BALTIMORE (AP) _ Beneath the neon lights of a banquet hall on an industrial stretch of the city, models strutted across an elevated stage in homemade evening gowns and tuxedos adorned with sequins, lace and something atypical for the runway: Trojan condom wrappers.
This particular contest _ part dancing, part modeling _ had just two requirements. Incorporate condoms and the color red, a universal symbol used in HIV prevention ads.
As the night marched on, men in fluorescent Lycra competed in a series of dance contests, pirouetting, high-kicking and duck-walking. Meanwhile, others went behind a white curtain strung up in the back of the hall, emerging with red bandages in the creases of their forearms. They had been tested for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
Welcome to the biggest ``vogue'' ball in Baltimore, where the stakes are high both on and off the runway. Performers here hope to walk away with bragging rights, trophies and cash prizes. Baltimore's health department, which organizes the ball, has a different incentive. It hopes to administer as many HIV tests as possible to curb the troublingly high rate of new infections.
With a population just over 622,000, the city ranks sixth in the country for highest rate of AIDS infection. According to 2012 estimates, roughly 2 percent of Baltimore's population, or approximately 13,000 people, is HIV positive. This demographic of dancers and their friends, made up almost entirely of gay black and Hispanic men and transgender women, is at the highest risk.
And so, in an effort to reach a community that typically comes alive after midnight in darkened downtown clubs, the health department meets them halfway and hosts dance competitions, called vogue balls.
``People said they weren't comfortable, that they didn't know about the various resources the health department has,'' said Keith Holt, the youth outreach coordinator for the Baltimore City Health Department, and one of the ball's organizers.
As both a health department employee and a member of the LGBT community, Holt was able to bridge the gap between two worlds. ``We decided instead of them coming to us, we'd go to them.''
In other cities, organizations often employ creative techniques to reach populations particularly vulnerable to HIV. In Washington, the nonprofit Metro TeenAIDS sponsors concerts to encourage young people to get tested, and to connect them with health services. In New York, the Gay Men's Health Crisis hosts the Latex Ball, one of the largest vogue balls in the country.
``Vogueing'' is a combination of runway walking and dance that includes spins, dips, high kicks and hand gestures whose rigid placement appear almost mime-inspired. It originated in New York City nightclubs in the 1980s, and was the subject of award-winning 1990 documentary ``Paris Is Burning.'' That same year, Madonna released a music video for her hit single ``Vogue,'' launching the style into the mainstream.
``The ballroom scene is a safe haven; you can come and be yourself without that stigma of mainstream society saying, `You can't be this way, you can't be that way,''' Holt said. ``So, gaining trust wasn't easy at all. We had to let them know that we're not here to try and make a circus out of them.''
To preserve the event's integrity, the health department does not advertise the ball to the public and instead allows news of it to spread through word of mouth. The ball is part of the city's more public, eye-catching ``Know Your Status'' campaign that includes bus signs and billboards bearing the bold slogan, ``Have Balls, Get Tested.''
More than 600 people showed up in November to the health department ball, which has been going on for five years. Smaller, more informal competitions are held on a weekly basis in nightclubs downtown.
As competitors took to the stage, duck-walking and falling backward, then popping up again, volunteers manned dozens of tables topped with literature, candy and condoms. Representatives from nonprofit organizations, health clinics and even the Baltimore Police Department, trying to recruit members of the LGBT community, lined the room.
Dr. Patrick Chaulk, health department deputy commissioner, said 127 people were tested for HIV and syphilis at the ball, some in a room in the back of the arena, others at a mobile testing unit parked outside. Chaulk said 4 percent of those tested were newly diagnosed as HIV positive.
``That's very, very high,'' said Chaulk, who dispatches teams several nights a week to gay clubs across Baltimore, handing out condoms and literature and encouraging people to get tested.
Of the ball, he said: ``This is our most productive means of identifying new infections, besides checking partners of people who are positive.''
Marquis Clanton, a professional dancer and staple in the Baltimore vogue scene, served on the judge's panel at last year's ball and took to the stage in between competitions. Clanton said because the event is so authentic, it creates a safe, comfortable environment.
``It's a place for competition, a place for expressing yourself, a place to be free,'' he said.