Boys in Ballet
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
Histories in Conversation
Last Thursday, Good Morning America anchor Lara Spencer inadvertently launched a maelstrom of reposts and rage surrounding boys and men in ballet.
Seated behind the shiny GMA desk, Spencer delivered a morning pop-culture report involving Prince George's back-to-school curriculum, a story that even Spencer acknowledged was meant to be an innocuous time filler before the much awaited arrival of Taylor Swift. Amidst chuckles, Spencer enumerated the uncommon components of Prince George's early-elementary lineup, ending with a chuckle on "ballet." Spencer went on to laughingly report that the little royal apparently really likes his dance lessons, saying "I've got news for you Prince William; we'll see how long that lasts." See the full clip below.
Though Taylor Swift's performance came and went, reactions to this 30-second sound byte lingered long into the weekend. As more dancers went public with their frustrations over the comment, the backlash became exponential. Spencer posted an apology on Instagram, but few felt this was enough. On Monday, she apologized on air alongside an interview with dancers Robbie Fairchild, Travis Wall, and and Fabrice Calmels. See the clip here.
You needn't do more than a Google search to learn more about the debacle's unfolding, and given the speed of our 21st-century news cycle I'm a bit late to be finally twirling over this specific instance of bullying. At this point, however, the story has taken a surprisingly effective turn to the tune of education and in yesterday's apology, Spencer worked to foster genuine curiosity for the predicament of male dancers. Outside the GMA stage, more than 300 dancers participated in a morning class on the streets of 44th and Broadway.
Through Spencer's teachable moment, our world honed its focus on the modern day boy in ballet tights. In the spirit of this conversation, today I'm offering a detailed conversation surrounding the sociological history of boys in ballet to understand just how deep-seated this prejudice can run. After all, education can often be the best preventer of further persecution.
I can't help but start with this beautiful paragraph written by Melissa R. Klapper in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, which introduces our predicament quite succinctly:
"The word 'ballet' conjures up specific images for most twenty-first century Americans. Swans. Sugarplum fairies. Tutus. Pointe shoes. Perhaps a generalized haze of pink and sparkle, with a dash of Degas thrown in among the cognoscenti for good measure. All these images, it hardly needs pointing out, are highly gendered. Anyone who has seen The Nutcracker, as hundreds of thousands of Americans do each year, knows that ballet includes men as well as women, yet the feminized view of ballet predominates to such an extent that the male presence in ballet has been obscured and, worse yet, stigmatized."
Let's remember: ballet started in the 17th century halls of royal Europe with the main purpose of reinforcing male authority (Klapper 249). Women, if involved at all, wore clothing so long and heavy that they could barely move. How in the world did we get from there to here?
Klapper tells us that men remained the center of attention until the arrival of the Romantic period which birthed ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle, and with them the fascination with a female lead. Societal level changes in art and culture shifted towards a more accepted study of the female form. As this study intensified, women began to push the boundaries in clothing and footwear that would ultimately shape the course of ballet that we know today.
Attitudes changes increased exponentially when ballet made its trek across the pond and into the United States in the early 20th century (Klapper 250). The cultural history of those male beginnings did not resonate with American audiences and the newer female-centric choreography worked to rebrand the art form through a more feminine design. This notion was no doubt emphasized through George Balanchine's emphatically female choreography.
In 1914, "New York State mandated dance for girls’ physical education but eliminated it for boys" (Klapper 250). In limiting the viability of dance as physical exercise to only females, the state "neatly warded off... perceived threats to masculinity" for boys (250).
Instead of dance training, American physical education developers placed value in activities that fostered "aggressive competition" for boys in their spare time. Interestingly, the early 20th century also welcomed the birth of professional football, which started as an extracurricular activity for collegiate men also in the Northeast (Tamte 69).
Could there be a correlation between the rise in a need for boys with aggressive ambitions in sports and the dissuasion of their involvement in dance?
We're not sure, but that discouragement definitely persisted. Choreographer Agnes de Mille’s 1960 advice guide for dancers acknowledged that “it is taken for granted here that boys who dance are sissies” (Klapper 254). The 1982 children's book Maybe Next Year talked about Peter, an aspiring dancer who wanted to audition for the National Ballet School's summer course but faced opposition from his father who told him "no son of his is going to be a dancer" (Klapper 257). Twenty four years after that, a 2006 study revealed that 23 out of 31 fathers of preschool students still held negative reactions to the prospect of their sons engaging in "gender non-conforming activities like ballet" — that's 74%.(Klapper 257).
Male dancers today can tell you first-hand what it's like to still bear the brunt of this sociological aversion to boys in ballet.
In 2013, dancer Robbie Fairchild said of his own childhood: "I remember there was a window into the ballet studio and I was taking ballet and some of the guys came over and they were pointing, and they were laughing and... that sucks." He reiterated this story in Monday's GMA interview. As Fairchild, Wall, and Calmels acknowledged, this all-too-common experience for sure has the ability to taint and discourage young men from pursuing careers in dance, even today.
Amidst all this evidence, I focus on two issues. First and foremost, ballet should never be a threat to someone's masculinity. Second, the very idea of that threat comes from hegemonic messages of heterosexual masculinity which are historically homophobic and small-minded. In other words, it's a problem that we think ballet makes men effeminate, and it's also a problem that we think effeminate men are wrong.
When Lara Spencer laughed at Prince George's dance lessons she was chuckling over the idea of him engaging in an activity that has, for a century, been limited to women and girls. In doing so she condoned the homophobia that comes along with this limitation. I appreciate her heartfelt apology and willingness to learn, but her initial perspective speaks to the power of this initial socialization, a perspective that can often be hard to break.
So how do ballet men cope?
In a study from the Journal of College Student Development, researchers found that male ballet dancers "self-enforced heteromasculinity in both their body movement and social patterns" (Haltom & Worthen 761). They call this the "making it macho" strategy, in which dancers emphasize the more traditionally manly athleticism of dance while downplaying the typically feminized artistic aspects of music and public emotional vulnerability.
This strategy, however, fails to overcome the very stigma against effeminacy that remains the root of the problem. Moreover, we can't continue to dismiss ballet's artistic side as a defense mechanism against bullies. The music and artistry is often what dancers love most about their chosen art form, and they deserve to express that love.
Obviously, this sort of progress happens over time though overarching societal change.
For one, role models in the media can often be an important instigator of this change. The Journal of College Student Development study also cited a lack of positive male role models, both gay and straight, as a reason for the heteromasculinity in male dance students (Haltom & Worthen 760). On Monday, Fairchild talked about Gene Kelly as his childhood role model and Wall referenced his ties to the show So You Think You Can Dance, which according to him has sparked a love for movement in a whole new generation of boys.
Further back, the 2000 British film Billy Elliot followed the son of a coal miner on his journey to the Royal Ballet School. Within two years of the movie's release, "the Royal Ballet School had so many male applicants that for the first time the elite training academy admitted more boys than girls" (Klapper 253).
In 2009, the United States ushered in a new class of similar role models through the hit television show Glee. At the time, the confidently queer character Kurt Hummel received positive attention for celebrating the gay community in a way TV hadn't seen before. Characters like Kurt helped change the media landscape for our acceptance of non-gender-role conforming men.
Beyond this attention, Finn Hudson and Noah "Puck" Puckerman both joined the Glee club while still remaining part of the school's ever-worshipped football team. This message of teens, both gay and straight, accepted as athletes AND artists was quite unprecendeted at the time.
It's this kind of secondary, almost casual, acceptance that we need more of.
Indeed, we are seeing improvement. In 2013, the Australian Ballet released BALLET MEN, below, a short film which highlights the dancers' artistry as much as their athleticism. In 2018 Scott K. Gormley directed and produced the documentary Danseur, which investigated the plight of boys and men on ballet's stage.
If nothing else, we are finally having a conversation surrounding the complexity of this situation and its history. Lara Spencer acknowledged this on Monday, saying she now understands how her words hit an especially sensitive nerve last Thursday. Even un-deliberately, her comments pressed rewind on decades of male dancers fighting for acceptance and celebration. Though those comments stung, she and the entire dance community managed to use them to catalyze this conversation, reminding us of how much further we've got to go.
I don't know what these feels like first hand. I am not male. However, I am a dancer, and a fan, and I know that the joy for movement is not and should not be limited to my female counterparts. I have also felt versions of this pain before. Earlier this year I stood in the doorway to a dance studio, prepared to welcome a new crop of toddlers into their first ballet lesson. Amidst the chaos of last minute hugs, tears, and excited spins, a worried parent of a three-year-old boy ran up to me and exclaimed "I didn't realize this was a ballet class! Will my son be ok??"
In context, I understood her perspective. Like many boys across the world, her son was about to be the only boy in a sea of 10 little girls, each complete with a glittered bow in their hair and a pink tutu around their waist.
It's not that this mom was intentionally bullying her son, but just like Spencer's slip on Thursday her words spoke volumes on the power of socialization that had seemingly taught her ballet was only for girls. With a smile on my face, I reassured the mother that her son would be just fine.
Deep down, however, I couldn't help but feel something for my new little student, whether it be sadness or anxiety I wasn't sure. I knew about the uphill battle he'd have to face should the impending half-hour of music, skips, points, and imaginative play excite him enough to come back again and again. Alongside that fear, however, I really wanted him to love it all.
When I first saw the clip of Lara Spencer's comments last Thursday, I couldn't help but think of all the little boy students I've watched joyfully skip into my studios over the years. Many only stay for a few weeks or months before moving on to other activities. I can only hope they're leaving to pursue something that excites them even more, and not because they're scared of what the world will think.
This week, I've seen the community of love that comes alongside a passion for dance and hopefully this love will continue to encourage parents and students alike to look beyond past prejudices and support everyone's twirls. In honor of back-to-school season, royal or otherwise, I'd like to wish all the littlest dancers, boys especially, and happy and fruitful new year of twirling.
This article first appeared on Medium.com on Sep. 4 2019
Works Cited Haltom, Trenton M. & Worthen, Meredith G. F."Male Ballet Dancers and Their Performances of Heteromasculinity." Journal of College Student Development, vol. 55 no. 8, 2014, pp. 757-778. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/csd.2014.0084
Klapper, Melissa R."“You Shouldn’t Tell Boys They Can’t Dance”: Boys and Ballet in America." The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, vol. 10 no. 2, 2017, pp. 248-267. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hcy.2017.0027
Tamte, Roger R.. Walter Camp and the Creation of American Football. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018. Project MUSE.