“Lads do football… or boxing… or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet!” – Billy Elliot’s Dad
Not all young boys have to face such overt hostility, when they express an interest in ballet, but very few of them will escape the social stereotypes altogether.
When people think of ballet, most conjure up images of little girls in pink tutus performing fairy-like steps. What they do not realise is the importance of male dancers to this art form.
The early ballet performances from the 1400s were by male dancers only. Female dancers were not allowed to participate. It was only later that women were allowed to dance, showing off their gracefulness, with men being portrayed as strong, powerful and very athletic, performing many jumps and lifts whilst guiding the women. Nowadays fifty percent of dancers in large ballet companies are male, but where are all the young male stars of the future?
Boys are still very under-represented in ballet classes. Girls typically take up ballet between the ages of five to eight years, benefitting from sustained parental support, whereas boys often start later (aged ten to fourteen) and are generally driven by their own determination to dance. Boys have it much tougher. They are often confronted with multiple negative, stereotypical reactions from their families and friends.
However, encouraging signs are emerging that the stigma may gradually be eroding. In recent years, male applications to dance companies and classes are on the rise.
The enormous success of “Billy Elliot”, the story of an eleven-year-old aspiring dancer from a working class family who deals with the stereotype and negative reactions from his community, may well have caused this growth.
As strong role models, prominent sportsmen are starting to discuss openly the beneficial effects of ballet on their training and earlier careers.
Mick Jagger from the “Rolling Stones” also recently spoke of how ballet has formed an integral part of his training over the decades and has helped him to keep in shape.
“The man who could pause in mid-air.”
The Russian pioneer, Rudolf Nureyev, opened minds by creating an awareness of the strength and athleticism required to perform magnificent jumps.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, also from Russia, was an inspiration to all males wanting to dance. He starred in many films and helped popularise the dance form. Baryshnikov could achieve jumps of 6 foot from a stationary position, which is more than most basketball players today. More over, ballet jumps must appear graceful and controlled. The dancer only has thin soles and his muscles to help him land safely.
A number of popular musicals and TV shows, such as “Dancing with the Stars”, attract a good audience and are helping to make ballet accessible to the general public.
A New York musical, “Men in Pink Tights”, has also enjoyed considerable success, with a male-only cast playing both male and female roles in a comedy ballet.
Contemporary choreographers, such as William Forsythe, are producing works that blur the gender inequalities of the dancers and showcase the men, focusing on their intense athleticism and strength.
In parallel, we have seen a huge growth in male-only schools, programs and workshops. These have the advantage of allowing the training to be adapted to the specific needs of male dancers, with particular emphasis on physical strength and athleticism.
Interviews with boys in male-only classes have revealed much higher levels of motivation and a greater sense of belonging, arising from the sharing of experiences with others in a similar situation.
Whilst it does not seem important whether the person teaching boys is male or female, it is vital that the teacher understands the different requirements of male dancers and adapts the class accordingly.
So it would seem that society is gradually becoming more open and accepting of male ballet dancers, although they are still a long way from being accorded the same “cool” status that some hip-hop and break/street dancers enjoy. The fact that male dancers have to wear tights and make-up on stage will certainly does not help them to be seen as masculine / strong. With 700 years of classical ballet history, one cannot expect stereotypes to disappear overnight, but there is enough reason to hope that boys determined to dance will face less of an uphill struggle today than they did in previous generations. All dancers undergo strenuous training and constantly have to wrestle with injuries and fatigue, but male dancers have to display a special degree of will and determination if they are to become professionals. They must have genuine hunger for it, must be uniquely motivated and dedicated, and most develop a very thick skin to fight through the petty stereotypes that much of society holds for their chosen path.
“Just because I do ballet, doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know!” – Billy Elliot
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