Annual UNCA Alliance Drag Ball smashes expectations, paradigms

By Cory A. Thompson – Asst. Arts & Features Editor – coryetc@gmail.com

The clang of his high heeled boots hitting the stage barely rang over the roar of the crowd. Scores of people surrounded the stage, feasting their eyes and imaginations on the wonders of make-up, dress up and raw flesh. The jacket came off revealing a tight black tube top, and the crowd howled again.

“The energy at this campus is intoxicating,” Andi Espenshade said after the dancer left the stage. Espenshade emceed the event under the guise of his drag identity, the beautiful Miss Chartreuse Pallette. Espenshade, a senior, studies drama at UNC Asheville. His alter ego hosts the Kings & Queens series of drag shows at O’Henry’s in downtown Asheville.

“Even though we can go harder at O’Henry’s, the crowd on campus is always better,” Espenshade said. “We’ve got stripper poles downtown but nothing beats the sense of wonder in these kid’s eyes. Most of the people here aren’t old enough to get into a show at O’Henry’s.”

Justin Day accepts the award for best amateur performer at the UNCA Drag Ball, Thursday.
Justin Day accepts the award for best amateur performer at the UNCA Drag Ball, Thursday.

The students most excited to see drag saw it in the backstage mirrors.

“Drag is like really good sex but in heels,” said Alexandra Griffin, a sophomore studying anthropology. “I love dancing and I love dressing up and getting pretty. For me it harkens back to childhood.”

Griffin performed twice – once as the archetypal “hot blond” and again with her fellow dancer Ben Newnam. In the duet, Griffin wore suspenders and pants, while Newnam danced with a black and white dress swishing around his ankles.

“I didn’t know anything about gender fluidity till I came to Asheville,” said Newnam, an environmental management and policy student. “It’s been a bit of a struggle opening up as I’ve been faced with a lot of ideas I’ve never experienced before. Changing myself to adapt to new ideas has been a bit difficult, but overall, drag has been an incredibly worthwhile experience.”

For first time performers like Newnam and freshman Justin Day, the more experienced drag community provides community and support.

“Being in the drag community is having a whole new family,” said Day, who met Espenshade through his studies in the drama department. “Literally, I’m a daughter and a sister. How did that happen?”

Rocking out in his tight leather jacket, tube top and tutu, Day won a trophy for best drag performer in the amateur category.

“I didn’t even realize what I was I was doing till I was all the way on the ground,” Day said. “I’m a performer at heart. I can’t get off the stage ever.”

Espenshade said amateur doesn’t adequately describe the volunteer performers.

“Amateur has a negative connotation like an amateur is somehow worth less than a professional,” Espenshade said. “Amateur means ‘for the love of.’ These artists are out here genderbending and genderf***ing for the love of it.”

Alex Griffin prepares to take the stage at the UNCA Drag Ball.
Alex Griffin prepares to take the stage at the UNCA Drag Ball.

Honors junior Carina Lopez in the drama department said she noticed an interesting relationship between drag and the gender binary. Lopez wore baggy clothes and used smudges of sooty brown makeup to give herself a heavy five o’clock shadow.

“Drag is interesting because on one hand you can look at it as completely breaking free from gender stereotypes, but on the other hand it does reinforce the gender binary,” Lopez said. “I think it is a fun place for people to play with their perceptions.”

More than 300 people came to support the performers, according to Alliance leadership, and the turnout exceeded last year’s event.

“Drag is radical,” said Matt Turpin, president of Alliance. “I’m so glad I’m at a campus where we have such a large number of people supporting it.”

 

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