Although ballroom culture has been around since the 1980s, documentaries like Paris is Burning and FX's hit series, Pose introduced a larger audience to the scene while others gained a more in-depth understanding. The world was able to see that there is more to this community than dancing.
Ballroom is about family and community, and is a safe space for the LGBTQ+ . Several terms used in today's pop culture, like tea and shade, were birthed there. When the outside world didn't understand—including family members—ballroom provided a safe space to live as your authentic self. Ballroom allowed people from all walks of life come together and feel loved.
Within the larger community, there are houses and each house has members. For James Conley III, the overall father (a term designated for the leader of a house) of the captivating House of West, ballroom was a place for him to live out loud.
His ballroom career began in 2006 when the world was a very different place. After 12 incredible years with his former house—the House of Khan—he started his own legacy with a few other members.
EBONY sat down with James Conley III, aka "Lil James," to gain a deeper understanding of ballroom culture and his time in the community.
EBONY: What inspired you to join the ballroom scene?
James Conley: It was the freedom and culture I experienced during my first ball. There were men, women, trans men, trans women—and everybody looked so comfortable just being themselves. During this time, I was existing in a society of straight people and not being comfortable in that space. Of course, I started to crave freedom and ballroom became that place for me.
What prompted you to start your own house?
I've been in ballroom since 2006, and I was a part of the House of Khan for nearly 12 years. There, I experienced family, love and protection. At some point, ballroom started to feel like a job to me, and it brought a lot of frustration and anger. I didn’t like that, so I knew it was time to begin my own legacy.
I started House of West with my co-founder's Afrika, Anthony and Porkchop. We then worked to build our leaders and overall membership.
Can you recall your favorite ballroom moment thus far?
My most memorable ballroom moment was probably when I walked the "Coldest Winter Ever" ball for the $5,000 prize. It was so intense; I had never spent so much money preparing for a category before. I had two looks custom-designed and bought a lot of other things for my overall production. I had a bald cap on, huge black-out contacts and a lot of makeup; I love that I didn’t look like myself.
What was the toughest vogue move you learned?
The toughest vogue move I've learned was simply a dip. Dips are not the easiest thing to do. It was hard for me because you have to first learn the technique of actually positioning your foot in place to land on/beside it. There are times when you'll hurt yourself and that makes it extremely hard to continuously land the move. As years go on, though, your body adjusts and it gets better.
Where do hope to see the House of West in the next five years?
I see my house being a legendary house for sure, and also I see us going mainstream with gigs and reality TV. There are so many personalities and creative people within the House of West, so I know we will soon get what we deserve.