On the way to his career, 16-year-old Brennan Benson shares his love for ballet with his ‘Boys Club’ students
By Lori Walsh
Photographs by Emily Spartz
The Argus Leader
December 1, 2013
[Sioux falls, South Dakota, USA] -Ever since Brennan Benson watched the tap scene from “The Music Man,” he knew he wanted to dance. He laced up his church shoes, snatched the lid off his toy box and started stomping away.
At the age of 10, Benson learned that Jackie Pederson-Kriens at Dance Gallery offered classes for boys, and he was all in. “It felt like a hole in my life had been filled,” says Benson, now 16. “The first week, I thought, ‘There is so much to learn.’ It was overwhelming. Then, the second week, I knew I wanted to learn all of it. I wanted to be able to do all of it.”
Benson loves contemporary dance and jazz, but ballet is his passion and his strength. He currently teaches Dance Gallery’s Boys Club, a ballet class just for boys. Imagine a gallery overflowing with the energy of a dozen 5- to 7-year-olds clad in black pants and white T-shirts — leaping, turning and stretching at the barre and, at least once in a while, bouncing off the walls. That’s Boys Club, and it’s thriving.
Benson presides over them all, gently reminding the boys how to stand, when to be quiet, how to move. They face the barre in first position. They face the mirrors and imitate their leader’s poise and elegant strength. Sure, there might be a few theatrical falls (there is a newspaper photographer in the room, after all), but Benson brings their focus back to center.
“Are you all right?” he asks a boy who has tumbled momentarily to the floor. “OK. Then let’s dance.”
Ballet is physically and mentally demanding, although, when you’re 7, it feels an awful lot like play. Still, the demands of dance are intense. Physicality. Artistry. Discipline. More boys than ever are being drawn to the foundational experience and the flourishing opportunities of ballet.
Last month, Canada’s National Ballet School reported its highest percentage in history of boys in its entry level class — 65 percent. Enrollment of boys at the school was the highest ever at 41 percent.
More than 50 years ago, Rudolf Nureyev redefined male ballet. Then came Mikhail Baryshnikov. More recently, the stage production of “Billy Elliot” has inspired waves of boys to try on their first dance shoes. Television shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” tap in to the irrepressible urge to move
Men in modern ballet are not token princes and lifters of the ladies. In fact, the students at Boys Club probably haven’t considered the possibility of partnering with the girls. The boys are just here to dance.
Deb Workman’s son Preston is talking off the shoes he wears for ballet and changing into his tap shoes. At 8 years old, Preston has mastered the one-word answer when questioned about dance. What’s it like to dance with your friends? “Good.” Do you think Brennan is a good teacher? “Yes.” What was it like to have your photo taken while you danced? “Weird.”
And yet, Preston will spend the evening in motion, expressing far more physically than verbally. Watch and you can see joy and confidence, exuberance and exhaustion, restoration and contentment.
“We think the arts are really important for each of our children,” Deb Workman says. “You have to not be afraid to try different things. Dance just fits Preston’s personality. He likes to put on his cowboy boots and tap in the kitchen. He comes here, and he enjoys himself.”
Eliot Gongopoulos is 6 years old. His sister has studied at Dance Gallery for years, so Eliot is at the studio often. He learns hip-hop in a class that includes boys and girls, but in Boys Club, it’s just the guys.
“He doesn’t ever say, ‘I don’t want to go,’ ” says George Gongopoulos, Eliot’s father. “He’s been around dance so much, but in some classes it’s one boy here or one boy there. This is a way to get his energy out. It’s a good way to build relationships. All the boys look up to Brennan. They think he’s cool.”
“When I started out, the hardest part was probably mental,” Benson says. “Some people didn’t see dance the way I did. They want to know how you could ever make a career out of that. ‘A boy in dance? What are you doing?’ ”
But Benson is determined to make a career in dance, and he’s well on his way. He has already been invited to become a member of the trainee program with Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
“His lines are really pure for ballet,” says Jackie Pederson-Kriens, Dance Gallery owner. “It’s amazing. Brennan works really, really hard, and he analyzes his weaknesses and works to get better. At his level, it’s starting to become wicked competitive. But he can get there.”
Most of what Benson knows about ballet, he has learned from women, a common experience for male ballet dancers, at least in the early years. But he also has traveled across the country to study from male teachers.
“There are some steps that women specialize in that men don’t have the body type for,” he says. “Men don’t go en pointe. Then there are some jumps and turns that women don’t have the body type for. Female teachers can describe it, but not being able to show the moves makes it harder to learn.”
Every Dance Gallery teacher has become like another mother to him, Benson says. His dance family is “definitely a second family to me.” But it was his grandmother who truly saved his love of ballet after a violent incident nearly scuttled Benson’s dreams forever.
“Some kids in the neighborhood were playing street hockey,” Benson recalls. “I wasn’t going to play, but then some of them started teasing my brother, so I stepped in.”
Benson was good at the game, he was fit, and his athleticism did not go unnoticed. Frustration mounted, and one of the opposing players started to get angry. He slammed into Benson, shoving his street hockey broomstick into the base of the boy’s skull, knocking him unconscious. When Benson, then 13, woke up, he wasn’t sure what had happened. The concussion and recovery caused him to struggle physically and mentally. The boy who injured him has never apologized.
“I was discouraged for a little while,” Benson admits. “It was probably the only point in my life when I didn’t want to dance … because I couldn’t dance. I was really holding a grudge. But finally, I was able to turn all of that into energy. I feel like I’ve almost moved past it.”
What turned the tide was an article that Benson’s grandmother sent him about David Hallberg, a South Dakota native who went on to professional stardom. In 2011, Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal danseur. He was the first American to join the company.
“If somebody so close to me could do that …
“It made me want to push myself harder.”
And so Benson dances on. He holds principal roles in this year’s holiday performances of “The Nutcracker.” He teaches weekly. He plans his future. The oldest of eight children, Benson is home-schooled. He is used to working outside of conventional boxes and expectations. He is used to pushing himself to excel. A whole lot of boys have been privileged to watch him do so and have been shown that they can succeed as well.
Don’t waste time, Benson says. If you have a boy who shows the “first glance of an interest” in dance, bring them to ballet.
“Not enough people realize how much work goes into making something look effortless,” Benson says. “You see a dancer on stage and the audience says, ‘Oh, that was nice.’ Us dancers … we just wrap our arms around each other and say, ‘I don’t know how you did that. That was incredible.’ ”
As for Benson, he won’t dance in Sioux Falls forever. Dancers of his talent must journey. He already belongs to a bigger club — young artists compelled to leave home, at least for a while, simply to do what needs to be done.
“This is what I want to do forever,” Benson says. “I know I can find the place I’m supposed to be.
Copyright © 2013 Argus Leader