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The Bawdy Yawdy Ball by Silva Prodigy, Stockholm (
The Bawdy Yawdy Ball by Silva Prodigy, StockholmPhotography Chai Saeidi

A photographer’s journey through the Scandinavian ballroom scene

Photographer Chai Saeidi spent years capturing the most intimate, diverse and exciting queer functions across Denmark, Norway and Sweden

Chai Saeidi’s first impressions of ballroom came from watching Paris Is Burning (1990) alone in their bedroom. They were in their late teens and hadn’t come out yet as queer or non-binary. “Being both Iranian and queer, I didn’t feel safe to be my whole self in most places. But these individuals were so unapologetic about themselves. I felt like, why can’t I also be all of these parts of myself in one place?” the 24-year-old Oslo-based photographer tells Dazed. “It spoke to me in so many ways.” 

Saeidi attended their first voguing ball and waacking battle in Oslo in 2018. Despite being in awe of the participants, they left feeling discouraged. “Watching shows or documentaries from the US, you really get a sense of the community aspect of ballroom. Even if the spectators aren’t walking, they’re still very present, exchanging energy back and forth,” they explain. “But this audience was cishet and white-dominated. We weren’t feeding off each other, it seemed more like a showcase to them.”

Things had changed by November 2021 when Saeidi attended Kehlani 007’s Scandinavian Ball Pt. II, co-organised by their now-girlfriend Gigi Sunshine 007. “This one felt more intimate, like it was a space for us, for queer POCs,” they recall of the ball, an annual event that unites the smaller scenes in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. “I wanted to take part in the way I knew how, with photography.”

Documenting the pace and palpable energy of ballroom has been a journey for Saeidi ever since. “I only shoot film, so I’ve learned a lot about how to adapt to the different settings and categories,” they explain. For categories like Sex Siren and Body – which only official photographers have permission to film – they note that they're “careful” with using flash. “I want to set the fantasy mood in the documentation. I like when it’s grainy and darker.”

Categories like Vogue Fem are even more challenging: “Everything moves fast. You have to run to find the right angle, the right light, maybe you get a foot in the face. You have to be ready for anything.” From spotlit dips to warm-ups backstage, hugs and whispers between houses to last-minute costume fixes, Saeidi’s mesmeric images move beyond the runway to capture the care and chaos that goes with it. “There’s always some drama, but it’s all love.” 

Now a familiar face behind the lens in Norway, ballroom has provided Saeidi with the family they’ve yearned for, having lost their mother in 2009 and father in 2019, before coming out to either of them. Ballroom was also the backdrop to falling in love with Gigi after four years of friendship, a space that broke down their walls and allowed their artistry to merge. “It’s really important for me that I have this space where I can be Persian, I can be queer, I can be non-binary, I can be who I am without having to watch over my shoulder,” they say. “It’s not all fun and games in ballroom. Many of us will always have that grief of not having the family that we wish we could’ve had by blood. But we’ve got each other.”

Saeidi speaks passionately about the need to protect and preserve ballroom: “Across Scandinavia, we’re trying to make it more accessible to marginalised people. If we feel someone is there for superficial reasons, and this isn’t something that gives to them and they give back to it, then we’ll try to gatekeep it." 

An art student, they admit that they’ve struggled to feel seen with their ballroom photography – to have it appreciated as ‘art’. “I have to remember why I’m doing this, and it always goes back to the pleasure it gave me when I was in my little room in the dark watching Paris is Burning, and the need to show us off,” Saeidi says. “People out there are feeling the same as I was. If they’re exposed to this community earlier, maybe they won’t have to go through everything I had to.”

For a closer look at Chai Saeidi’s Ballroom photography, take a look through the gallery above. Follow them to see more.