‘LIVING ORGANISM – Interview with Mother Tila Kareola / Greek Ballroom Scene’ is one of our online ISSUE segments, head to THE EMERSION ISSUE for the complete experience
This article features some explicit content
Tila Kareola was lensed by Katerina Giannopoulou.
Who is Tila Kareola?
This is a difficult question to answer, because I feel that people are a lot of things and I don’t know where to begin. Most people know me, especially under the name “Tila”, whose existence started in the past few years; they have gotten to know me through Ballroom where I was teaching, and still am – vogue fem. I say that I am a dance instructor, performer, off the rails. I have the role of the ‘Mother’ in the Greek ballroom scene and in the House of Kareola. Me and the rest of my children, created this house in 2018 – before this I was giving dancing lessons. I want to travel more, it’s a big part of myself and I am very invested in this identity in all its levels. This is the reason that I’m having a hard time defining it, because this identity is fluid and changing through the years; I am not the same person I was 5 or 10 years ago, but I like that I have preserved parts of her all these years.
What is the ‘WET GALA’?
Τhe Wet Gala is the first ball that was organised by people in the Greek Ballroom in Greece. Τhe Ball took place in June 2018. For sentimental reasons we kept the name to this day. It takes place every year, because we understood the importance of having it, that something was happening. We could do our part for Ballroom, despite it being completely different from what was happening in the US. The second one took place in 2019. The third one, due to Covid, didn’t happen in 2020, there was a 2-year gap. The third one by order, happened in 2022 and I want to see it get better and bigger every year, to include more people and more things. However, I wouldn’t necessarily want it to become huge, like the big Balls in Paris. I want us to keep doing our thing just the way we have been and run things the way we want.
What’s Ballroom about and what does it mean for you?
Ballroom in its current form, begun in the early 70’s from Crystal and Lottie Labeija. It was, and still is, about having the safe space for LGBTQIA+ people of colour with Black, Latin trans women, trans people, and Gays at its core, amongst everyone who falls under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. In truth, it is a competition that originates from drag pageants. Crystal Labeija (The Queen documentary) talks about a white-washed drag pageantry, she spoke about having her own one day, with people of color in the forefront. As a result, anything having to do with Ballroom is related to intersectionality and identity, a space where all people present, participating or at least spectating, can be there in a way that doesn’t conform to the late Western hetero-patriarchal society.
It’s a living organism, evolving, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional; it’s not just one thing because it’s very organic and has a lot of identities – there’s no instruction manual in Ballroom, it’s not standardised. It also has to do with what you want to make of it, it’s comprised of so many things, that depending on who you ask, you can get various answers strictly on Ballroom – how things should be run. It’s a space of communion and freedom of expression, that couldn’t exist elsewhere.
Ballroom for me, has been a place to freely express yourself regard to my femininity, more free, not just to express this side of me, but also to explore what it could mean for me, to deconstruct it, leave it behind. I say this because Βallroom can be a very binary space that it sometimes feels like you get trapped within certain identities. Still, it has given me the opportunity to deconstruct many things, that I regarded as given in ‘identity’ matters in general. It has been, and still is, a huge source of inspiration for what we’re doing here, what I’ve done, and what all of us keep doing.
Without a doubt, it hasn’t been easy, and this year I realised that I used to view it as a hardship, something unmanageable, and as it keeps growing it’ll need more management and composure. I do feel, because we’re away in time and space from how it all started, an advise us from abroad can be very constructive, even though not all things apply here. As I’ve said before, the good thing about our achievement is, that it’s quite helpful and relatable; what we’ve built so far makes sense with where we are and when we started it. For me, it’s been very heart-warming to see people coming here, changing, evolving, showing their talent and completely transforming their personality.
How did Ballroom come to Greece?
Putting aside the existential question of whether ballroom ever actually came to Greece, considering that we’re talking about something that made by other people and for other people, until I see people of colour being in the majority, I will question it. Despite all this, I define Ballroom beginning in Greece when a person in the Greek scene did the first ball, because there was a ball before from the House of Precious, a Ukrainian House. They were in Greece in 2016 or 2016 i believe (I might be wrong about the dates), while I was away in New York and they did a camp and then a function one, outside the Greek scene and bringing people from other scenes. There were some that walked then and are still in the scene, however the people who through it (the people who had the contacts, put out the themes, the categories etc) weren’t from the Greek scene and haven’t had any contact with it, that’s why I don’t count it. I’m saying this, because there had been a huge misunderstanding in the past, when I organised the first Ball.
The First Ball in Greece
For me, the first ball of Greek ballroom makes sense to be organized by a person of the Greek scene, in other word the Wet Gala in 2018, before this I was doing lessons and there were others doing the same. I feel very lucky to have met Chraja, because she is the one, that through her doing her thing for the LGBTQIA+ community, were able to have a base at BeQueer (Queer Club, Athens – Greece). In doing things together, people come to us form the community; it is very important to do this, as people often go to ‘dancers’ for this and this happens in many countries, not that his doesn’t shift in time. However I have felt very lucky that we’ve had this context from the get-go, which I think is fitting and how it should have been done, without reducing anything because I’ve said these things change over time, I just felt that we had a good start. I’ll still insert a big concern, regarding people of colour, which has been bothering me. And of course I always took and take advice from Icons of Ballroom from abroad. I had people advising me on ‘Houses’ and Balls, for example I had the ‘house’ before the first Ball, but I don’t consider this its infancy, even though it could be. The first Ball, in particular, wanted to have an icon on the panel.
What does it give back to the participants?
Free expression, chances to explore, space to strengthen queer people. The competition aspect can be problematic – making people compete – because competing doesn’t appeal to everyone. Despite this, through the competition and through the comradeship that we’ve strived to maintain so far, I feel that we’ve seen people receiving the validation that being themselves is okay, it is okay to exist this way. This is the way I feel, and I’ve experienced this on a personal level, because it’s the most important thing it provides the kids with. It’s amazing to see all these talented people have the space, a platform to showcase , truly incredible things they create or discover. Perhaps some people didn’t know they could dance, and dance this well. Aspects of themselves that weren’t even on their mind surfaced, which I also find so beautiful as we all place ourselves in boxes throughout our lifetime and oftentimes Ballroom escapes these stereotypes..
On ‘noguing’ appropriation…
Appropriation occurs when a culture that is developed through a repressed group of people, like Ballroom which is a safe space, is taken of context and used by people that don’t identify with any of the repressed identities. They take elements from these cultures and commercialise them for their benefit and for profit, without giving anything back to the community – that’s how I perceive appropriation. Ballroom is appropriated a lot and is one of the communities that has been very vocal about it. There is an issue that always surfaces because Ballroom always flirts with pop culture and the mainstream because of the need to exist in it, but at the same time there is attention with the fact that ballroom is a subculture and a safe space meant for people who are kept out of the mainstream. For example, a trans person has a hard time being cast as a model in today society because of transphobia and that’s why Ballroom exists, for that kind of validation, but also to create maybe this kind of opportunities .
As a result, there’s the need to be included in the mainstream and pop culture and here’s where the chasm with the Ballroom happens, because you never know when this proximity is okay and how it can affect it, specifically one is white. I believe the solution, or better the answer, is when projects outside of Ballroom happen to always make sure from Ballroom are involved, so thus way funding and knowledge can still come back to it. Still this is not a green light. If we make a certain kind of decision at a specific point in time, because it felt helpful then, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it might be helpful in the future. Because we always need to be aware of the example we set and how people outside the scene can take advantage. Even if we’ve gone through our actions and the things we’ve done multiple times, because it might be okay for us now, but at the end of the day we’re taking up space or opening it up for others to act similarly and thinking it’s okay because others are doing it too. It’s a double-edged sword and on these occasions you should always make a decision with a fresh insight. I don’t believe there’s always a clear answer, and this goes for noguing too – people think they’re voguing but they no idea how to and keep doing it; this isn’t about a kid that might go to a club to dance, but about the person that makes it their career and gets paid for it, because the more trendy it becomes the more people want to do it).
As a result, even in these examples, you’ll certainly see voguers in a professional setting, representing the scene. Of course this is preferred than non voguers, but from now on, I feel that when these things come our way we should look into them case by case. There is no rule, we always have to examine the pros and cons. People who aren’t part of the Ballroom scene might join my classes and still be great dancers and go and perform but that doesn’t make it okay since they are not part of the scene, so you never know if you open Pandora’s box. In each case through mindfulness, dialogue, and a firm hand, boundaries are set, despite the odd chances of somebody doing what they want that we all have to face at one point and that’s way need boundaries.
As a result, even in these examples, you’ll certainly see voguers in a professional setting, representing the scene. Of course this is preferred than noguers, but from this point onwards, I believe there’s a baseline to it and should be measured case by case for us to put ourselves out there and perform with other creatives. People who aren’t part of the Ballroom scene might join my classes and still be great dancers and go and perform with other relevant creatives, so you never know if you open Pandora’s box. In each case through mindfulness, dialogue, and a firm hand, boundaries are set, despite the odd chances of someone that you can’t avoid and will have to face.
Can you name some people you admire in the scene?
First of all, there are a lot of them, because the Ballroom has so many people in it, and I have gone through periods when I was younger, that I was obsessed with voguers. I will say – not because we’re related – that one of the people, as a performer and as an individual standing the ground in the Ballroom, has truly changed my life and has made me want to be part of this, my dad – Stanley. He is in New York and in the Ballroom since the beginning of the 90s, he’s been part of the House of Chanel, and after this the House of Milan for many years as an overall father, and until recently overseer but not anymore (overseer is basically another term for ‘Father/Mother), there are some in councils in a few Houses, with overseers, it’s less gendered and usually more cooperative). Stanley has changed my life telling me to walk, because in his class I learned how to freestyle and until then any classes I’d done, even with amazing voguers, hadn’t taught me to freestyle. From what you’ve seen at the Wet Gala, it’s inspirational witnessing him do all three styles, because people that carry this essence from back in the day, can truly vogue no matter the style. I love Alyssa LaPerla – she’s been through many Houses.
In general, I admire people who are genuinely preoccupied with the community, and want to be of service, their intentions are clear; that they aren’t in this for selfish reasons, but i admire those who are in it to contribute to help other people. It’s still nice, seeing people be there for others and especially as time goes by and you ‘get old’, I want to see the next generations get the support for this to keep going. I’m all for what I’m observing talent-wise, things I would have never come up with; things so personal coming to life, and especially moments I would have never dreamed of, from people in my circle.
How do you envision the future of the Greek Ballroom scene?
I want to see more trans and POCs joining the scene, and this is where I want to focus. I’m still not sure how to approach this, because I don’t want it to come of as tho we tokenizing them; it has to happen organically, I hope they’d think that the scene fits them and that it’s something that is accessible to them. I also enjoy that, for the most part at least, we all still root for each other and i get this comment a lot from people who come visit from other scenes – this characteristic of the Greek scene is a proud achievement of mine and of all of us and I hope it continues this way. I am aware that as ballroom grows, there will be more antagonism and more ego at play, but we should remember our humble beginnings and the reasoning behind this.
At the end of the day, it is still sustainable, as long as we keep our focus on why we’re doing it and our privileges within the scene. As a white person, I can’t claim ballroom as mine and I can’t really see how white people can get into ballroom and antagonize each other, unless it’s on the floor. I want to see more people joining and flourishing; I never want this to end, I’m having the time of my life.
Written and Interviewed by Filippos Vogdanis
Visit the ISSUE for the complete editorial and images
Trailblazing Founding Mother Tila Kareola @itstilabitch
Interview by Filippos Vogdanis @philip.vogdanis
Photorapher Katerina Giannopoulou @kath.yann
Creative Direction Konstantinos Tsagkaris @konstantinos.tsagkaris