A ballroom scene has been quietly growing in Nashville. And it’s about to have its coming out party.

Listen to the audio feature on NMAAM’s The Message ball and the scene-building work of Nashville chapter of the Legendary Iconic House of Ebony

Ballroom — not the realm of waltzing, but operatic, athletic voguing battles — has historically been an underground scene, powered by Black and brown queer and trans youth. Though they built worlds of their own imagining from their positions at the economic and social margins, the looks, language, moves, music and attitudinal demeanors they developed influenced pop culture in countless, mostly uncredited ways.

At the same time, the ballroom world itself has gradually inched closer to the spotlight over the last three decades, as it’s become the subject of documentaries like the 1991 classic “Paris Is Burning” and more recent films like “Kiki” and “How Do I Look” as well as an array of dramatic, reality and competition series including “Pose,” “My House” and “Legendary.”

But outside the ballroom community, there’s still a lack of knowledge of its history, customs and contributions, and little acknowledgement that its stylistic riches have been stolen time and again. On top of that, few residents of Nashville are aware of the ballroom scene growing right here, cultivated by the local chapter of the Legendary Iconic House of Ebony, whose leaders are out to make their presence known. They’ve put on several smaller balls in the city in recent years, but the one they’re bringing to the National Museum of African American Music on June 21 will be their most visible display to date.

One of the pivotal people behind it is Steve Townsend. Over his decade-and-a-half in ballroom, he’s worked his way up to being known as the Legendary Pioneer Father Scoota Ebony, a status achieved, he explains, by dominating “in the category of realness and also for being a pioneer of the Tennessee ballroom scene.”

Though he’d never done an interview before, as a house father who mentors the new members he refers to as his “kids,” he’s deeply thoughtful about entwining his own story with oral histories of ballroom.

Townsend got introduced early. He was a 13-year-old in Chicago when he first checked out a ball with his boyfriend: “I think I sat there with my mouth open for about four hours, like, ‘What the hell is happening right now?’ There was lots of dancing and excitement.”

The first group he joined in his teens, dubbed the Mattels, was what’s now called a “Kiki house,” though that term wasn’t yet widely used. The Mattels forged a collective identity around being young, queer people of color, but they didn’t compete on the established ballroom circuit. That changed for Townsend when he was inducted into the House of Ebony at age 17 and instructed to walk in the schoolboy realness category.

“Realness,” he notes, “is about blending in with heteronormative society essentially, whether it’s a school boy or an executive, whether you’re pretty or whether you’re a thug, it’s that you can still portray these things.”

At this particular ball, he recalls, “We had to bring it in a red skirt. So I had on a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, and I made it to the last battle, with the person who was of the year, which is essentially like the Grammy for your region — you were the best person in your category for that year — which was pretty impressive for my very first time walking.”

Despite being a millennial who’s only in his late 30s, Townsend is short on photos documenting his early career. “I am a VHS-era ballroom walker,” he grins.

The ballroom world and its system of houses offer safety to people who often experience a profound lack of safety and stability in their daily existence, but also encourage cutthroat competition. “Originally, starting in New York, it was for homeless teens and youth who were LGBT,” says Townsend. “Parents kicked them out, you know, they were shunned and unaccepted. They found their chosen family.”

He was still with his biological family, but found something else he needed in ballroom.

“I didn’t have a sense of comfort,” he remembers, “because I was the only gay kid. Going to schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods where being homosexual wasn’t accepted, I never really had an opportunity to be free, be creative. The House of Ebony, and the ballroom community as a whole, was a place where I could be who I wanted to be. I could do anything that I wanted to in this fantasy space.”

But along with the sense of acceptance, Townsend notes, “that competition drove you to be better than the next house. That is your family. That’s your unit. That’s your sorority and fraternity partnership that you go to bat for, that you stand up for at all costs, and you strive together as your house to be better than all of the other competition.”

The way of carrying himself that he perfected in that setting, he says, enables him to move confidently through even hostile environments now. “It takes nerve to walk a ball, to get over that fear and to have 12 to 13 random people judge you and say, ‘Hey, you’re not beautiful’ or ‘You’re not up to a standard.’ And then to come back out week after week and say, ‘I want to keep going until I make you see me.’ That’s our reality in the world as it is; you go through life having to make people see you for who you are, see what your potential is, being Black and gay and in an underground community.”

Legendary Pioneer Father Scoota Ebony ready to walk in the bizarre category in a costume inspired by the Chickcharney, a character from Caribbean folklore

Sarah Calise is a curator of community histories for Vanderbilt University libraries and independently researches Nashville’s queer histories. She says that much of the city’s Black, queer history is lost to us, thanks in great part to the racial segregation of the city’s LGBTQ+ communities. I can point to people who became famous, like Jackie Shane,” says Calise, invoking the Nashville-raised, Black, trans soul powerhouse. “We learn more about her every day, it seems. In terms of Black, gay bars — Black, gay spaces — pre-1990s, there’s so little known.”

Out of necessity, she explains, “a lot of Black, queer people were meeting up in apartments, doing house parties. They were hanging out together in private spaces.”

So, she goes on, “finding ball culture, which is already marginalized within a marginalized group, it almost feels like a very impossible history to find, but it very well could exist, and I just haven’t talked to the right person.”

Townsend and the other founders of the local chapter of the House of Ebony — Legendary Pioneer Godfather King Ebony, Icon Jymeek Ebony and Icon Pioneer Charles Ebony — are making Nashville ballroom history in real time. Townsend moved to town several years ago to open a restaurant and, for a time, strictly traveled to balls elsewhere. Then he decided that Nashville itself had the potential to become a new ballroom city. In 2021, he co-founded a house here and began building up its membership.

My focus not only switched to, ‘How do I make my chapter great?’” he says, “but, ‘How do I get other houses to come here? How do I get the ballroom scene to recognize us as a new, vibrant city that has active participants that are winning trophies? How do I build our community?’”

Members of the Nashville chapter of the House of Ebony as “Guardians of Vogue from the year 4044“; from left, Sara Ebony, Alexis Ebony, Legendary King Ebony, Jordan Ebony and Sunni Ebony, and in front, Icon Charles Ebony

He’s not alone in the effort. Senior members of other houses now live here, and they’re adding to their numbers all the time. “I want to get together with Fisk University and Meharry and TSU and figure out how we can throw the first ballroom-sanctioned ball on a HBCU campus,” Townsend says. “That’s something that I think will help not only grow the scene here, but (act) as a feeder system to introducing new communities and new eras and new generations of young, LGBT Black folks.”

Senior members of Nashville’s House of Ebony, including Pioneer Moody Ebony, have thrown the Music City ACC Ball for three years running, renting slightly larger venues each time, and done events at Vanderbilt. Which is why Calise was able to assist in making the introductions when Noëlle Taylor, NMAAM’s director of education and exhibitions, wanted to add Pride programming to the museum’s Black Music Month offerings in June. Once the conversations began, Taylor recalls, “I told Steve that I can’t tell this story and I don’t want to even pretend like I can tell this story. I want to put the people in the place who can tell the story, because they live the story every day.”

Members of the Legendary Iconic House of Ebony; from left, Icon Jymeek Ebony, Icon Charles Ebony, Jordan Ebony and Legendary King Ebony

From then on, the House of Ebony took the lead in planning The Message ball, selecting the DJ, Galactik Bass Musik; inviting experienced ballroom judges; and coming up with categories that correspond to the galleries devoted to different, Black-originated musical lineages in the museum.

Realness? That’s hip-hop. “No matter the gender breakdown,” Townsend says, “whether you’re a male figure or female figure, they have to spit 16 bars of their favorite rap song.”

Best dressed has a gospel theme. That’s where people will walk in their Sunday best, like they’re on their way to take their place in the church choir.

And the performance category hearkens back to the jazz age. “I took the history of jazz and started out in juke joints and used that for what the category is calling for,” he explains. “So I’m expecting to see female figures in, you know, flapper dresses and male figures in suspenders and bow ties and newsboy hats and stuff. I want it to feel like that time where Black excellence was at an all-time high.”

Partnering with an institution like NMAAM to put on a ball is a chance to frame ballroom itself as an important Black and brown performing tradition.

“People from the ballroom scene have moved every sense of musical culture in every genre forward, whether it be through fashion or styling or makeup or whatever,” says Townsend. “We’ve been around. So I think that we should be able to step into those spaces and have those spaces recognize our value to the story that they’re telling.”

Taylor agrees. She’s thought of ways for the museum to partner in placing the ball in context: with a screening of “Paris Is Burning,” a panel on the cultural appropriation of ballroom innovations and an opening performance by Houston Kendrick — an R&B-tinged pop singer, songwriter and rapper who savvily celebrates his connection to ballroom through his lyrics and visuals.

She’s eager to spotlight the Black, queer genius behind every musical genre featured in the museum. “If we don’t have the influence of queer artists on gospel music, what changes in ‘Wade in the Water’?” she wonders aloud, invoking the title of one of NMAAM’s galleries. “If we don’t have the influence of queer artists in blues, what changes in ‘Crossroads’? How does that narrative change? You have to acknowledge what the root is and where it’s coming from. And be able to say, ‘Man, thank you for what you’ve given us,’ instead of shunning and pretending that you didn’t give us anything.”

The location of The Message ball will make a statement, too, with the runway stretching across the museum lobby in front of an entire wall of windows on Lower Broadway on a Friday night.  

We’re normally tucked away into hotel conference rooms,” Townsend observes. “So to have something be in a space where it’s so visible, I think is cool. I think it’s something that’s new. And I think that the world should be able to come and see us. We should have all of these windows. We shouldn’t have to be in some blacked out of room where nobody can walk past and see what’s going on.”