Image: Bruno Horwath/Unsplash

“But I thought only girls did ballet?”

My flatmate’s response when I mentioned that I would be writing an article on boys in ballet perfectly demonstrates the stigma that many boys who take ballet lessons experience. While ballet is a much-admired art form, it cannot be denied that the stereotypical image of a ballet dancer is female and wears a pink tutu. In my 13 years of taking ballet lessons I have only ever had one boy in my class, and while volunteering with my dance teacher in ballet lessons for four years I noticed only one boy. In my experience, they never seem to last beyond the age of about seven before the self-consciousness of being the only boy in the class becomes too overwhelming.

In the US, of 3.5 million children who study ballet, only 10% are male, and nearly 96% of these have faced assaults (verbal or physical) from their peers as a result. In a book entitled When Men Dance, David Allan describes his experience of bullying after performing in a school talent show when he was 11: “I was so excited about doing A Dance from David, my first choreography. When I came out in my pretty white tights, there was a big roar of laughter… Later I met some guys in the hallway of my school who were making rude comments… ‘You’re that dancer guy’ would turn into being thrown down the stairs.”[2]

In the US, of 3.5 million children who study ballet, only 10% are male

Various studies show a negative public attitude towards male dancers, and many of the associations are shockingly extreme. For example, William Earl’s 1988 study asked shoppers in an American mall to describe male ballet dancers, and the results came back as: “pretty boys afraid to soil themselves with honest labour”, “snobs”, “secretive”, “neurotic”, “narcissistic”, “soft”, “vain”, “frail”, “homosexual”, “Momma’s Boy”, “irresponsible”, “creatures of the night”, “flighty”, “afraid of intimacy”, “use people”, “cold”, and “fancy”.[3] It is hard to see the connection between dancing ballet and these traits. We could attempt to rationalise it by arguing that gender stereotypes were much more rigid in the 80s, but a 2003 study turned up very similar results, again suggesting that male dancers are “feminine, homosexual, wimp, spoiled, gay, dainty, fragile, weak, fluffy, woosy, prissy, artsy and sissy”.[4]

So the question remains: why is there such a stigma surrounding boys in ballet?

This is not a worldwide epidemic. There is no such problem in countries such as Russia and Cuba. The stereotype is a solely western one.

The stereotype is a solely western one

Presumably the answer to this question has a lot to do with the stereotypes of masculinity. Dance is, first and foremost, an expression of emotion (it is hard to perform anything meaningfully without this), and in a world where men are expected to bottle up their feelings for fear of being seen as weak, this creates difficulties.

The problem is furthered by parents who enforce strict gender roles on their children.  A study shows that a mere 32% of male ballet dancers have the support of their fathers.[5] As a child, we seek our parents’ pride and approval, and if our parents do not support something we naturally assume that they know best. When faced with a father refusing to let his son do ballet, no child will turn around and say, ‘You have been brain-washed by the patriarchy,’ because what child is aware of this? It should be up to parents to teach their children that they can do whatever they want, irrespective of traditional gender roles, rather than leaving children in the difficult position of feeling like they are disappointing their parents by following their heart’s desire.

The good news is that it appears that things are starting to change. Matthew Cunningham, the Director of Strategic Development and Fundraising at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), says: “I think it’s fair to say that historically there’s been a perception that ballet isn’t for boys; that ballet lessons are something girls do, and that boys do sport instead. But in the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of dance as a mainstream activity for boys, girls, men and women, and we’re keen to build on that momentum to get boys to the barre through things like Project B, the RAD’s range of initiatives to widen access to dance for boys.”

“In the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of dance as a mainstream activity for boys”

It is clear that the Royal Academy of Dance is doing something right: between 2016 and 2017 they had a 20% increase in students taking boys’ ballet classes. Their boys-only classes allow the children to be surrounded by others with the same interests as them and feel less isolated than they would in a normal dance class. Even the way the lessons are run are more masculine – they are told to imagine themselves as superheroes, soldiers, ninjas, rock guitarists, robots or zombies. At my dance school we were always either cats or fairies.

Thankfully, the RAD is not alone in taking these steps. In 2014 James Cunliffe founded the London Boys Ballet School, which is the only all-boys ballet school in the world. In 2016, it won the Dance School of the Year award. While currently boys’ ballet is still very London-centric, Cunliffe plans to open a second school in Birmingham and start boys’ ballet workshops in schools around the country, to give a greater range of children the opportunity to learn to dance.

They are told to imagine themselves as superheroes, soldiers, ninjas

Back at the RAD, Cunningham explains that “in the lead up to 2020, you’ll see more Boys Only! workshops and Boys Ballet Masterclasses, as well as new bursaries and financial support for regular tuition for boys. You’ll also see us taking measures to increase the number of positive role models by offering financial support to encourage more men to train as dance teachers, and the RAD will create new resources for existing teachers to get boys involved in dance at all levels.”

He goes on to say: “The best thing we can do is work together as partners with a shared agenda on initiatives like those within Project B, and also to challenge ourselves on how we might reach out to many boys who don’t currently participate in dance. Last year we worked with Iain Mackay [former principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet] on a different type of ballet choreography and used cutting-edge technology to get it in front of the eyes of as many boys as possible. And this year we’re working on a project in India in collaboration with Marylebone Cricket Club that challenges boys’ perceptions of dance and girls’ perceptions of cricket… it’s creative projects like these that I think have impact.”

So it seems that, while the stigma is still alive, many people are questioning the stereotypes present in ballet. The same thing is happening here at Warwick, with the Classical and Modern Dance society recently holding its annual Let’s Dance for Sport Relief show, which ropes in various sports teams to learn and perform a dance routine on stage. Ballet teaches strength, perseverance and performance, traits which are of value to everyone – so no-one should be excluded from it.

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