"This is the place where I would let all my stress out," said Aalia of the ballroom dance floor. "I put everything behind me and just lived in that moment. In that moment, you are a runway model."
Aalia, who is transgender, credits the "house and ballroom" community with helping her overcome a series of challenges that life has thrown her way. The house and ballroom scene can best be described as community of young black and Latino LGBTQ performers who "vogue" (Madonna has them to thank for this), strut the runway and compete in a variety of dance battles — sometimes while in elaborate costumes. House and ballroom competitions have been around for decades and can be found across the U.S.
After Aalia was diagnosed with HIV in 2014, it was her love for performing that kept her spirits up. Despite her anxiety-filled days, Aalia, who asked that her last name and image not be shared to protect her privacy, found solace at night by practicing her catwalk on an imaginary runway.
And when she finally fled her native North Carolina for the Northeast, she said she found another savior: GMHC (formerly Gay Men's Health Crisis), New York's first HIV/AIDS care facility.
"I was actually running for my life," Aalia said of her decision to leave her home state, noting that transgender health care in North Carolina is not easily accessible. "I couldn't handle the pressure of my gender identity issues and the fact that I just found out I was HIV-positive."
At GMHC, Aalia said she found safe HIV treatment, a healthy environment to focus on her gender transition and a place to express the art that saved her life.
On Saturday, Aalia will be strutting the runway at GMHC's 27th Annual Latex Ball — the largest voguing and runway competition in New York. In addition to voguing and dance competitions, the event also provides free HIV testing and sex education materials for those in attendance.
"The Latex Ball is so important because we need to have events and spaces where we remind people that their lives matter, that their experiences matter, that their talents matter, and there are things that they can do proactively to lead healthy lives," GMHC CEO Kelsey Louise said.
Luna Luis Ortiz, a community health specialist at GMHC who has become a mentor to Aalia, said he found his safe space at GMHC more than 30 years ago. Like Aalia, he is HIV positive, having been diagnosed at age 14.
When the house and ballroom community was at its peak of popularity in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS ravaged the community, Ortiz said. "It was a ball of sadness, and so many of our greats, and so many people that were part of the community were dying."
Ortiz's first ballroom "house" (almost like a dance team mixed with a fraternity) in the 1980s, House of Xtravaganza, was home to stars of the 1990 award-winning documentary "Paris Is Burning" and some of Madonna's most renowned backup dancers. Now, Ortiz has his own "house" — House of Khan — which is competing in this weekend's Latex Ball.
Aalia is a member of House of Khan, and Ortiz said he considers her a "daughter" and noted that the LGBTQ people who mentored him as a teenager inspired his life of community service.
"He's always pushing me to … be best person I can be in life, without the labels of trans, without all these sexuality labels," Aalia said of Ortiz.
While dance is a crucial part of the house and ballroom community, Ortiz also stressed that the community enforces the importance of education, sexual health and one's professional life. He described ballroom houses as "chosen families" and said the Latex Ball is like a big family celebration of sorts.
"The Latex Ball is a celebration for people that were lost, people who are living, people who are surviving," he explained. "So every year the Latex Ball is special, because it has that history."