‘If We Really Want To Change Something, We Can’t Be Cowardly:’ Armenia’s Ballroom ‘Father’

Arsen Oricci came to Armenia from Russia, where he left his friends, relatives and a successful career, in order to develop his second homeland. He is 24 years old, dances and teaches vogue (a modern house dance that evolved from 1960s Harlem ballroom culture), organizes vogue balls in Yerevan, helps the local queer community and talks about how to make Armenia the best version of itself. 

The Royal House of Oricci is the name of a worldwide royal vogue house, which Arsen represents. While living in Russia, he was the “father” and founder of the southern kiki house, which has a vibrant party scene for younger generations, in addition to organizing vogue balls and judging them. Although he does not call himself a star, he was prominent and influential in his professional environment. 

An independent reporter sat down with Arsen to talk about what it is like to be an openly gay man in Armenia who has been targeted twice, and why, despite that, he does not want to leave. 

While still in Krasnodar, the Russian city where he was born and raised, Arsen realized that he wanted to dance professionally. Although at first it turned out terribly, he wanted to win dance battles at camp, where he went every year as a child, so much so that he gave up boxing and plunged headlong into dancing. 

Arsen Oricci: Of course, boxing helped me realize that I am not weak and can defend my body and spirit, and it gave me strength to act. But I am not the kind of person who, even within the world of sports, likes causing or feeling pain. And dancing gives you the opportunity to feel special, to understand that you create art with your body. With that, you can inspire people, change their lives and give them self-confidence. It’s incredibly inspiring. 

In a world where for most of your life, others instill in you a sense of worthlessness, saying that you will not succeed and you do not deserve anything, dancing and creativity restore self-confidence. Through work and creation, I realized that I am not worthless, my efforts are not in vain and I am capable of something. It gave me inner strength, and with it came calmness. I became kinder, understood how to give, love, protect and create. Dancing gave me energy and the feeling that I could conquer the world.

Question: And how did your family react to the fact that their son is engaged in dancing, not boxing? Did they have suspicions that you’re gay? 

Actually, I have a great family. For all their disadvantages, they have the most important parental advantage: They really sincerely love their children. When I told my mom that I was gay, I had a lot of other problems in my life. 

My family has never been particularly involved in my life. I have always lived separately, I am a loner and solve my problems myself. But one day, [my]mom wanted to be closer to me, and she showed interest in my life. Then I dumped everything on her all at once. I told her about my problems with drugs, my personal life and inner insecurity, and the cherry on top was that I was also gay. And for mom, the most shocking thing was not that I am gay, because before that conversation, I had already been dancing, and sometimes dad would wake up in the morning and ask mom in the kitchen: “Whose heels are these?” Mom said they were Arsen’s, and he was like, “Oh, I see.” They already understood everything perfectly: Both the fact that this comes from a sense of creativity and the fact that I am not like most other people. 

They were more concerned about if I would do something in this life and if I would be happy. And the fact that I had an occupation, I worked and created something, was enough for them just to love me, be proud of me and accept me without asking unnecessary questions. For that I am grateful. It helps me a lot, they’re great. 

Arsen teaches and dances vogue, one of the most popular modern dance styles with a rich and dramatic history. Having originated in the 1960s, vogue became an outlet for queer people of color in New York City, who found it extremely difficult to survive amid widespread intolerance toward LGBTQ+ people. Unable to express themselves in everyday life, they began to organize so-called balls (hence the concept of the vogue ball), where participants could express themselves as they wanted. They could dress up as women, dress up in crazy costumes and parody supermodels and movie stars. These people really lived a ball, where they could be themselves. 

Question: How did your journey of organizing vogue balls in Russia begin?

It all started in Krasnodar, where my friend and I wanted somehow to promote vogue culture. We, in the south of Russia, had large vogue balls, but then many organizers moved to Moscow, and so I had the opportunity to move in. 

We saw that in Krasnodar, where a lot of famous and professional bloggers came from, large and cool vogue balls were not taking place as often. There was simply no one to hold them, and my friend and I decided to hold these events ourselves, so that our contribution to the culture would be remembered and to give something to other people. Because it’s one thing when you go to the balls and support the culture simply by participating, but it’s another thing when your balls are the start for many bloggers and dancers, where they fulfill their talents and ambitions. So you are putting a lot more into the culture than just your participation and support. 

Since vogue culture developed around and through the LGBTQ+ community, initially people rejected by society rallied into “houses,” akin to a family that the dancers could choose for themselves. The houses provided comfort, coziness and complete freedom of creativity and self-expression, as well as like-minded relatives. Often, the vogue family becomes much closer to a real one. And, as in every family, there is a “father” and a “mother” in the house. And it’s up to the fathers and mothers to accept “children” into their houses. Arsen belongs to the worldwide royal house of Oricci, which has legendary status. 

Question: What does it take to get into a house? 

Each house has many different criteria. There is also a certain probation period when you join a house. Among other things, you must be approved by all the fathers and mothers. For example, I have one main father in New York, a European father or mother and a Russian father or mother. 

And in each chapter, local fathers and mothers are looking for new members. They communicate with a person to understand whether this one is close in spirit to the house. And the participant himself must be active in the ballroom scene, organizing, going to battles, winning and bringing trophies to their house. 

And that’s why parents choose candidates, consider them and discuss them with each other, and then it all goes to the main fathers and mothers in New

York. And after that, if you are approved by all the parents, you choose a ball together with your family, where you are announced as a representative of the house of Oricci. 

Question: Considering that vogue balls are a part of queer culture. Was it difficult to organize them in Russia? 

It was not difficult at all, because vogue culture in Russia exists separately from the broader LGBTQ+ community. And there were no difficulties there because vogue culture has existed in Russia for a very long time. It is more than 10 years old, and everyone has already gotten used to it. There is a structure to the balls, there are Telegram channels with a schedule for the year ahead and you have everything so that you can calmly organize and engage in the scene. 

And the most important thing is that people know what vogue is because there were dance shows like Dances on the TNT television channel. Organizing balls in Russia is 10 times easier, cheaper and simpler than in Armenia. 

Despite the fact that Arsen was successful in Russia, and the organizational aspects were much easier than in Armenia, he says he does not regret that he moved and does not plan to return. 

Question: What was it like for you to close your kiki house and leave everything and everyone? 

It had to be done. I would have done it anyway. Back in 2021, I had an obsession — to come to Armenia as a volunteer and do something for this country, because I was acutely worried about the 2020 war here. I have always had an attachment to my small homeland, and this is very valuable to me. 

In many families in Armenia, love for their homeland is imposed, but it was not imposed on me, nor was the language or cultural training. I’ve always liked Armenia, I’ve always wanted to come here at least for a short stay. And when the events of 2022 took place (Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – ed.), I had no choice where I would go. Of course, this decision was difficult for me, but it was also connected to my political views.

The last straw was that the vogue community in Russia ignored everything, from the war to the adoption of discriminatory laws. And it became clear to me that it would be very difficult for me to build a future in Russia morally. 

Question: And how do you live in Armenia? 

Here I have a very important and necessary mission — to make sure that Armenia has its own vogue ballroom. I also want large vogue balls to be held here, and for people to have that safe space that at one time greatly helped the queer community in New York, across America and in other countries around the world. 

And we have already managed to organize several vogue parties and two major vogue balls in Armenia, to which people from six countries came: Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Cyprus, Iran and the United States. 

Question: You’re talking about the need for a safe space. How safe is Armenia for the community now? 

It all depends, actually. Safety is a fairly subjective feeling. It’s not that I don’t feel safe because I’m gay or a member of the queer community, but I don’t even feel safe in general. The world is not safe at all. That’s why we are working to increase the percentage of people who can feel safe and reduce the percentage of people who commit suicide here, because they are so severely bullied and driven into the mindset that they are not worth love, life and existence. This is unacceptable. 

And if they realize that there are people like them in Armenia who are going through the same difficulties and that they have a community that supports them, it will benefit both the community and the country as a whole, as well as the country’s attractiveness for the Armenian diaspora. The latter, for example, write to me and thank me for holding vogue balls here, because they understand their importance. And this encourages many to come back. After all, the more developed and modern a country is, the more it will attract people. 

It is important for me that the ethnic Armenians in the diaspora come and create something and that they feel comfortable being here. I want to see more educated, tolerant and peace-loving people here.

Question: You were physically assaulted in Yerevan last year, but you still go all in, openly declaring that you are gay. Why? 

Well, I’ve been hunted down twice. It was amusing. Have they announced a hunt for me in Russia? Sure. What is the interest of a gay man’s life in Russia or in Armenia? It’s about the same thing: You’re used to fighting with everyone, being stressed and rejected. It’s a part of your life. 

I don’t give in to this fear. I go into confrontations and by my example I give people the opportunity not to be afraid because if you want changes, you have to take risks. You can, of course, go to Amsterdam and hold balls there, and, of course, not risk anything. But if you’re doing it in a homophobic country, then be prepared. That’s the way. And if we really want to change something, we cannot be cowardly. Unfortunately, the world is not pure, not kind and not soft. 

Of course, being beaten is unpleasant. I walked around with a swollen face for a week and thought, why do I need all this? And that’s fine. There is nothing that no one is afraid of. I’m scared out of my mind too. I don’t want to be attacked. Unfortunately, this is the reality. 

But on the other hand, it’s also a little flattering. After all, if a conservative society felt that it was completely dominant here, it would not react so sharply. And then they realize that there is the threat of bringing new values to Armenia, respect for each other and the rights and freedoms of minorities. This triggers them very much and gives us an incentive to continue working on a common front. 

Question: Is it difficult to organize balls in Armenia? 

It’s difficult to communicate. Again, due to the fact that everyone is quarreling, everything is boiling over. The difference between the queer community in Armenia and Russia is obvious because Armenians do not hush up the problems that occur in this country. They are more open to dialogue. But at the same time, in order to connect all the queers here, you need to go through scandals and intrigues. People are ready to be in conflict, and in this, I see a very good basis for the future development of Armenia because it prevents monopolization. But at the same time, people here are less obliging and efficient. Unfortunately, this is typical of countries of the region and small societies.

Among other things, Yerevan is a very expensive city — for example, our supplies for the ball are several times higher than in Russia, and the premises and prizes are smaller. That is, you spend more resources, but less exhaust than in Europe or the United States, where huge venues are given for balls, there are sponsors and investors ready to hold these events. In Armenia, it is already difficult to find people who will simply support the ball, let alone sponsors. So, yes, it’s difficult, but it’s possible. 

Question: How can balls be useful for Armenia? 

The general attractiveness of the country and development of democracy. I have already said that people from six countries came to our first vogue ball. They spent money here, bought tickets here, and paid for hotels here. That is, it’s all a small contribution to the economy. If you actually give figures or make a long-term business plan out of the queer community, it will be very profitable, because creative people who are part of the queer community make a very big contribution to the economy of every country. 

Among other things, the more open a society is, the more open its people as a whole become to new things and begin to act accordingly. Even straight people, who also feel restricted and have complexes, will stop being ashamed to talk about their feelings, and, feeling safe, they will realize that they can also escape from stereotypical behaviors and thereby give more to this country and society. Everything is made up of little things. 

Unlike Russia, which has fallen back into old ways, in Armenia people have the opportunity to become more civilized. I feel and see this in my lessons, when at the very beginning, I had only Russians, and now there are both Armenian women and Armenian men. People are gradually beginning to allow themselves to come to vogue and not be afraid of it. 

Question: And despite all these difficulties, do you plan to stay in Armenia? 

Yes, because I am principled and mischievous. I told myself that I cannot even think about moving somewhere until the Cascade is completed (a major public infrastructure project in Armenia that has been delayed for decades – ed.) and Armenia becomes a queer-friendly country. I would not want all my efforts to be in vain, because if I just leave when ballroom culture is forming, it will be a big loss for myself.

It is difficult to live here and earn money, but it is possible. The other thing is that if you want something to change, you have to give a personal example. And I want, in addition to working with the queer community, to show Armenians who left and live outside their country that I was able to return, stay in Armenia and achieve my goals here. 

Question: How has Armenia changed you? 

Any step I take here gives me peace of mind and a feeling that I am doing something right because I am doing it in my homeland with my people. Everyone should have their own foundation. For me, it’s family and where I’m from. Many people refuse this foundation for various reasons. 

Yes, I can also leave and, doing something in another country, feel good. I will have a higher social standing, no one will discriminate against me and it will be easier for me to live. But that cannot give me the feeling of spiritual uplift from the fact that I live and create here, because I pay for tea in Armenia. 

Here I feel calm, I breathe deeply. And despite all the difficulties, when I go down from Arabkir to Kentron (two neighborhoods of Yerevan – ed.) and see Ararat (a mountain holy to Armenians – ed.), I am inspired. I have seen quite a lot of architectural and natural beauties as well. There is nothing better for me than the feeling that I am at home, looking at my city and seeing its beauty. This is my meditation, which I’ve never had before, and it’s incredible. 

Question: What would you like to say to the Armenian queer community? 

That they can do anything. And they deserve to have everything. I want them to have an inner core and strength that would allow them to solve their problems, shine and shimmer. It’s very important, they deserve it. They have very difficult destinies. 

Again, what is the difference between queers in Armenia and outside of Armenia? Here I see a lot of personality and individuality in everyone. And that’s fine. But at the same time, I realize what brought them to the point where they are so conflicted. This is a wild pain, these are problems and difficulties in which they live every day, into which they often plunge and do not always come out. It is important to me that they feel that any difficulties can be overcome and that they, having become the best version of themselves,

respect and love themselves. And I will try to convey it all to them by my actions, examples, and even conversations. 

Question: And what would you like to say to the cisgender, heterosexual people of Armenia? 

Again, I would like somehow to help them to have the strength inside to love and accept themselves and to be happy, and only after that, all the problems with homophobia can be solved. As soon as all heterosexual, cisgender people in Armenia become happy, educated and live their lives in peace, they will be able to love everyone else. They will go about their lives. Only unhappiness, stupidity, lack of education, aggression, self-dislike and suppression hinder them. 

And I see how they drown in this aggression, how difficult it is for them. I see their weakness and the fact that few people can afford to stand up for gays. Not because they don’t want to, but because they are afraid of condemnation from the outside. They are afraid to be real. But all people can love, just not everyone has the strength to do it. 

Question: And the last question, Arsen. What makes you charismatic? 

By the way, I’ve always been shy about compliments, but I think the point is that I’m not lying to myself. And even when I danced vogue, it was very caricatured and strange at first, but everyone told me one very important thing: you dance like Arsen, you dance like yourself. 

I never wanted to be like anyone else. I didn’t create idols for myself. I just felt what I felt and broadcast it through dance. And therefore, I think that what I am saying now emotionally and not lying to myself is because I am partly real. Although it is also a very difficult question, you know, what is realness and whether you really know yourself. But it seems to me that I am close to that.

The views expressed in guest submissions do not represent the views of Glimpse from the Globe or its editorial team.


Anya Eganyan

Anya Eganyan is a journalist at CivilNet in Armenia specializing in art, psychology, and political activism. She came to Armenia from Russia in March 2022 after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Her choice was ideological and she never regretted it.