TENS Across the Board | QFest St. Louis 2024

If ballroom isn’t exactly mainstream today, it’s certainly more widely known than it was in 1990 when Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning brought awareness of this subculture of primarily African American and Latino gay and trans people to many outside that world (including me). The film historian in me hastens to add that Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary The Queen, which is organized around the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Contest, predated Paris is Burning by 32 years, but pretty much fell out of the public eye until its re-release by Kino Lorber in 2020 (and of course ballroom culture itself is much older, dating back to the 19th century by some accounts). Today there’s Pose, Kiki, My House, Legendary, Port Authority, and so much more bringing ballroom culture into the living room of anyone interested in it.

Bobby Best’s documentary TENS Across the Board* celebrates ballroom culture in St. Louis through a combination of ball footage and interviews, adopting a format and style similar to that of Paris is Burning, right down to the large block letters used to introduce specific terms. One key player in the city’s ballroom scene is Mavin Logik Lee, who founded the ballroom event planning company TENS the Experience and hosts balls in St. Louis and other Midwestern cities. A 15-year veteran of the ballroom scene, he reached the point where he felt he had done all he could do as a performer and decided to focus his energies on giving  back to the community and helping revive ballroom in St. Louis.

TENS Across the Board is mindful that, if it is to reach an audience of people not already involved in ballroom culture, it needs to define some terminology and to have people from within the culture explain what those terms means to them.  Take “runway,” for instance. As the performer, model, and advocate Amariah Hardwick defines it, runway is a category that’s about more than strutting: it requires a performer to “bring the fashion bring the theatrics and bring the energy and confidence” and for her is “like a road to freedom and liberation.” To Byron Keaton, a legendary performer and historian, “runway is a masterclass on how queer people show up in the world.”

Missouri as a whole is not particularly mindful of protecting the rights of gay and trans people, and our legislature never seems to tire of thinking up ways to make things worse. Even in the (mostly) blue bubble of St. Louis, which does specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexuality, life as a gay or trans person has its ups and downs. Given that context, the fact that the ballroom scene here not only exists, but is thriving, is something to be celebrated. TENS Across the Board does just that, and hopefully will bring more people to appreciate this unique style of performance. It’s an entertaining film from start to finish and respects the spirit and individuality of each person who appears in it. | Sarah Boslaugh

*The title is borrowed from an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and refers more generally to the situation when a performer is awarded the top score from every judge.

TENS Across the Board will screen at QFest on Saturday April 27 at 7 pm. Director Bobby Best will be present for question and answer session after the film, which will be followed by transformation of the Hi-Pointe into a ballroom with music and dancers from the film.

Qfest St. Louis  2024 runs April 26-28 and May 3-5 at the Hi-Pointe Theatre (1005 McCausland Ave, St Louis). Information about programming, ticket prices and passes is available from the festival web site.

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