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Boys and Ballet - the problems

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I wrote this in March of 2004 and it has been published in Dancer Magazine (I hold all copyrights) and on other websites. I thought you may be interested in reading it and commenting. If you want to use it somewhere, just ask me.


On Wednesday March 24, 2004, I attended a presentation in the DeSales University's Trexler Library entitled "Boys at the Barre, Examining the Psychosocial Issues of Adolescent Male Dancers” that was presented by Dr. Deborah Williams who has recently completed a 3 year study on 97 boys in dance.

The part of the presentation that was quite interesting to me was that Dr. Williams is not a dance teacher, but an assistant professor of Nursing & Health at DeSales U. and the mother of a male ballet dancer.

As a teacher of dance for over 30 years, I have taught many male dancers, some who have become professional but most who have not. The hardest part of teaching male dancers is watching the lack of support for them. So many who have an incredible passion for dance and the talent to make it have cut their training short due to incredible pressure from the world around them.

In Dr. William’s 3 year study she spent quite a bit of time with boys and teens studying dance, more specifically ballet. She shared the thoughts of the boys she interacted with on how lack of support and understanding is such an issue. After this presentation I was quite angry with what these boys have had to endure. I thought to myself, “Why is it so hard to allow someone to pursue their passion? Who has the right to ridicule and torture these wonderful human beings who only want to dance?”

There was another professor from DeSales present at this presentation. She mentioned how her 7 year old son takes ballet and loves it but feels the pressure at such a young age to hide his ballet shoes from others. I thought that if it were a girl in soccer would she feel the same need to “hide” her shoes? Why is this so off-balance? It just tears my heart out to see such ignorance causing pain to so many.

In the presentation, Dr. Williams states that men put up this front (guise) of masculinity to prove that they are tough and “real” men. They must show that they are physically strong, rugged, independent and “tough”. Males in ballet are labeled “sissy”, “fag”, and “wimp” and are pressured to conform to others idea of what it means to be a man.

This seems to be more of an issue in the United States of America. The majority of male dancers in American ballet companies are from foreign countries because they are more accepting of males in dance. In the US male dancers are mostly considered a contradiction of what men are supposed to be. Dance is soft so male dancers are considered effeminate. Real men do sports, fags dance ballet.

In many dance schools you will see larger enrollment of boys at younger ages. Once they reach puberty it dwindles and many schools have no male dancers or none past puberty. Outside pressure from peers is strong but is equal in strength from friends and family members. The support system from mothers of male dancers is 42.2%. That is quite sad to think that less than 50% of male dancer’s mothers don’t support them. Even sadder is that only 7.8% of the fathers support these boys. They are disappointed that their sons choose this path. My feeling is that fathers feel it is a reflection on their parenting skills that they could not raise a “manly man.”

The boys in this study say that they feel alone and different. They have no one to share their experiences and problems with. Even female dancers cannot share what they experience. It is a different world. How can they talk of stage make-up, torn tights, etc. with others males? They cannot relate to sports talk with their male peers, either. Most of them have never played sports even though their bodies are many times better conditioned than most males who play sports.

It goes beyond peers and family. There is a lack of support from even their own teachers as they do not always see what they are going through. They cannot share their fear of injuries, fathers usually don’t show up to any of their performances because father’s hate that they have chosen ballet. They hide their fears and concerns from other male relatives for fear of being labeled “gay”.

One boy was told by his father, “You can live here or you can dance, but not both.” These boys don’t want to have to hide their love of dance to be considered normal but they do for fear of the violence that has happened too many of them. When they are beaten for it, they usually hide it from parents and teachers.

Dance teachers and studio owners many times tell people, “Look at this famous football player (like Rosie Greer). He studied ballet.” These boys say this makes them look more like a freak because those who do ballet on the side to enhance their athletic performance are NOT dancers. It does not make it okay because they are still looked on as manly because they are still in sports.

There is a large amount of denial of the problems these male dancers face even in the industry. In dance school performances girls are given preference to beautiful dressing rooms, costumes are planned, designed and gushed over. Boys will be last on the list and told, “Oh you need to go out and find this,” or “Use this, it will do for you.” They have been forced to use janitor’s closets, corners of lobbies, and damp stairwells for dressing rooms. Girls are given wardrobe mistresses and boys are left to fend for themselves if their parents do not become involved, which is more often than not.

Dr. William’s spoke of how she appointed herself in charge of these boys so they would have someone to take care of them and help them prepare for performances. Teachers even ignore the boys in class in many cases. They may know all of the girl’s names and the boys are the “boy in the corner.”

In addition to all those other problems, boys grow at a different rate. They can grow 2-6 inches in a year which completely throws off their balance and lose some skills temporarily. This can be quite discouraging as they may think they have lost these skills forever. Girls usually do not grow as fast and adjust more readily to the changes that affect their dancing skills.

Boys are also injured more than girls because they are expected to be able to pick up girls in lifts without any prior conditioning and training. Males are strong so it should be easy, right? Don’t girls take quite a bit of training to strengthen their bodies for the rigors of pointe? Why is it then that boys are just supposed to automatically lift someone is at least ¾ of their weight?

Do you remember the movie, “Robin Hood – Men in Tights” where they performed a dance to a song, “We’re Men in Tights”? Of course you all thought it was hilarious because they portrayed themselves in that song and dance as “sissies”. It is quite odd that men in medieval times wore tights and were manly but now it is considered gay. Men can wear a skin tight singlet in wrestling, tiny skin tight Speedos in swimming and diving but put a man in ballet tights and they are automatically different. Why is that?

Due to the stigma of wearing tights many teachers allow their students to wear sweatpants and other apparel in class so they are not labeled and teased. I have been guilty of this same thing and now realize it is sending the wrong message. It says that if I put you in tights you must be a sissy. I have h0moséxual male friends who are very masculine and never wear tights and I have had friends and boyfriends who were quite “straight” who wore tights. So why I am so afraid of having my male dancers wear tights? They look darned good in them!! I for one have been in my glory as a teen dance student at the American Ballet Center School for the Joffrey Ballet when I was able to watch male dancers in action in class in their tights. I ogled and had crushes on many but I guess I feel the pressure to “protect” my male students from ridicule and this is wrong. I should be showing them that this is normal and have my boys in tights but I fear for them in same instance.

Another issue is that most boys spend most of their time in class with girls but past a certain age they do need to study with male dance teachers. That is hard in my area as I can’t find any. My only option would be to send them away to where they can find this training if they are serious about dance. That is so unfair because the girls do not have to move away from home to receive proper training but many of these boys do not have that option.

Then there are the teachers who lump boys in with men in the same class. Boys have different needs than men and they need to be trained separately to avoid injury.

The lack of social support at home, with peers, in school and even in their own studios causes so many problems for these boys. There is a need for social support for male dancers. We need to encourage mothers and fathers to be a part of their world and for others to be understanding. We need to talk to these boys and get them to share there problems and concerns. More classes for boys, only, need to be offered by male teachers. These male teachers cannot be hired either just because they are men but because they are good teachers who really know how to teach boys. We need to give these boys reasons to stay in class and not give up their dreams!

As for Dr. William’s son, due to her vigilance in supporting him 100% he has grown up into a normal, and may I say, handsome, 17 year old who will be going onto a career in a major ballet company. Too bad the majority of boys do not have such support.

Janet LaCava – March 2004 - All rights reserved

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I've also read frequently that when there is a boy in class, the girls and girls' parents feels that the boys get inordinate amounts of attention, scholarships, and roles. I wonder if these are different schools, or if in the same class the perception of the boys is radically different than the perception of the girls.

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Let's be drastic.

If you:

-are not strong enough to stand insults of people saying you are a fag because you dance,

-get complexes towards homosexuality

You can't be a dancer.Sorry!

Starting to say that dancer doesn't mean gay,no dictonary says so,I wonder why the problem is more relevant in the USA which are always shown off as a free country where racisism is abolished,it's a problem to be gay.And they say that Italy is an old-minded country because we have the Pope in Rome.Can't understand that!

"It says that if I put you in tights you must be a sissy."

What's wrong with tights?I've never understood why people find them ridiculous or feminine in a male.I find them sexy and masculine for a man...you show off what you got and noone can think you are a female then;-)hahahahahha.

Ballet is feminine for ignorants....females and males have different roles and qualities: females do adagios,are on pointe shoes adn are graceful...we,the males,jump and turn and do masculine technique.

Gay people are not only dancers and dancers are not gay surely.Some gay people are so masculine that you'd never think they are.Dancers are not only gay.I'm not and i know many others.Let's admit then that if you have problems towards homosexuality you can't be a dancer as you'll find many on your way.Ballet is deemed to be gay just because an homosexual would more probably do ballet than wrestling,but it's not necessary so.In our "special world" you just love or like somebody,it is irrelevant to what sex they belong.

"The boys in this study say that they feel alone and different."

We,the dancers,are different.It is true.but we are proud of being different.Every artist is!If a boy doesn't accept that,he's not meant to be a dancer.Sorry.

The only real problem is the family support.If you don't get the money from your parents to pay for your ballet classes,you can't attend them!Wonder if the movie Billy Elliot didn't teach anything about this!!!!

In conclusion,if your passion is really strong and you really want to be a dancer more than anything else you have to fight for it.Ballet is hard.if you stop at the first little obstacoles you're not gonna make it.You need a very srong personality to do this job...

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I wonder why the problem is more relevant in the USA which are always shown off as a free country where racisism is abolished,it's a problem to be gay.


The US hasn't even gotten rid of nativism from the 1840s, when they had a political party called the "Know-Nothings", who would burn down somebody's house, or maybe take them into the woods and hang them (lynching) then, when questioned, they "didn't know nothing." Usually, the victim was a "foreigner", A Catholic, A Jew, a free person of color, etc. Anything to make them "the other". Politicians in the US have seldom gone far wrong (in the practical, not the ethical sense) in getting themselves elected by exploiting fear and hatred of "the other".

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The attitudes toward males and dancing has been changed by break dancing and hip hop culture which values "cool moves". While this may be far from the rigors of ballet, a talented male street dancer my look to dance a career option when faced with "growing up" and pursuing his strength... movement.

Another approach would be for some more progressive schools to have dance programs as a joint "venture" with the arts and music and ATHLETIC department. Figure skating seems to now have the same stigma as dance. Or a semester or two of dance could be required so that all the kinds participate. Just a thought.

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The attitudes toward males and dancing has been changed by break dancing and hip hop culture which values "cool moves". While this may be far from the rigors of ballet, a talented male street dancer my look to dance a career option when faced with "growing up" and pursuing his strength... movement.

Another approach would be for some more progressive schools to have dance programs as a joint "venture" with the arts and music and ATHLETIC department. Figure skating seems to now have the same stigma as dance. Or a semester or two of dance could be required so that all the kinds participate. Just a thought.

The only problem with trying to intergrate it as a joint venture is the TRYING part. I tried for years in my area and hit brick walls. Our area is so homophobic, and prejudicial (overall close-minded), it's so difficult.

In a perfect world... but at this point there is no such animal. Just like anything else, it starts at home and with one person at a time. If we can change one person's mind, then the next, it will happen. Slowly, but it will happen. :)

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What a nice article to read, considering I'm a 27 year old male who just started ballet about four months ago. I had originally been looking for a school to learn breakdancing, but couldn't find one and started thinking about ballet.

I've got quite a set of challenges to overcome!

I found most of the article applicable even to myself.

I don't know why this country seems to be getting so repressed, so afraid to do or be anything. I am not only the oldest dancer at my studio, but the only male ballet dancer as well. The girls have been relatively accepting of my presence, and I haven't gotten any negative comments from them, but there were a few parents who REALLY had a problem with my dancing at the studio. First off, let me tell you a bit about myself... I've always been relatively thin, flexable, coordinated, and good with balance. I have the fastest metabolism of anyone I've ever seen. (I look quite young for 27) I consider myself relatively eccentric, as I'm "into" quite a broad spectrum of hobbies and activities. I've never really been able to cultivate a very muscular look, but I definetely don't look effeminate or skinny, just very fit. So after realizing that I'd probably be pretty successful at ballet, I decided to give it a shot. I wanted to discipline myself and learn and do something I would have never expected myself to do. So it DEEPLY hurt me when I found out that there were three parents that didn't want their daughters around me. I believe they thought that I might have ill-intent, and I had done absolutely nothing to solicit such a response from these people. I really believe it was a case of stupid people fearing what they don't understand. Long story short, two parents pulled their girls from the studio and enrolled elsewhere, and one girl's classes were rescheduled around my classes. I've never felt so personally insulted. Not one of these parents ever took the time to get to know me a bit, to ask about my motivations or anything...just wrote me off as some sort of child-molestor or something and left. I cried for two days. The studio could not have been more supportive to me. They absolutely took my side and told me not to worry one bit or to let it affect my dancing. The manager herself told me that I actually helped them weed out some people that nobody liked anyway, and that one of them owed something like $750 in unpaid tuition. It kind of sounds like I was the scapegoat for all this drama that was bound to manifest itself in one regard or another. What did my instructor's husband have to say about this?... "Stupid Americans~" (He's originally from Italy) I can't help but agree. If you can't wrap your ignorant little mind around the fact that a guy would want to dance ballet, then that's YOUR problem, not mine, you freakin' homophobic idiot...(shouldn't you be somewhere watching football, spilling beer and yelling at a tv?)

So to all the boys and men out there who want to dance, just do it! We need to end this repressive B.S., one person at a time.

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Welcome to BalletTalk, PerfectFeet. If your name is accurate, I am insanely jealous of you already!

I am so glad your studio did the right thing and didn't try to appease the parents.

I see you've already found your way to BalletTalk for Dancers. :) I know you'll find good company and support there, as well.

Perhaps your direct experience in the studio will lure you to performances, opening up another whole new world!

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I'm glad you mentioned that, because it is the perfect introduction to what I wanted to talk about next...

I'm an extra in the party scene in our company's production of the Nutcracker. Today I got to meet, and watch dance, the Cavalier of the company, and was insanely inspired. He's been dancing for about ten years, and I believe he is in his early twenties. He's been the Cavalier for the company for most of that time, I believe. (He's lucky I wasn't dancing back then :FIREdevil: ) I'm not gay, but I don't think I've ever respected another male's masculinity to that degree before (while watching him partner with this total hottie from my studio). His postures were ON, and his energy was vibrant. All the girls were just drooling over him, too.

It was really nice to see someone excel at this. (not to mention the amazing dances of all the other female performers!)

On one hand, it was incredibly inspiring. It will serve as a benchmark to work towards. I CAN dance like him. In fact, I CAN dance better...and I WILL. Seeing him dance has completely reenergized my aspirations, if not having raised them!

On the other hand, this has done two not-so-positive things for me...Awakened an insane competitive spirit within me, rarely exposed to others, and the other thing...reminded me how much better he is than I, and thus, how far I've got to go!

One of the biggest reasons I chose to be a ballet dancer was the incredible amount of discipline that can come with it, if you wish to apply yourself. I'm completely aware that it will take plenty of time and effort before I can dance like these amazing people (mostly ten years younger than me) at my studio, but I really believe that if I continue to apply myself, and continue to raise my expectations of myself, that I can even surpass these people in my dancing. But really, I only apply this competitive model to my involvement because the one I'm really competing with is myself...the only one really.

I think I'm in the process of shifing gears here. Although we've got a couple of weeks off here for the holidays, I'm going to come back with a vengence and really kick some butt. I feel really fired up now!

I'm really glad to have found this forum! I'm sure it will be a great resource.

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