The energy that pulses through a ballroom function feels like an electrical current. With an adrenalized crowd hyped up by an MC and a DJ, the sense of community and support is instantly tangible—even when the judges’ panel gets deliciously vicious. The Black and queer-founded scene has its roots in the drag balls of the Harlem Renaissance, and in the decades since has bloomed into an expansive global subculture with a unique blend of modern dance, extravagant fashion, and subversive expressions of gender. Performances are set to house-inspired music composed of pumping beats, isolated vocal samples, and heavy crashes to underscore the dancers’ dramatic dips and spins—all of which drew in Michael Cox, aka MikeQ, when he first encountered ballroom at a club as a teenager in the mid-2000s. He was inspired to craft his own edits on the genre with darkly propulsive beats, head-spinning samples, and blunt-force BPMs, becoming one of the leading DJs and producers in the scene.
Over the phone from his home in Newark, New Jersey, MikeQ is more demure than his music might suggest. He describes his 15-year career as having its “ups and downs,” but there are far more ups: founding the first ballroom-dedicated label, Qween Beat, in 2005; starting the monthly event House of Vogue in 2017; and soundtracking Kiki, the essential 2016 documentary about contemporary NYC ballroom culture, with his own deft style. He most recently brought his expertise to Legendary, the HBO Max ballroom competition series that wrapped its first season earlier this month. While other high-profile depictions of ballroom, like 1990’s Paris Is Burning and the current FX hit Pose, have focused more on the interpersonal aspects of life in a house, Legendary shows you the competitive aspects of the art form up-close: Eight different houses go head to head in dance matches to nab a $100,000 prize. MikeQ is the show’s DJ and crafted its pulsing theme song featuring Qween Beat rapper Ash B. and James Blake on keys. The song serves as a bold-faced anthem for the show’s unshakable performers: “All I really wanna be/Is an icon or a statement/No, it’s le-gen-dar-y!”
Legendary is exhilarating to watch despite its imperfections, most visible in the shifting criteria around what the judges—Megan Thee Stallion, actress Jameela Jamil, “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado, and stylist Law Roach—look for each week. But the tenacious houses—including Lanvin, Escada, and many more from across the country—are the show’s undeniable stars. Each group turns themes like “circus” and “underwater” into intricate performances of strength, dexterity, and personality. And MikeQ is there to help set the tone, remixing music live and bringing his signature style on the crashing beats that drive the dance battles.
In MikeQ’s view, there’s a holy trinity between the house DJ, the MC who provides rapid-fire commentary, and the dancer at any function. During one particularly high-octane Legendary battle, his concept comes into focus: MikeQ’s music punctuates dancer Makayla Lanvin as she climbs up and leaps off a steel column (in heels!), while MC Dashaun Wesley narrates the mesmerizing scene beat by beat. “You can’t possibly have a ballroom competition without that trinity happening,” MikeQ says. “That came alive on set.”
Ballroom music moves with its own specific momentum and style. Disco and house set the first backdrops for balls before the sound developed into something more braggadocious and bold, driven by electronic sounds that give structure to different performances. Sped-up samples and crashes on every fourth beat are the most common template (especially for dips, where performers fall to the floor on a bent knee), but MikeQ’s music twists the formula in more careening directions. It’s evident in his strutting Jersey club remix to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which she performed during Legendary’s season finale. “I have a certain pattern that I’ll start with that’s a little bit different from the Runway stuff,” Mike says, referring to the prime fashion-forward category in ballroom competitions. “It’s not the ‘Ha’ crash samples and all that, but more house-type, electronic beats.” His approach leads to rapid-fire creativity, whether chopping up Missy Elliott’s “She’s a Bitch” into a battle-ready track or using breathless MC vocals to build a club track that evokes being center stage at a premier ball.
Watching Legendary’s performances from his DJ booth high above the crowd was an enjoyable, if sometimes surreal, experience for MikeQ. His favorite moment of filming was when guest judge Dominique Jackson, who plays ice queen Elektra on Pose, got into a back and forth with some of the performers and judges, who dared to question her judging ability. “We’re both from ballroom so we’ve known each other for years, it’s weird for me to call her Dominique,” he says of Jackson, who’s known as Tyra Allure Ross in the scene. “She’s always been there, so that was a whole funny thing.”
Legendary sits in a long lineage of projects that tilt ballroom toward a more mainstream audience, from various on-screen depictions to the glimpses of ballroom moves that appear in choreography by FKA twigs and Beyoncé. MikeQ refers to Kandi Burruss, who hosted a virtual ball this month that featured revered MC Precious Ebony, as proof that while the scene is more popular than ever, its roots can still be honored respectfully at the same time. But that truth coincides with a long history of co-opting, with progenitors in the scene hardly ever given their proper due. Even if this moment feels distinct, MikeQ remains keenly aware of how easily the art form can be exploited by outsiders. “Everyone in ballroom has a piece of it to themselves, so anyone can come to anyone in there and take that and run with it,” he says. “This is definitely different. As long as things stay pure, it’ll be okay.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork