Monday, November 16, 2015

Ballet is for the Boys

There’s a boy I know, a boy close to me. He loves video games and watching cartoons. He loves to wrestle and play different sports in the yard. He collects coins and is fascinated by weaponry. In many ways he’s a typical American, elementary school aged boy. But this boy also takes ballet.
This boy spent last year at The School of American Ballet (SAB) at Lincoln Center in NYC. SAB is the training school for New York City Ballet (NYCB), and is considered the best ballet school in the country. Founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934, the school faculty is primarily made up of former NYCB dancers, most of whom also studied at SAB.


At SAB, this boy is far from being the only boy there. SAB has a tuition-free program for boys up until the Intermediate level. There are boys only classes too. At SAB, it is comfortable to be a boy in ballet class. At Lincoln Center it is common to see girls and boys dancing by the fountains, or stretching in the cafeteria shared by Juilliard, or practicing on the 5th floor of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building where the SAB studios are.

This boy even feels comfortable talking about ballet all the way to Penn Station where he boards an LIRR train back to his home on Long Island. But once the train starts to chug out of the station, all talk of SAB and ballet stop.
He even has brothers who have taken ballet. He will talk about it with them, but he lives in fear that his friends will find out his secret. He says his friends wouldn’t understand, and that they’ll make fun of him. He believes that if his friends find out, they’ll never talk to him again.

I honestly don’t know if his fears are founded or not. I’d like to believe that he’s wrong and that his friends wouldn’t care, or even think it’s cool. I hold out hope that he wouldn’t get teased or bullied at school. But the fact is that there is a stigma about boys dancing, especially ballet.

In talking to elementary and middle school aged kids, it seems that ballet is associated with very young girls. For them, it conjures up images of 2 year old girls dancing in sparkly pink tutus. So, not only is there a misconception that only girls dance, but there is also the misconception that ballet is so easy that only toddlers do it.

In America boys are drawn to sports as the epitome of masculine activity. I wonder if the attitude about boys and ballet would be different if there was a greater understanding of how athletic it is. Some wise athletes have figured this out and have taken ballet as a way to improve their chosen sport. Action film star and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme took ballet for 5 years starting at age 16 to help his sport. Professional basketball player Michael Beasley took up ballet as a way to transform his body and his game.


But no other sport has had more of its athletes drawn to ballet as football. I remember seeing NFL Hall of Fame football player Lynn Swann showing his ballet skills on an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood back in the 1970’s. More recently, football players Herschel Walker, Willie Gault, Donovin Darius, and Steve McLendon have followed in Lynn Swann’s ballet footsteps. The Dallas Cowboys even installed ballet barres outside the locker room.

I wonder what it would take to encourage more boys to try ballet. I wonder how to dissolve the misconceptions surrounding ballet. The first step is to think about how male dancers first became inspired to dance. For some it was tagging along with a sister to ballet class, but finding out they really loved it. For others, it was seeing a ballet performance such as The Nutcracker. Others may have been lured by a tuition free ballet program like the one at SAB. It may be the comfort of boys only classes, or the thrill of being one of the only guys in a sea of beautiful girls. It may even be at the urging of a sports coach.

We need boys in ballet. And we need professional male ballet dancers.  I challenge schools to offer programs in dance, even if it is just a 1 hour assembly. I hope that coaches encourage, or even require, boys to take ballet to improve their skills. I encourage dance studios to be proactive in wooing boys to their studios. I implore parents to offer their boys a chance to dance. And I dare, no, I double dare, boys of all ages to try just 1 class in ballet.

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