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Unique Boys Only ballet program encourages more male dancers at Arts Umbrella

By Kevin Griffin

The Vancouver Sun

May 1, 2009

On a Wednesday evening at Arts Umbrella, the arts school’s Granville Island studio is crowded with young dancers.

As is the case in most ballet studios, most are eager young teenage girls standing in front of the barre — the bar dancers hold onto for balance in a ballet studio — along one wall watching and waiting their turn to start dancing.

Among the 29 dancers in the class are six teenage boys. To the untrained eye, that may not seem like a lot. But to Arts Umbrella, it marks a major change, one that will soon start to have an impact outside of the studio on the local dance scene in Metro Vancouver.

Among the teenage dancers is Alexander Burton, 17. He’s one of several young male dancers who started in a unique program called Boys Only eight years ago. Burton, Scott Fowler, Jed Duifhuis and Michel Rubio represent the first group of male dancers who started in Boys Only and are now graduating from Arts Umbrella’s regular dance program.

Burton and the school’s senior students will be performing tonight in the Arts Umbrella Dance Company Season Finale at The Vancouver Playhouse.

Thanks to the boys ballet program, new groups of four boys or more will be graduating every year from Arts Umbrella’s dance program instead of just one or two. In fact, of the 200 dancers at Arts Umbrella, 61 are boys. Only major dance schools such as the National Ballet School in Toronto that hold auditions for students from around the world can boast so many boys in their programs.

The Boys Only program was started to address the built-in bias against boys in ballet. In practical terms, that meant designing a program that in its early stages focused on play and physicality before introducing more technical elements. Think of it as ballet by stealth.

Artemis Gordon, artistic director of dancing at Arts Umbrella, said the Boys Only program was a natural fit for the arts school whose existing ballet program always struggled with convincing enough boys that ballet could be fun.

Called Artie by male and female students, Gordon has established a friendly but rigorous environment for young dancers. Unlike some schools where boys receive special treatment because there are so few of them, boys and girls are treated equally at Arts Umbrella.

In attracting and keeping boys, Gordon realized something had to be done to make the dancing environment more boy-friendly. When she looked around at most dance studios, she saw a lot of pink. “The iconography is all tutus and ribbon and satin,” Gordon said. “No boy wants to walk into a room of girls all dressed in pink. All the language, the room, the physical space is all for girls — I have a problem with that even for girls.”

What that means in practical terms is evident even in the school’s company rehearsals: There’s no pink in the studio and everyone wears identically colored black dance clothing.

“I’ve tried to make the boys’ profile as big as I could at Arts Umbrella with their own choreography, getting them to assist other classes, putting up photos so boys could see photos of boys dancing,” said Gordon, a graduate of the National Ballet School’s teacher training program. “It makes their presence known and says, ‘You’re wanted here.’ “

A key element in the program’s success is Edmond Kilpatrick. The former Ballet BC dancer started the Boys Only program because of his own experiences in dance. “I would go to these different studios and teach at summer school or as a guest teacher in classes,” he said. “There was usually never any boys in these classes and if there was, the ratio would be something 300 girls to one or two boys. I thought these boys were courageous beyond belief. If I was a 12-year-old boy, I would think that this was a place for my sister, not for me.”

Kilpatrick remembered what it was like when he first started dancing at age 14. Right after an adolescent growth spurt, he found himself in a ballet class in Edmonton with 12-year-old girls. “I don’t now how I stuck with it for a whole year because the dance bug hadn’t bit me yet,” said Kilpatrick who later went on to train with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “I thought it was something I needed to do become an actor.”

Operating out of the Scotiabank Dance Centre for two years before being incorporated into Arts Umbrella, the Boys Only program has always allowed boys to wear shorts and sweat pants rather than tights. So long as the clothing meets the school’s dress code, the choice of what to wear is up to each boy.

Kilpatrick’s classes are different for another big reason: Instead of being taught by a woman, they’re taught by a man — Kilpatrick. That’s important because it means the boys at least have one adult male dance role model they can look up to.

In teaching the course, Kilpatrick has discovered crucial developmental differences between boys and girls. “I’m not saying that girls are better behaved,” Kilpatrick said. “They’re wired differently and they’re experiencing their developing bodies differently. Young girls are experiencing their bodies from the inside and how things work meticulously. Boys are exploring their musculature and how they inhabit space.”

Kilpatrick introduces ballet technique gradually. He does it in a way that focuses on exercises that engage more of the boys’ entire bodies.

“What happens is that when they’re in a room with 12 other guys all doing exactly the same thing they’re doing, they immediately think maybe this isn’t so bad after all,” Kilpatrick said.

In the early years, Kilpatrick recalled some parents confiding in him that they were worried their son might experience trouble in the schoolyard if his friends found out he was a dancer. “I never hear that any more at all,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview.

Arts Umbrella now has three boys only programs for ages six to 11. They’re designed to be taken over three years to introduce boys to the basics of ballet before they move on to join the girls. Each year, about 10 to 14 boys join the programs. By the second year, half to 60 per cent return. By the third year, three or four will move onto the regular program. “But once they do that, they’re hooked,” he said. “Dance becomes a big part of their life.”

In an interview Burton said he took ballet classes at the local community centre when he was younger but nothing really stuck until he took Kilpatrick’s Boys Only class. “In the beginning, it was more athletic to get us engaged,” he said. “We did things like running around the stage and doing leap-frog. Slowly they integrated more of the technique into the class.”

Now in Grade 12, Burton attends Magee secondary in Vancouver where he’s part of a unique sports program that allows him to pursue both his academic education and dance. He goes to school from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then heads to Arts Umbrella from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. With additional dancing Wednesday evening and Sunday, he ends up dancing about 30 hours week.

Burton said he hasn’t been taunted or teased at school for being a dancer. “At school, the sports program incorporates equestrians, swimmers, gymnasts and dancers that go to other ballet schools. We’re definitely not alone and definitely not treated any worse,” he said. “Definitely people are more accepting. There’s no basis for making fun. It’s what we love doing. I think they recognize that. There’s such a big group of us it’s very supportive.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Burton. He almost quit dancing entirely when he was in Grades 9 and 10. He grew tired of doing nothing with his free time but dancing. He went through a period when he wanted only to hang out like other teenagers. Now he’s past that, loves dancing and wants to take the new Vancouver Community College-Arts Umbrella two-year dancing program. His goal is to dance professionally.

“If we were forced into a super technical program with one boy in a class of 30 girls, we’d learn not to love it pretty quickly,” he said following a rehearsal for Friday’s graduating program.

“It got me started. I think it’s very smart what they did. It got us to love it.”

© The Vancouver Sun


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