Les Ballet Afrik – New York is Burning. Photo credit: Ben McKeown

DURHAM, NC – Never underestimate the power that a sparkly gown and a disco ball hold. That’s what ballroom culture go-ers would tell you in New York City in the 1970s. I’m now a true believer after Les Ballet Afrik closed Pride Month with a heart-filled and moving performance of their original piece, New York Is Burning, featuring vogue, House, traditional African, and Latin movements.

I tend to do some research prior to attending performing arts shows, but this time around, after reading stellar reviews of the company, I wanted to surprise myself and have close to zero expectations. I knew I was going to be seeing some voguing and colorful fans, but that was about it. As I walked all the way down the steep steps of Reynolds Industries Theater to row E I was immediately immersed into the world of Les Ballet Afrik. Club dance music filled the space, welcoming everyone in with open arms. A main attraction of clubs is that they are welcoming. The music engulfs you and for a few hours every Friday night, partygoers can let loose and forget about the perception of others. These are common themes of ballroom culture as well, and I could immediately sense a shift in the air as I took my seat.

American Dance Festival is known for pushing the boundaries of who they bring onto the stage each summer, and Les Ballet Afrik was nothing but a boundary pusher. The performance was MC’d by company members Karma Banks and Tygiér Morgan. They informed us that we’d be experiencing a ball and everything that comes with that – colorful outfits, fans, diverse dancers, voguing, love, and overall “Realness.” Banks and Morgan really carried the show through to the end with a riff-off style performance, in which the details I’ll leave as a surprise for future Les Ballet Afrik attendees.

The lights came up on seven dancers wearing different colors, striking a pose. The music continued to lift the energy of the theater ceiling, and audience members quickly started clapping along to the beat. Every musical mark was hit and even from the front few rows, hollering and cries of joy were heard from the back of the theater. The actual structure of the performance was confusing at times. Certain ballroom categories like “butch” and “realness” were announced by Banks and Morgan, but then when the dancers came back onstage, they were not presenting as the intended category through costumes or choreography. Every musical mark was hit, and even from the front few rows, I could hear hollering and cries of joy from the back.

Although the dancers’ outfits were not necessarily as extravagant as I had anticipated, their dancing made up for it. Founder and artistic director of the company, Ousmane ‘Omari’ Wiles made every moment look elegant, even the hard-hitting ones that made us feel more intense emotions. Dancer Karma Stylz impressed the audience with challenging break-dancing that included headstands and flips, which are also an integral part of ballroom culture. The dancers made every moment look easier than it probably was. Their control was impressive, especially that of dancers Kya Azeen and Yuki Sukezane, who both showcased the perfect blend of unique personality and seamless technique that is required of a true vogue performer.

Every minute of this performance had me eager to get up and dance, but even more eager to attend a real ball in New York City sometime in the future. At the end of the night, I walked away from the theater with more love and acceptance in my heart than when I first entered. I held my head a little higher, more proud of who I am and hopeful for the promise of a more accepting nation.

The American Dance Festival runs until July 28 and the full schedule of performances in the 2024 season can be found here.