By Barbara Curtin
Photographs by Kobbie R. Blair
April 13, 2013
[Salem, Oregon, USA] – Ten-year-old John Miller spends Saturday mornings running, skipping and jumping with other young boys at American Ballet Academy.Years from now, he may look back on this time as boisterous fun — or as the impetus for a career as a professional dancer.
Annie Joslin, the Salem ballet school’s owner, started the free class for boys last fall in hopes of growing the male dancers that she lacks. “There’s always the desire to have more male dancers, especially in the smaller studios,” she said. “Since there are fewer boys, they usually are given better roles earlier. … The girls work really hard, but that is the reality of the dance world.”
For instance, the academy’s yearly performances of “The Nutcracker” require girls to dance boys’ parts. Last year, Joslin imported a professional dancer, Austin Tyson of Company XIV in New York. That allowed her to include the ballet’s signature dance, where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier entertain Clara in the Land of Sweets.
“Any boy can benefit from training in coordination and strength, and interaction with other kids,” Joslin said. “It’s a lot of fun.” That certainly appeared to be the case at a recent class in Joslin’s sunbathed studio.
Jumping jacks and échappés
Dressed in black leggings, T-shirts and ballet shoes, seven boys warmed up with a vigorous game of “Simon Says.”
“Simon says do 10 pushups,” called Joslin in the echoing room. The boys dropped to the floor.
“Simon says do eight jumping jacks.” Vigorous jumps and claps all around.
“Simon says do eight échappés with hands on hips.”
“Who knows the difference between jumping jacks and échappés?”
Some of the boys, though just 5 to 10 years old, did indeed know the difference. (Jumping jacks are the gym-class staple. Echappés start and end in a ballet position, with the arms opening more gracefully.)
Next came a game that involved an imaginary $100 bill clamped between the legs. The boys stood straight, squeezing their inner thighs together in an approximation of ballet technique.
“Who wants to play the pirate game?” Joslin called out, her voice suggesting that this was an experience not to be missed. The pirate game, it turned out, involved keeping imaginary treasure away from a loose-fingered partner — while turning around. The boys paired up, began rotating and whipped heads around with a snap, keeping their partners in view.
“What happens if I don’t watch my partner?” Joslin asked, starting a turn. John, her accomplice, dashed to Joslin’s side, swiping the “treasure” with an impish grin.
Then, to the sounds of recorded ragtime music, the boys took turns crossing the studio at top speed. “Jump, sauté!” Joslin called, ever enthusiastic and encouraging. “Leap, grand jeté!”
Raising a dancer
Parents watched the boys through a hall window as slender girls in leotards padded by.
Laurie Miller, John’s mom, said her son has been dancing since he was 3 and the family lived in Idaho. He’d been tagging along to his big sister’s lessons until one day he chirped up, “When am I doing dance?”
“We think it’s great that Annie does a boys’ class for free,” Laurie Miller said. “It encourages boys to get involved and lets them know it’s OK to dance.”
John’s classmates haven’t ragged him for taking ballet, to his mother’s knowledge. A few family members have raised eyebrows, however. “It seems OK (to skeptical adults) when they are little, but as they get get older, people start to ask questions,” Miller said. “Predominantly, ballet is female.”
John’s early start already has won him parts as a mouse, a soldier and a party guest in the ballet academy’s annual “Nutcracker” benefit at the Historic Elsinore Theatre.
The boys were thrilled to meet backstage with the “Nutcracker” Cavalier, Austin Tyson. “It was great for them to see a big boy dancing,” Miller said.
Another parent, Dan Butler, said the class has helped his son, Curtis, better control his body. “Annie is a wonderful motivator,” Butler said. “She corrects and instructs in a way that helps them feel better.”
Schools’ offerings vary
A spot check around local ballet studios showed that Joslin’s all-boy class is rare but not unique. Premier Academy of Performing Arts offers a free class for boys 12 and older, said Clory Najera, office manager. A few boys attend mixed classes as well.
Valerie Bergman, director of dance at the YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties, said she hasn’t seen enough interest to start a boys’ ballet class. However, the Y offers a boys’ hip-hop class, and the breakdance class is dominated by boys.
“That speaks to the desire to be very athletic in their dance,” Bergman said. “That’s not to say ballet can’t be very athletic, but it takes some years to feel that way.”
Discovery School of Dance offers mixed boy and girl classes plus a free class with nine boys preparing for a May show at the Historic Elsinore Theatre, said owner Lynn Sundermier. Three are her grandsons, who started dancing as young as 2 years old.
“To get a greater male presence on stage, we invite uncles, fathers and grandfathers to dress as pirates and be in a finale,” she said. “It has worked well; it has gotten families over the hump that this is not a ‘boy’ activity. When they see an uncle or grandpa up there, they realize it is not a scary thing.”
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