A young man walking through the doors of a dance studio to take a ballet class is an act of courage.
An ugly stigma about men in tights, especially in the United States, often acts as a harsh deterrent. And once that boy begins lessons, he may find himself the only young man among a flurry of budding ballerinas in his local school. Moving forward, if he makes it past the bullying from his peers, he’s one of the lucky ones.
A recent incident occurred when Lara Spencer, host of ABC’s Good Morning America, mocked six-year-old Prince George for studying ballet and then encouraged the studio audience to snicker along with her. As has happened before, the dance community stepped up with outrage to counter ignorance. The show’s host followed up with an awkward mea culpa, but ballet is rather tired of being forced to defend itself, and its men are weary of seeking validation.
Enter stage right: #boysdancetoo.
American Ballet Theatre has already given this issue a lot of thought. Cynthia Harvey, a beloved former ABT ballerina and now the Artistic Director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, recognized that male students need specific nurturing and guidance as they progress from novices as children to pre-professionals as teens. So, in 2017, she initiated the ABT MENtor program, which provides a supportive environment both for the boys’ personal growth and their educational needs. Through ABT MENtor, retired ABT stars such as Julio Bocca and Ethan Stiefel, as well as current ABT dancers, speak to male students, answer their questions and share advice as they navigate life’s hurdles.
“I was trying to find a way to be inclusive of young men in the school because they start at five to seven years old, and they are with the girls,” says Harvey. “I wanted them to have a sense of belonging. There were also stories emerging about boys who do have a hard time.” Among those stories was ABT Principal Dancer David Hallberg’s heartfelt account in his frank memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back. He recalls a scrum of schoolboys pouring an entire bottle of perfume on his head.
Dr. Doug Risner, Director of the MA in Dance Teaching Artistry program at Wayne State University and author of Stigma & Perseverance in the Lives of Boys Who Dance, found in his study of male dancers that 93 percent of boys studying ballet report teasing and name calling, and 68 percent experience verbal or physical harassment. “If this were not the arts, it would be considered a child health crisis,” he told Huffington Post.
“Bullying and harassment are definitely a reality,” says Sascha Radetsky, a former ABT Soloist who now directs ABT Studio Company, the troupe’s pre-professional company. “It hasn’t really abated since I was a kid. There’s still a tacit disapproval of male dancers from a lot of mainstream society.”
Fortunately for the young men at the ABT JKO School, they now have mentors to help. They also have a brotherhood of male peers their own age—a social group that feels like family. Even in the younger divisions of the school, the boys attend some classes exclusively for them.
As they advance into the Pre-Professional Division, they take more men’s classes that focus on male virtuosity in their technique, such as batterie and turning, and they build strength in cross-training sessions twice weekly. “For the boys, jumping and balance are important,” says Fabrice Herrault, who regularly teaches men’s classes to the students ages 14 to 16 at the ABT JKO School. “I give a lot of footwork and repetitions.” Boys over age 13 also take pas de deux classes to learn the fundamentals of partnering, lifting and supporting the women.
Harvey says she has seen greater dedication from the male students, especially as they’re able to watch the more mature men in ballet classes and pick their brains through the ABT MENtor program. “The students tend to work harder than they had before,” says Harvey. “So that gives me a great deal of joy. They see what it takes.” Included in that list are how to deal with injuries, what kind of shoes and dancewear to use, how to adjust through teenage growth spurts, how to apply performance makeup and how to maximize their talent through hard work.
“The students need to know how to run offstage, how to present your partner during bows, how to comport yourself with donors and fans, and generally how to be a good representative of ABT,” says Radetsky, who feels fortunate to have had great mentors among the Russian teachers he studied with at Moscow’s Bolshoi Academy and the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “These pre-professional training years are an extremely formative period in the boys’ development, so I try to have as big an impact as possible.”
“It’s very important for the boys who are passionate about dance to learn from great dancers like Ethan Stiefel or Julio Bocca,” says Herrault, who emulated Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fernando Bujones as a student at the Paris Opera Ballet School and as a professional dancer. “It’s important to pass on that information.”
Parents can always attend the mentoring sessions. “We keep an open door policy if a student has a problem,” says Harvey. “Parents usually let us know, because they want us to be aware. I’d prefer to know about mental and physical struggles.”
Because ballet is such a selective art form, only a fraction of the students, male or female, find their way into the ranks of ABT. “Sometimes if they open their hearts to other forms of dance, they might find something they like more,” says Harvey. She plans to invite successful artists from other disciplines, such as modern dance, postmodern dance and Broadway to speak to the students and ignite their imaginations. When touring dance companies perform in New York, she wants the students to experience them.
“Slowly but surely,” says Harvey, “step by step, we are improving the lives of boys who dance.”
Joseph Carman is a former ABT dancer who writes about dance and other performing arts.