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By Thandi Fletcher
Photograph by Ted Rhodes
Calgary Herald
March 23, 2012

A photograph of a male ballet dancer soaring through the air stirred a desire in a then eight-year-old Braden Falusi to sign up for his first ballet class.

“I was just looking through some flyers one day, and I saw this picture of male dancer pulling off a really, really big jump,” explains Falusi, a student at the School of Alberta Ballet in Calgary. “It just blew my mind, really. . . . I was really drawn to it.”

Falusi, now 14, is still dancing at the school, but there aren’t many others like him.

Boys doing ballet is not a common sight in Canada, especially Alberta, says the school’s artistic director, Murray Kilgour. There are just five boys enrolled in the school’s professional division compared with 95 girls.

But according to the school, it’s time to wipe the stigma of male ballet dancers off the dance floor. The school is launching a free, boys-only ballet program this spring to encourage boys to take a break from shooting pucks and have a go at plies and pirouettes.

“When you think of ballet, you think of pink and tutus and pointe shoes,” says program co-ordinator Sarah Rusak, who came up with the idea for the class. “But something that’s not as well known is the strength and how these dancers are really great athletes. They need to be so strong and have so much endurance.”

The program, geared toward dancers between the ages of eight and 11, gives boys a chance to see if they like dancing without committing to a full, year-long program. The hope is that they will stick with it in the future, Rusak says.

The concept of professional athletes trading in their skates or sneakers for a pair of ballet slippers is not a new phenomenon. “A lot of hockey players and professional athletes have used ballet training to increase flexibility, strength and endurance,” Rusak says.

For instance, during the 2011 National Basketball Association lockout, forward Michael Beasley of the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to skip the bar, instead taking to the barre, to help build a stronger, more limber body during the off-season, the Minnesota Star-Tribune reported last October.

Also on the list of professional athletes who once ditched their jerseys for leotards include former NFL players Lynn Swann, Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders.

Kilgour isn’t surprised that so many professional athletes have improved their physical abilities through ballet. While girls are taught the elegance of standing en pointe, using specially reinforced pointed ballet slippers, “boys don’t do that,” he said.

“For boys, it’s more about the athletic side. They still have to look grand, to have a poise, but they also physically have to be very strong,” he explains. “It’s as physically demanding as a sport.”

The physical benefits of ballet have helped Falusi, who also practises karate. “It helps me with strength and flexibility and stuff like that,” he explains. “When you’re talking about the leg coming up, in karate we do have very powerful kicks that we have to do, and ballet really helps with that. You have to extend your leg out really far with lots of power.”

Despite its popularity among the athletic set, male enrolment in ballet schools across Canada remains low, Kilgour says. “In Europe, it’s not a problem. It’s an accepted thing,” says Kilgour, who in the 1980s taught at the Royal Ballet School in London. “But because it’s looked down upon (here), then boys who are even interested in it are afraid to partake, and that’s a shame.”

Among Kilgour’s students while teaching at the Royal Ballet School was a boy from Yorkshire, in northern England, whose perseverance to study ballet against the odds inspired the Hollywood film, Billy Elliot.

It was that film, now adapted as a Broadway show, that first put the idea of ballet in the mind of 15-year-old Quinn Lazenby of Calgary. “That movie sort of inspired me,” Quinn says. “I was always dancing around the house, and I grew up going to the Nutcracker.”

After that first class, there was no looking back for Quinn, who will be studying this summer at Montreal ballet school, L’Ecole superieure de ballet du Quebec. Quinn started ballet at 11 at the School of Alberta Ballet, but now takes private lessons so he can also focus on other pursuits, like drama.

Quinn says the firm self-discipline required to practise ballet has improved his academic studies. “Sometimes some of my friends consider school teachers really strict, but I don’t really see where they’re coming from because I’ve had ballet teachers where it’s almost like the army sometimes. At times, that can be frustrating, but I think it’s a good lesson.”

Although he has confided in some close friends, who he says are “very supportive,” about studying ballet, Quinn’s penchant for pirouettes is still not something he usually shares with strangers. “There’s a bit of a stigma with male ballet dancers in Canada,” he says. “Sometimes people are like, ‘I didn’t know guys can do ballet.’ They think you have to wear tutus and stuff like that.”

But the image of men in tights couldn’t be further from the reality of what it feels like to be a male ballet dancer. “When I jump, I feel so powerful,” he says. “You feel invincible, like you can do anything. It gives you a lot of energy, and it’s really satisfying.”

And if the many benefits of ballet weren’t enough to persuade more boys to try it, Braden adds there’s always the perk of being the single boy in a sea of girls.

“Do you meet any hot girls there?” is a question Braden said he often gets from friends at school.

The answer?

Yes. Yes, he does.

For more information about the School of Alberta Ballet’s free Introduction to Ballet program, visit schoolofalbertaballet.com or call 403-245-2274. The program runs Saturdays from April 14 to May 26.

© Copyright 2012 The Calgary Herald

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