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By Maria Cote
The Kansas City Star
April 13, 2012
[Edited – read the entire story]

For most teenage boys, it’s simple math. One long week of studies plus one warm late Friday afternoon equals time to hang out with friends and unwind.  But on a recent spring day, that equation works out differently for Cameron Miller.  It’s time for him to get down to some serious work at the Kansas City Ballet’s Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity near Union Station.

Scattered around a studio, nine dancers move in unison with arms rounded, chins tilted and backs straight, following the precise, rapid instructions of their instructor.

Teacher Sean Duus weaves around the dancers, inspecting form and offering gentle suggestions. “Fondu front, fondu front, one to the side,” Duus says, pausing occasionally to demonstrate.

“Now what would happen if I were to pick you up by the arms right now?” he says, stopping in front of one petite dancer.

She shrugs and sighs.

“That’s right, it wouldn’t be good,” he says, then glances across the room. “Cameron, after class, I want you to pick up every girl in this room.”  Laughter fills the space, and the only other male dancer in the room, 15-year-old Cameron, grins and nods.

This upper-level dance class at the Bolender Center holds a unique group of teenagers. Over the years, they’ve persevered and progressed through Levels 1 through 5.  The kids who make it to Levels 6 and 7 at the dance school face an often grueling schedule of ballet, modern, jazz and other dance classes. Cameron, like many others in this elite group, plans to make dance his life’s work.

Spend an afternoon with him and you’ll soon learn that he has earned the admiration of his fellow dancers and his teachers.

Instructors at the Kansas City Ballet School say that while dance is growing in popularity among boys, dance schools across the nation still draw relatively few young men. Cameron is one of 17 boys taking classes at the ballet school, which has more than 470 girls.

But ask him if he minds being the sole male in his classes and he smiles. “A little competition would probably do me good,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow. “I’ll get that in college, I know. But to be honest, for now I’m a bit of a stage hog, so I’m pretty happy.”

***

Across town, at the Friends of Alvin Ailey studio space in the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District, several young men are working to provide that competition down the road.

Fifteen-year-old Deon Thomas-Scott has dabbled in dance since he was 9 and now spends several hours a day practicing. Deon, who attends Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, says his school’s culture encourages a respect for dancers.

Tap, jazz and modern dance have been part of his life for years; the Ailey school is nurturing his interest in ballet. “I know I want a career as a dancer, but there are a lot of kids on the fence about dance,” Deon says. “To those kids, I’d say try it a while. If nothing else, it’s a great way to keep in shape.”

Michael Joy, director of artistic and educational programs for Friends and a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, says he didn’t start dancing until he was in college, as schools didn’t offer such programs when he was younger. “It’s great that we can offer this now,” he says. “Even if these youngsters don’t have a dance career, they’re learning discipline and a work ethic. It benefits them in so many areas. It teaches them to focus and think.”

***

Watch Duus teach another group of kids on a Monday morning at the Bolender Center, and you’ll see one indication that in the future, more male dancers will progress to the upper levels.

Steven Barnes of Leawood peers into one of the studios, waiting for his child. Barnes is the picture of a proud father, but it’s not a young ballerina he’s watching. It’s his 8-year-old son, Griffin. “Two years ago we came to ‘The Nutcracker,’ and he was on the edge of his seat the whole night,” Barnes says. “He started this year and he loves it.”

This is a “bonus” class just for boys that Duus started for the youngest male dancers at the school, a bit of encouragement to keep the boys interested in the art form.

Griffin is big for his age, Barnes says, pointing to one of the tallest of the half dozen boys in the room. Dance, Barnes says, teaches his son coordination, and it gives the boy an outlet for his considerable energy.

“What’s funny is that when he said he was interested, my wife thought I’d shoot it down,” Barnes says. “Just the opposite. I think it’s so important that our kids be interested in the arts. They don’t get this so much at school anymore.”

One of the reasons he set up a ballet class solely for boys starting out, Duus says, is that kids like Griffin are at the “teasing age.”

And other kids have given Griffin a hard time about taking dance classes, his father says. “I tell him there’s an easy response to whatever they say,” says Barnes, grinning. “It’s just him and a whole lot of beautiful girls.”

When Kay Miller sat down with Cameron to discuss the plusses and minuses of taking ballet, the ratio of boys to girls fell firmly into the positive side, Miller says, sharing a laugh with her son. “It was really what tipped him over the edge,” she says, glancing fondly at her 150-pound, nearly 6-foot son. “And you can see it keeps him in shape. He’s a solid block of muscle.”

Ask them what goes into fueling that block of muscle, and mother and son laugh again. “I kept track one day, and I figure I take in at least 4,000 calories a day,” Cameron says. Fitting in the time to consume the energy is sometimes a challenge. On top of keeping up with his academic courses, Cameron puts between 30 and 35 hours a week into dancing.

Getting Cameron to dance class every day from her home in Claycomo, home-schooling both of her children, and working as a childbirth educator and nurse take up nearly every moment of Miller’s day. “But it’s worth it,” Miller says. “He’s actually a really shy kid, but when you see him perform up on stage, he completely changes. He’s full of confidence, and that does this mom’s heart good.”

That confidence, combined with determination and talent, has led to scholarships.“I’m a single working mother, and there’s no way I could afford this,” she says. “Many people here at the Kansas City Ballet have worked hard to help us, and it means so much to us.”

***

Cameron remembers the moment he discovered dance. “I was 8, and we were watching a production of ‘Peter Pan,’ ” he says. “I saw the dancer playing the lead part and thought, ‘Wow, I can do that.’ ”

Duus, one of Cameron’s many teachers, recalls no such pivotal moment in his youth. “Really, I can’t remember a time without dance,” Duus says. “Dallas was hardly the most open-minded place, but I always knew I was more athletic than the other kids. If you’re confident enough, you can get past the bullying.”

Duus has mastered the art of subtlety when working with kids.

“If I teach the ROAD [Reach Out and Dance ] kids a ballet step, I’ll just slip it in there,” says Duus, who was a principal dancer in the Kansas City Ballet from 1986 to 2001. “I’ll have them sprint, then jump, then I’ll throw in a ballet step and they don’t even realize I did it.

“What you see is that it helps kids learn everything more easily. You’ll start seeing improvements in (their) grades with kids who dance.”

And once in a while, Duus says, a kid like Cameron will come around. “He’s focused, he’s limber, he’s hard-working and he has a great passion for dance,” Duus says.

Duus and Suzanne Ryan Strati, Cameron’s modern dance teacher, agree that the teenager has one characteristic that will take him far. “He gets along well with everyone,” Strati says, pausing to wave at Cameron. He has just finished a class with her and is heading into a rehearsal. “That might sound small, but in the dance world, it’s incredibly important. He’s considerate and has a lot of respect for other students and his teachers.”

Cameron is rehearsing for a coming performance by the Kansas City Youth Ballet, the performing arm of the school. Students in the upper-level classes have the option of auditioning for the Youth Ballet, which gives aspiring dancers a chance to take the stage.

Cameron’s mom glances into the studio, where he is showing his power and skill with gravity-defying jumps. “It’s a good thing he gets along so well with the other dancers,” Miller says, “because when he’s not focused on academics, he’s at the Bolender Center. There are days I look at him on the drive home and he just looks spent, like all the energy is drained out of him.” But he’ll greet the next day with the grace of the finest of dancers, she says.

Miller has a simple message for other parents of boys interested in dance. “Listen to your child,” she says, adding that she thinks it unlikely that Cameron’s father would be encouraging his son to dance.

A shriek escapes Strati. “Oh, no,” she says, looking at Miller with wide eyes. “I would sit here right now and cry if Cameron weren’t my student.”

Her student, taking a short break, admits that he’s sometimes troubled by harsh words from his peers. “Sure, it bothers me now and then,” says Cameron, frowning as he gathers his thoughts. “I’ve been called gay. Some of my relatives tried to talk me out of it.”

He pauses, takes a swig of water, and the frown lines disappear. “I’d tell anyone, there’s always someone who will put you down,” he says. “Don’t listen to them. If you’re passionate about dance, and you know it’s what you want to do with your life, that’s all that matters.”

More Photographs

Copyright 2012 Kansas City Star

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