Performance ethnography in ballroom culture

A ballroom performer lying on a stage with an announcer in the background

By Holly Gordon

Julian Kevon Glover, Ph.D., excels in combining topics that don’t often go together. They earned a BS in speech communications with minors in music and sociology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. They hold an MPA from Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and earned a Ph.D. in African American studies at Northwestern University.

Their research focuses on Black and Brown queer cultural formations, performance, ethnography, embodied knowledge and performance theory.

When Glover came across an ad for a job with VCU’s iCubed initiative—a series of transdisciplinary communities of scholars who provide innovative solutions to challenges in urban environments—they saw a place where intersectionality would be central to their work.

“I read the description and could not believe it. It felt like the call was written directly for me,” they recall. “There was a specific kind of charge—the intersections in the lives of the LGBTQIA+ people, and a focus on multiply-marginalized people.”

They feel iCubed has the potential to position VCU as a national model, but it has also allowed them to transition from a visiting scholar to a tenure-track faculty member with appointments in the departments of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Dance + Choreography. “It speaks to the investment the institution has in diversifying the professoriate in tangible ways,” Glover says.

Julian Kevon Glover, Ph.D.

Glover finished her Ph.D. in July of last year, including a dissertation that studied the performance ethnography of Black and Latinx trans women in the ballroom cultures of Chicago and London. In the underground ballroom culture, young, LGBTQ+ African and Latin Americans walk, or compete, for prizes and glory in events that mix performance, dance, lip-syncing and modeling.

Her interest in ballroom culture has connections to her own life.

“My own lived experiences taught me that trans women were essential,” she says. “I grew up in the rural Midwest. My parents are virulently Pentecostal. Our church was 72 miles away, and we went three to four times a week.

“When I came out, they told me to leave the home,” she recalls.

At the train station, Glover met three trans women of color who provided her with shelter, food, and an introduction to ballroom.

It took Glover years to realize her desire to articulate the importance trans women play in ballroom culture felt important, not just for her own needs, but to document for academic record. She wanted to avoid the cultural exclusion of trans women that she feels is present in much of our culture.

“When you are a multiply-marginalized person, the response is to appeal to institutions for inclusion, citing exclusion and marginalization,” she says. “What might it mean to think differently about recognition? How does my life tease out the limits of recognition?

“That initially startled me. I realized I was beginning to conceive of a new way of thinking, not just about Black queer embodiment, but what it means to cultivate a meaningful life as a Black, queer person, despite all the different ways we’re subject to annihilation for anything at any moment.”

Her study of ballroom culture is also one example of Glover’s ability to make connections between ideas that people often don’t recognize are intimately linked. For instance, when answering her own question about the limits of recognition, Glover proposes: “If you go back to a very specific example in ballroom, this idea of realness, it is a strategic practice of negotiation. This exposes the limits of recognition, even among a group of people being used to miss-recognized.”

Ballroom culture continues to drive their future research and will be reflected in a virtual symposium, Queer.Art.Matters., they are leading in April. During a series of panel discussions, artists, scholars and activists will discuss how their work resists white supremacist, anti-Black, patriarchal and classist exclusion by offering creative visions of future possibilities.

“Non-binary and trans artists of color leverage their embodied knowledge to respond to societal messages that tell us that our lives are devoid of meaning,” Glover says.

April 16-17: Queer.Art.Matters. A Virtual Symposium on Resistance, Embodiment and Power

Glover’s virtual symposium, Queer.Art.Matters, seeks to recognize and honor the innumerable cultural contributions of Black and Brown LGBTQIA+ people to the American social fabric. Learn more about the three panel sessions and register to attend the free event: