Keith “Ebony” Holt performs in a Baltimore ballroom event as depicted in the video “Voguing for a Cause.” SCREENSHOT/GREAT BIG STORY

The Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries are pleased to announce the Peabody Ballroom Experience, a new collaboration with Baltimore’s ballroom community, a performance-based art culture comprising gay, lesbian, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.

The project will host public workshops with special collections materials, film screenings, panel discussions, and dance workshops; conduct oral history interviews; and produce a documentary short film. At a culminating “ball” competition at the George Peabody Library, ballroom participants will interpret the library’s historic collections through costume and stylized performance.

The Peabody Ballroom Experience aims to cultivate an exchange of knowledge between the ballroom community and Hopkins by offering diverse opportunities for faculty, students, staff, and ballroom participants to come together as partners in education and interpretation. The project is directed by Dr. Joseph Plaster, curator in public humanities at the Sheridan Libraries, and Keith Holt, a.k.a. Legendary Father Keith Ebony of the House of Ebony, a youth outreach coordinator for the Baltimore City Health Department and organizer of the annual Know Your Status Free Ball.

Plaster joined the Sheridan Libraries this past June in a brand new position funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As curator in public humanities, he is tasked with using the university’s art and archival collections to develop innovations and collaborations that address issues of inclusion and diversity.

“The ballroom community uses performance to critique dominant definitions of family, race, sexuality, and gender. We are thrilled to partner with these artists to interpret the Peabody Library’s collections in a completely new and original way,” said Plaster.

Known as the Cathedral of Books, the George Peabody Library is consistently named among the most beautiful libraries in the world with a massive skylight soaring over six tiers of cast-iron balconies. It opened in 1878 with a collection that was, as mandated by its philanthropic founder, “well-furnished in every department of knowledge, and of the most approved literature.”

Panel discussion at the George Peabody Library, November 30, 2018.

The Peabody Ballroom Experience will continue this legacy by documenting and staging the unique forms of knowledge created through oral traditions and performance.

Leaders in Baltimore’s ballroom community will share personal insights into the decades-long history of the city’s LGBTQ ball culture and discuss the forms of knowledge the art form has yielded about kinship, gender, sexuality, race, and performance. Sheridan Libraries curators will hold workshops featuring the Peabody Library’s collections, comprised of over 300,000 volumes dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century. At a culminating “ball” in April 2019, ballroom participants will interpret a selection of rare books through costume and performance, and compete creatively in different categories.

The project kicked off November 30 with a panel discussion and film screening of Kiki, a 2017 documentary about the LGBTQ youth of color who make up New York City’s Kiki ballroom scene. Future events and activities will include workshops and presentations by Sheridan Libraries curators; dance/vogue workshops with the Peabody Conservatory’s BFA Dance program; collecting oral histories from members of Baltimore’s ballroom community from the 1970s to the present; producing a documentary short film with students in the university’s Film & Media Studies MA program; and identifying new archival acquisitions related to ball culture for the Libraries.

For more information about the Peabody Ballroom Experience, please contact Joseph Plaster at jplaster@jhu.edu.