Krump crew. “There were several heterosexual guys who were like, ‘Maybe we’ll come to the ball to support you because we know Georgina, and we have danced with her,’” recalls Oala afterwards, laughing. “‘But it’s a gay thing,’ they said, ‘and we are not into that.’ And then they ended up on the runway!”

The second Tit Bit Ball in March this year, held again at kitschy queer nightspot Südblock, was no less loud and much busier. Many of the night’s participants were recognisable from the first Ball. Several have connections to the houses of Lazer and Mongo, the two additional German collectives that have established themselves since Melody’s inception. There are far more women than men, and while they appear to have gathered from every continent on earth, the accents are usually European. Although most favour the saltier expressive style of Vogue Fem, a good portion of them possess qualities of carriage and posture that only come from years of classical dance training.

Signing up to compete against one of these performers ought to be intimidating, but the Tit Bit Ball encourages open participation; the event is designed for getting up close and personal with voguing and ballroom culture. Tit Bit Ball functions as the younger, naughtier sister to Philp and Oala’s Berlin Voguing Out Festival. The festival features a closing night ball, but with its supplementary schedule of lectures, film screenings, and workshops, and its neutral venue choices, the festival has a nerdier highbrow slant, geared towards those who can already join the dots between “ha” and Joy Orbison, and who understood what those Hercules and Love Affair “BANJEE” tank tops were about, without explanation.

Tit Bit Ball is a party, first and foremost, but for all its carousing and sass and glitter, everything is underpinned by Philp’s clear-headed mission. Through all of her actions as Germany’s voguing evangelist – her dancing features in Nina Kraviz’ “Ghetto Kraviz” video, and on national television talent contest Got To Dance – she seems determined to present it as a living, breathing and complex culture. During the ball she fulfils the role of glamorous host, but she’s constantly switching that hat with ones marked “choreographer,” “interpreter,” and “educator.”

Voguing has had a presence in Germany for a handful of years, with a debut showcase, direct from the United States, during Düsseldorf’s Funkinstylez urban dance battle competition in 2008. Philp visited New York City that same year. After attending her first voguing ball during the trip, she decided to compete on the runway the next day. “Most of the time,” she recalls, “they know the females at the ball. So the feedback was mixed. Some people were very surprised that I’m European. It was definitely a big surprise for them to wonder why I was interested, how I found out about it, if I really knew what the culture is about. Some people don’t really want the culture to interact so much. Of course if you go to New York and you don’t know what Old Way, New Way and Femme are they’ll look at you and be like ‘HUH? Honey, you’re not voguing if you don’t know what that is.’”

After a few years of running her own classes at different spots around the German capital, Philp began organising the 2012 Berlin Voguing Out Festival, but with a weighted sense of responsibility. “Of the legends,” she says, “a lot of them are already dead, and the generation now, you never really know what’s gonna happen. You gotta make sure that it stays vogue and doesn’t get ‘vague’ over the years.” Her time in New York also brought her to the attention of Archie Burnett. The House of Ninja alumni has since become a beloved godfather figure for Philp and the Berlin voguers, offering mentorship, training and the occasional appearance, like his starring role on the 2013 Festival ball judging panel.

Having christened herself Leo Melody, established her own house, and “adopted” her children – Gazelle, Zoe, La Borka, Bamby, Golden Child, Persia, Zero, Big Mama, Barbie and Ranma – Philp planned an extended programme for the second year of the festival with Oala, which included a lively co-presented night at Südblock, with the karaoke dance party Cherry-O-Kie. It was there that the seed was planted for a series of ball-centric parties that would encourage an organic union between the authentic ballroom experience and Berlin’s thriving LGBT community.

Tit Bit Ball is perfectly at home in the cheery-trashy environment of Südblock. At the most recent Tit Bit, once the contests were over and the winners announced, the floor was cleared of benches and DJ House of Shade turned the music right up. A spontaneous Soul Train-style dance tunnel formed, and the guest DJ, Daniel Wang, hauled me down by hand, before twirling away with a flourish and finishing on the floor with a dramatic dip. Two women slow-danced, Philp and the Melody, Mongo, and Lazer dancers took turns freestyling, and the nice young man that I’d met earlier by the bar rolled intently across the dirty dancefloor, rose to his knees in one seamless movement, and joke-humped the leg of my heterosexual male friend. Everybody laughed and cheered, and the dancing continued.

Philp and Oala both are proud of all they’ve achieved, and reserve a special pride for the infectious atmosphere of the Tit Bit Ball. Oala credits the “community feeling” of the events, that reframe the defiant glamour and underrated artistry of voguing’s American roots, within the pure, open-minded commitment to hedonism that exists in the German capital. Nobody, gay or not, voguer or not, seems able to resist the appeal of the Südblock ball. “You can really see how all people raise their self-confidence at the Tit Bit Ball,” says Oala. “You go home and you don’t feel like an alien anymore. You don’t feel so strange. People feel free, and very happy here.”

For more information on Tit Bit Ball, check out their Facebook page.

By Christine Kakaire on July 17, 2014

On a different note