Professional wrestling and ballroom culture have more in common than you might think

Photo by Marvin Joseph

Outlandish, skin-tight costumes. Cut-to-the-bone insults. Hair extensions flying through the air. Death-defying body slams. This is “Paris Is Bumping.”

The event, the brainchild of a 25-year-old wrestler named Billy Dixon, takes its name from the iconic 1990 drag-ball documentary “Paris Is Burning” and professional-wrestling lingo for a fall to the mat. It brings together two forms of performance art that are more similar than you’d think: wrestling, with its over-the-top characters and narratives, and ballroom, the underground culture made mainstream by Madonna’s “Vogue” and FX’s “Pose.”

Filmed in September andreleased on the Internet in October, “Paris Is Bumping” featured a handful of wrestlers who had convened for matches at a tiny bar in Valley Lee, in Southern Maryland. It’s a low-ceilinged dive with harsh halogen lights and wood-paneled walls. Staged with no audience because of the pandemic — except for a bartender and a few barflys — it seemed as if fights broke out spontaneously between wrestlers.

Like everything since the outset of the pandemic, Dixon’s exposition had to change plans. Not only is it impossible to have a wrestling match while the opponents are socially distanced, but the form itself — where the audience’s cheers and boos helps determine the action — is particularly unsuited to empty venues.

For independent performers and promoters like Dixon who often barely break even, these pressures are even more acute. Without a governing body, independent organizations and performers have had to determine what is safe and appropriate for themselves. Events have faced the pandemic with different strategies, whether filming shows without fans or socially distancing attendees in large spaces, such as a high school football stadium.

As a performer, Dixon — who is billed as weighing in at 300 pounds and typically comes to the ring in a pink T-shirt and grafitti-covered overalls — spaces his bookings two weeks apart to allow for self-quarantining between matches, and wrestles only with performers he trusts to take covid precautions seriously. But it is a balancing act: Because he lacks attachment to any pro organizations, he must treat his wrestling character like a small business.

“I don’t want to work, but I have to remain relevant,” he told me, adding that he has been in the business for five years.

After the pandemic scuttled Dixon’s plans for a live, ticketed event in the D.C. area, he regrouped: “I may not be able to keep the promise of a live event, but I could do something cool and different and still kinda exciting.”

Meanwhile, amid planning for events during the pandemic, the pro wrestling world — from the independents in the United States and the United Kingdom to major organizations such as World Wrestling Entertainment or All Elite Wrestling— has faced its own #MeToo moment, dubbed #SpeakingOut, as people have publicized allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by members of the industry.

Dixon counts himself among the survivors. He tweeted in June that he had been sexually assaulted by the owner of a wrestling school he went to during his first month of training, saying that he had been “agonizing” over this incident for five years.

(The alleged abuser issued a denial via his now-deleted social media accounts, and shortly thereafter closed his company and his wrestling school.)

As in the #MeToo movement, much of the conversation in the #SpeakingOut movement centered on white women as the survivors of abuse, excluding Black women and members of the LGBT community. In many ways, “Paris Is Bumping” is Dixon’s way of addressing that deficiency.

“I really have always have been out and public and vocal about my experience as a Black, gay wrestler,” he told me. “When it came to Pride shows, it was really frustrating to see how it was white-centered. … We’re not celebrating everyone, [and] that made me uncomfortable.”

“Paris Is Bumping” continues the work Dixon did previously booking a March event hosted by the defunct D.C. organization Prime Time Wrestling, which he says included more than 20 Black and/or queer talents in pro wrestling.

By embedding ballroom culture into a pro wrestling event, “Paris Is Bumping” goes even further.

“Professional wrestling is so stuck in the same circle; it doesn’t have any room to grow and be different, and I’m tired of waiting for it to be cool again,” Dixon says. Ballroom and pro wrestling have so much in common — the physicality, the heightened emotions, the fan interaction, the outrageousnous — that the fusion makes perfect sense, to Dixon and his cast of performers from both worlds.

He describes the experience as intoxicating:“Let’s get drunk on the queer imagination.”

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