In a near-dystopic America, many people are learning about the things they were never taught. Systemic racism, violent histories, cultures and perspectives previously ignored. It is in this climate of discovery that the show Legendary premiered on HBO Max. A competition reality show for a grand prize of $100,000, eight ballroom “houses” compete in dance battles every episode to determine the superior house among them. One house is eliminated almost every episode, with a part-celebrity part-ballroom icon judging panel making the cuts.
The show is revolutionary not just in concept, but also for its representation of the transgender community. Specifically, trans women of color. In the wake of the television hit Pose, Legendary further brings to life the essence of balls, dips, and duck walks. You may think, Yes, we’re able to discover this whole new world we were never taught about! Great post Allyssa. Not so fast. I’ve gathered you here for another reason.
While binging this show, outside of the jaw-dropping visuals and dancing, I am stricken by something that caught me by surprise. From the judges to the competitors, everyone is passionate about the art of ballroom. And their abilities, talent, and opinions. It is exhilarating to watch everyone involved be so hype about what they are doing – and in a way that felt unperformed. Sure, at the end of the day, Legendary is a reality show, so to a degree it could be argued that everyone is on 10 for the entertainment of audiences (and in a social media age, a tool of self-promotion). Following my gut, though, I sense that this energy is different. Law Roach, Leiomy Maldonado, and every house involved, speak loudly. They are unflinching, steadfast, and dare I say cocky about the way they esteem themselves. Let’s examine that last word. Cocky.
We are so often warned by authority figures and peers the dangers of being cocky. How it repels people. How it’s a turn-off. How it can harm others. If I could posit a question: who exactly defined cockiness for us as a society? Through what lens have we been taught to see cockiness?
I’ve decided, after watching Black and Latinx queer folks dance with such unabashed joy, that cockiness may not really exist. I’ve realized that most of us were not taught the most crucial factor in living a fulfilling, joyful life: confidence.
For too many of us, there was no one that taught us to be confident in who we are, because being insecure keeps us in line and keeps us from our true power. To survive in society in otherness to cis, white, male power structures, a majority of people were taught how to accommodate our oppressors’ whims.
As people who have been deemed some of society’s lowest, the contestants of Legendary shared stories of abandonment, homelessness, and criminalization either caused or made worse by their queer identities. These people have seen rock bottom with their own eyes. When choosing confidence in yourself and your identity causes trauma, you surely learn that you have nothing else to lose. You must cling to what you know to be true to yourself. That might be your gifts or talents, your sexuality or gender, your inherent beauty even if society does not deem it so. That becomes in some cases literally all you have. So it is no wonder these people have confidence in themselves. When they had nothing left to lose, they had to love themselves.
The lessons we’ve been taught about cockiness only serve oppressors. Those with marginalized identities are spoon-fed from the youngest ages humility; humility before they even learn what self-esteem looks like. They’re told to be placating to others, to give before they receive, to listen but not how to speak. We’re taught to shrink ourselves for others’ pleasure, to consent when we don’t want to, to consider how our actions affect others rather than ourselves. Young adulthood, as many of us are finding out, is about unlearning these self-hating tendencies. It turns out, liking yourself and being assertive is just confidence! Self-esteem! Standing in your power! So why is it that the people who don’t go along to get along are often labeled weirdos, outcasts, nuisances, freaks? Taken to its logical conclusion, this labeling relegates BIPOC, women, disabled people, and queer folks to the margins of society. Go and love yourself somewhere else, it’s making the rest of us uncomfortable. This marginalization is how ballroom was born.
What we can learn from Legendary is how to effectively have confidence in ourselves in the face of a society that seems more interested in misery as default. Too many people live a life that they feel they are supposed to live, according to the paths this country has already made for certain ways of life. We’re told to shrink to fit. Society wasn’t built for difference. In the new world that beckons, we must build a society where confidence can thrive within everyone.
Legends aren’t made from humility. Legends are made by demanding the respect they know they deserve.