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Welsh Ballroom CommunityPhotography Laurie Broughton

The Valleys are burning: inside Wales’ booming ballroom scene

‘We have to honour being Welsh and bring that into what we do’: meet the members of Wales’ first ballroom community

When people think of Wales, a thriving queer scene probably doesn’t rank high on the list of things that immediately come to mind. But the Welsh Ballroom Community is quickly changing that.

Just a year and a half old, the Welsh Ballroom Community is already busy making history. In August 2021 they hosted Wales’ first-ever kiki ball in the Wales Millennium Centre, which sold out. They’ve been going to balls in London and won two Grand Prizes at their first international ball in Rotterdam in October. Now, they have their sights set on becoming the first Welsh kiki house with chapters around the world.

“This is the first time anything like this has happened in Wales, and to be honest a part of me is surprised at how much it’s kicked off,” says 34-year-old Leighton Wall, the community’s founder. “Obviously I’m optimistic about where it could go, but when I look at what we’ve achieved – especially somewhere like Wales, where things can take a bit longer to catch on – during a pandemic as well… it blows my mind. It’s really beautiful and it’s so special, what we’re doing.”

Things began in August 2020, when Leighton posted on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in setting up a ballroom community in Wales. A dancer and choreographer by trade, Leighton was already well aware of and interested in voguing and ballroom, but was often too busy travelling to commit to anything wholeheartedly. During the pandemic, he finally had the time on his hands to light the match and then tend to the fire. The Facebook post got hundreds of responses. “People were like, oh my God, I’ve been looking for something like this!” Leighton remembers.

The UK’s ballroom scene has been thriving, with scenes in London, Bristol and Edinburgh. Adamant on doing it properly, the Welsh Ballroom Community was set up with the help of Kyle London Tisci from the Impeccable Haus of Tisci – an American house that featured in HBO’s Legendary – as well as receiving guidance from legends and icons (the highest status in ballroom) in the UK. “Voguing has gone mainstream – think of Pose and Legendary. It’s commercialised now,” says Leighton. “And that’s why it’s really important for me to do it correctly. If it’s going to be done, it needs to be done right.”

In September 2020, the Welsh Ballroom Community met for the first time in Cardiff. It began as a series of meetings, sessions and workshops to educate people on ballroom – the language, the categories and its history. “It was really important to make sure that this is an authentic ballroom scene,” says Leighton. “I’m not trying to be a watered-down version.”

They soon found support in Cardiff’s queer spaces, finding an official sponsor in The Queer Emporium – a first-of-its-kind organisation that represents independent businesses, acts as a community hub, and hosts everything from drag brunches to cabaret performances. It initially opened as a pop-up shop for Pride 2021, but has since become a permanent addition to the city centre. In February, the Welsh Ballroom Collective also collaborated with the LGBTQ+ creative collective Lone Worlds for an exhibition at SHIFT, a multi-disciplinary research and development space for artists.

Taken by Laurie Broughton, a third-year documentary photography student at the University of South Wales, the photographs feature Leighton and six other members of the community posing against duelling backdrops of rugged local landscapes and Valleys pubs. Each member wears a unique outfit made from recycled Welsh flags by different designers based in south Wales. Broughton wanted to “represent Welsh culture and identity” in the images, so after checking out a few venues they ultimately settled on a working men’s club in Tonypandy on the day Wales played Ireland in the Six Nations.

“The location was an interesting choice, but we’d seen the vision Laurie wanted to execute and I was here for it” laughs community member Muz, 28. “A cute moment with queers being fab upstairs slaying the camera while the cis-hetero beings downstairs were at their local for the rugby! We all worked individually to present the unique lewks y’all see in that grand pic, darling! My effect personally was a take on a fusion of Pakistani fashion warrior meets the [Welsh] dragon – with an ‘I slayed them and wore them’ type of vibe. Sorry not sorry!”

“Because we’re the first Welsh ballroom community we have to honour being Welsh and bring that into what we do,” says Leighton. Welsh identity is such a strong theme in their work that they’ve been invited to showcase ballroom at this year’s Eisteddfod [festival], and they’re already thinking of ideas of how to come out. Leighton muses about blowing up Broughton’s group shot of the community into a curtain, then having it fall to reveal everyone standing behind it on the stage in the exact same poses.

“At the moment we’re a community, but we will eventually become the first Welsh kiki haus. I feel like we’ve really made statements with what we’re doing, and what we’ve done, and that’s how you become legendary and iconic,” says Leighton. “I want to do this correctly because I’m thinking about legacy. When we’re dead and gone, I want this to still be going. I want us to be in the history books. They should make a museum for us. That’s how serious it is.”

Linford, 31 (He/Him) – @linvonlin

Cardiff had been calling out for a ballroom community for years. I would regularly interrogate my dancer friends about any murmurs of vogue classes happening within Wales, and for years they would deliver the news of nothing, or that I could travel to the Bristol Ballroom Community. At the end of summer 2021, I was not only informed that a Welsh Ballroom Community had been blazing under my nose for a year, but Leighton Wall, the trailblazer of the community, had asked if I wanted to join – my shameful and drunken attempts at vogue on nights out had not gone unnoticed.

“I thought I was the embodiment of confidence before being involved in the community, but the framework of ballroom is designed to go even further than you could have expected. Its history is steeped in ideas of aspiration, escapism and power. It was a time when many queer POC, Latinx [and] trans individuals were not empowered, and ballroom gave them an evening of strength. Nothing compares to the sensation of the Welsh Ballroom Community gathering for a training session. The classes can be utterly cathartic – you truly release all the tension from the week, and the safe environment gives everyone the freedom to escape and explore the facets of their personality.

“It’s evident that Wales is continually overlooked culturally and economically, with many areas suffering from a lack of opportunities. So many cultural events simply bypassing Wales has a knock-on effect, which of course mainly damages the marginalised, like the queer community. But this ‘underdog’ perspective always breeds fire and passion, which I believe you can witness in the community.”

Alia, 21 (She/Her) – @the_eye_rollers

“My life has changed so much since joining the Welsh Ballroom Community. I’m much more confident in my trans identity and proud to be a part of a community that appreciates women and men like me. When we created the Welsh effects I already knew that I wanted to add my Asian influence to my outfit and represent Asian trans females like myself who have two beautiful cultures mixed into one, as I was born in Wales but my blood is Asian.

“I have a lot of goals for ballroom. I daydream a lot and think about the gags and gigs I want to bring [to it], and I’m really looking forward to bringing more of my culture into ballroom and showing Asian royalty with Muz. I’m definitely upping my game in realness and looking forward to training in other categories too.

“My biggest highlight was all of us going up to Stonehenge and voguing in the field by the stones on the summer solstice. Bruna and I, as the badass bitches we are, jumped the fence and ran past security and up to the stones. Nothing ever felt more liberating and magical. Everyone huddled into a crowd and prayed to the gods. It was beautiful to experience.”

Bruna, 20 (They/Them) – @bruna_alex123

“I first learned about the Welsh Ballroom Community through Alia, my best friend. She took me to a kiki the community was having and I fell in love with the culture and people. My biggest highlight so far is the Utopia Ball in Rotterdam. I walked in the ‘sex siren’ category, which was an amazing experience, and I still can’t believe I won!

“The shoot with Laurie was really good. I loved the locations – it’s very authentic to our Welsh roots. The last location was distant and up a hill but it was all worth it at the end. My goal is to travel abroad and compete with the best. To finally meet the amazing icons and legends I watch on TV and soak up the knowledge.”

Tayo, 30 (She/Her) – @t.sanwo 

“The pandemic was one of the hardest experiences for humankind to face, and it exposed cracks within society from how my Black community was treated to the lack of mental health support and the exposure of certain individuals’ natures. But it also brought the best [out] of humanity, from showing compassion and kindness to ourselves and others, reconnecting with family and friends, fighting against injustices in the world and having the courage to begin new journeys in life. The pandemic taught me the importance of gratitude and that life is a precious gift, which should be filled with joy, adventure and love. It [also] inspired me to join the ballroom and let’s just say it has been a whirlwind adventure!

“The biggest highlight for me was walking my very first kiki ball in Cardiff last year. To have walked runway and sex siren at the Wales Millennium Centre was a defining moment for me. It was my arrival into ballroom, and to have strutted the platform in my Welsh-inspired effects was an amazing and unforgettable moment. It was from the Welsh kiki ball that a new spark came alight. I was demonstrating another side to myself, which was within me. A fierce, sexy woman who had a commanding presence with Black excellence! What made this moment sweeter was the fact that I was able to compete in this ball with my Welsh ballroom family who served and delivered that night!

“My ballroom journey has been a healing experience as it allowed me to confront my fears, from body issues to imposter syndrome and social anxiety, which increased during the pandemic. Sometimes these fears made me question if I was right for ballroom. But through the love and support of my Welsh ballroom family, [I learned to] acknowledge these fears but not be defined by them. It showed me the importance of embracing my presence in ballroom and expressing the many aspects of myself unapologetically.”

Robert, 20 (He/They) – @bobby_mace_77

While I had seen Paris Is Burning and had an interest in voguing and similar dance styles like waacking, I wasn’t aware that the ballroom scene was still around, and I had no clue there was a scene here in the UK. So discovering the Welsh Ballroom Community, I was ecstatic.

“Since [joining] the community, I would say I’m the most comfortable version of myself I have ever been. The community has allowed me to explore my masculinity and femininity freely, and helped me to realise I am non-binary. I am a lot more confident in myself – how I look, dress and act. I have realised it’s OK to wear heels or a crop top if I want to, because that is how I feel comfortable when I dress.

“I’ve recently begun learning how to sew, and as a goal, I want to be able to make my own outfits for the balls. I think I have such creativity and I really believe that I put my soul into ballroom, so [I’ll do] anything I can to progress my skills and put a little bit more of myself into what I’m doing. I have made one outfit so far, for an event we did recently. I think it went well – and by that I mean it didn’t fall apart while I was wearing it, thank the Lord! Being able to make my outfits and getting my first grand prize for baby vogue has always been an aspiration for me, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I’m enjoying the journey I’m on with the community and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Muz, 28 (He/They) – @iamuz93

“I was introduced to the Welsh Ballroom Community through an article about them, and I was really delighted to see that ballroom is here in Wales. I was encouraged by my housemate, Yasmine, who was helping me find my creative light again. I was in a battle with myself, especially going through lockdown etc, but I ended up gaining the courage and reaching out to Leighton, who was so welcoming. They invited me to a kiki where I met [the people] I now call my siblings – honestly the most talented, inspiring human beings I could ever call my loved ones, especially my Baby Gurl the Femme Queeeen Alia. Period! From the moment I was introduced to these beautiful people with this electric energy, in a community that vogued and served the haus down, I was involved. That was it.

“Through the help and love of my community and truly understanding the ballroom language, I’ve finally been able to present my passion and truth. It’s liberation I am gaining: the confidence to own myself, allow myself to finally be open, relearn and live the true self. My goals are to be the runway diva I aspire to be and gag my way through the ballroom scene, inspiring my fellow south Asians and QPOC. They’re about to know about us!”