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There are special considerations when your son has ballet dreams
 

By C.A. Bates
Associated Content
June 26, 2009

 

It all started because there was nothing on his usual TV channel. He was four years old, with no discernible attention span, still prone to taking long naps and raiding the cookie jar. I flipped through the channels for him idly and found a production of the Nutcracker that had just started on local public television.

“Here you go, maybe you’ll like this”, I said, and went off to wash the dishes. I checked on him throughout the entire long program, and each time found him completely immobile, eyes wide open.
When the show was over, he turned to me and said in his small, soft voice: “I want to do that someday. I need to do that someday. Mom, can I please take ballet lessons?”

“Sure”, I said, and promptly forgot all about it. But he kept asking every so often, and eventually we had the money and the opportunity. He won me over with his persistence, and that’s how I got an education in how to be the mom of Ballet Boy.

He’s eight years old now, with a year of pre-primary recreational ballet behind him, and two successful recitals. He shows no signs of slowing down. I attribute this not only to his enduring passion, but to the studio we chose for him.

When your son asks you for ballet lessons, you will want to find out why he wants to take ballet. You will need to know things such as costs involved, uniforms, the teacher’s experience and credentials, and how the school will handle your budding ballet star’s presence in what is often a female-centered environment. You will also want to know the difference between recreational and competitive ballet classes.

First of all: why does your boy want to take ballet? Does he have a sister or a friend who enjoys it? Did he, like my son, see a performance of The Nutcracker (or perhaps Swan Lake with the cool looking bad guy) and fall in love with the dance? Did his swimming coach or martial arts coach suggest that he would perform better in those sports if he took dance training? (This happens more frequently than one might imagine, and can be very useful advice for the young athlete!) Is it part of his heritage (for example, is your family Russian and so it is much more likely for your boy to have absorbed a certain cultural identity which includes boys in ballet)?

It’s important to know his reasoning. That’s your starting point. If you’re already reading this, I believe you’re taking your boy’s wishes seriously, and I commend you for listening to his heart.

Very young girls are often smitten with the pretty tutus and elegant poses, without much idea of how hard the work can be. Boys, however, don’t usually find this appealing (though they may!), so ask your son what appealed to him about it. That initial spark of love for ballet is what you need to attend to. Whatever he answers, you need to look at finding a school that will accommodate that desire. Keep his answer in mind as you look for a school. I can’t tell you what this element is. Your son can.

Next: How much time, as a busy parent, do you have to devote to taking your son to dance lessons? Younger children and/or beginners are often scheduled on Saturdays, but older or more advanced children may need to take lessons on weeknights: sometimes two or three times per week. It can easily turn into a giant time-suck.

The financial rundown: Recreational ballet lessons are very affordable, and most schools will offer a payment plan. However, this leads to our next batch of questions.

What if he loves it? I mean, really, really loves it? and shows talent? and it’s not a phase? and he’s going to do this for years and years? What if he is asked to participate more often the following year?

More time equals more money you need to pay: the first year, you may not be out very much money, but the second year you could be looking at paying 5 times as much, easily. The first year there could be costume fees, and you will need to buy recital tickets at year’s end, in addition to the cost of the lessons themselves. After a year or two, additional costs could include choreography fees and competition entrance fees. So now, not only do you have your son’s regular school asking for money for field trips, supplies, indoor shoes… now you have his ballet school telling you that you need to cough up another thirty bucks by next week for choreography fees. No big deal, really, except that in the context of average daily family life, it does add up.

So now that you’ve thought over the time commitment (at least one 45 minute session per week, probably more like 2 hours, plus travel time) and potential cost (at least $200 per school year at the absolute minimum), we can move on to looking at what a good ballet school will offer.

When can he start? Most ballet schools follow a traditional school year; that is, September to June. If you wish to enroll your son, you will need to plan accordingly. Don’t get caught trying to register your son in January: there are few ballet schools with a mid-year intake. Does the school have a schedule to show you, so that you are certain his class will not conflict with previous commitments?

Can your son participate in one class to see what he thinks of it? Many schools will offer an open house at some point either very late in the school year or very early. You could also look at your community rec center listings and try out a ballet camp for the March break or for a week or two during the summer. The instructor will often be affiliated with a ballet school, which helps solve that problem for you if he likes the camp.

It may seem obvious, but it’s something many parents forget to ask: how many other boys are there taking ballet at the school right now? If there are currently no other boys, have they ever had a boy in ballet before? Ask them how they plan to fit him in. If they are taken aback by this question, you may want to consider that a big old red flag with blinking lights on top. You can trust your gut on this one.

You want to hear that they have had boys before, and if they haven’t, that they’re willing and eager. I’d personally fall off my chair if they suggested that my son took pointe classes, because that’s very unusual (not completely unheard of, just very odd), but he will be expected to do leaps and turns with great athleticism, as well as lift the girls when he is older and more skilled. Make sure your son’s school is prepared to teach your son: not just now, but later, when skill sets diverge between the genders. You may just be thinking about his current needs, but you need to anticipate his future needs, should he stick with ballet. If he loves his school, he will resist moving to a new one just because his present school doesn’t know what to do with him as he gets older, so pick a school where that won’t be an issue. It’ll be one less thing to worry about.

Be aware that from the moment your boy begins classes, you are Ballet Boy’s Mom or Dad. Are there opportunities for you to volunteer at this school by carpooling with other parents or just by doing some photocopying? Making yourself known as a real person, not just Ballet Boy’s mom or dad, can go a long way toward alleviating some of the curiosity you may encounter from other parents. Stay and chat with other parents during the class. There should be a waiting area where you can do this.

What will he need to wear to class? The standard is a white fitted t-shirt, black shorts, thin white socks and black ballet shoes, but this may vary. You need to ask. Can the school recommend a source for black ballet shoes in his size? You cannot always buy them off the rack and may need to order them, as many dance & skate stores only keep pink ballet shoes in stock. Does the school itself sell the required uniform? Some of them do, but many do not. Does the school recommend a certain style or brand? Leather or canvas? You’d be surprised at the variety of shoes, and all teachers have their preferences. Know these preferences and adhere to them. They matter.

Will there be a boys change room, or will it be better for him to wear his ballet clothes to and from class?

Are the instructors’ credentials prominently displayed? How many years has she or he been teaching? Are the classes taught entirely by adult teachers or do they have teenage students teaching the younger kids? I believe that even at the lower levels it is important to take dance seriously enough to employ adult teachers. Assistants may be teenagers but the instructor should be an adult.

I don’t think that it’s important at the beginning that your son’s teacher has, in turn, studied under someone who danced for the Bolshoi, but at the same time you want someone with the patience and experience that comes with age and having finished a degree in dance or at least very many years of experience. Use your judgment.

Are the students able to take ballet exams at the school, or must they travel to a larger city centre or a different school for that? Why yes, there are exams, just like in piano! Ask how the lessons he’d take would prepare him for his exams, or in fact, IF the lessons are intended to prepare for exams. That part is up to you and your son: earning a pass on the exams may not be important to him at all. In my son’s case, he is looking forward to passing the exam which shows that he has mastered his skill set. It’s a point of pride to be told to move on to the next level.

What other forms of dance does this school teach? Will he have the opportunity to cross-train in, say, jazz or hip-hop dance? A well-rounded dancer has a more confident and controlled stage presence. The school may be pleased to have a young male dancer and may ask you to sign him up for classes other than ballet as well. If they ask you, ask them to lower, or even waive, the registration fee for those classes. It can’t hurt.

If you are unfamiliar with dance, I suggest watching youtube videos with the keywords “ballet class”, “jazz dance” and “lyrical dance”, even after he has started classes. You may want to watch them with your son to gauge his general interest in dance and to show him what he will eventually achieve through hard work and dedication.

About the hard work and dedication: I suggest that once you have decided on a school and your son is in beginner’s ballet, you look around at the other students, but especially the older ones. A very good time to observe them is in between classes, when kids are entering and leaving the studio. Are the kids cheerful, energized, eating snacks like little maniacs? Are they laughing and joking amongst themselves? Or do they look drained, miserable, whipping off their shoes and marching out the door? Children in dance could look hungry, flushed, and even sore, but they should not look unhappy about it.

Is there a place for parents to stay during the lesson? A TV monitor in the lobby where you can watch them practice? Are there trophies prominently displayed from previous competitions anywhere in the front lobby? Other signs of “school spirit”, such as photo albums, framed pictures, cards and notes from students? Do they have extra-curricular activities marked on a calendar, such as a holiday dance or a silly theme day? These are signs of an open and friendly atmosphere.

A young boy with no previous dance experience will be placed in a beginner’s class. This will likely be called a “recreational” class. This will suffice for his needs while he gets used to the idea. In this class he will learn very basic positions and turns. The emphasis should be on fun, but a controlled sort of fun in which the kids actually do learn something! The fun comes from becoming competent in the thing he wants to learn, but it also needn’t be an overly serious atmosphere. The children should be corrected when they do their moves incorrectly but they shouldn’t feel chastened by these corrections. It should strike a middle ground between gleeful movement and careful listening.

What will he need to wear at the year-end recital? Will you need to pay for this costume, and if so, how much? Boys in ballet may have the advantage of being allowed to wear black dress pants and a white shirt as their recital costume, with only perhaps a tie or vest that needs to match the girls’ much more expensive costumes. If you can make all or part of the costume, you can save yourself a lot of trouble, not to mention money. If you have a fast-growing weed of a boy, like I do, being able to finish his costume at the last minute while it still fits him is one heck of an advantage!

You will want to know is whether or not the school offers competitive ballet classes as well as recreational. Competitive classes are held more frequently and they do cost more. There are often opportunities for entire classes to attend competitions on a local or even higher level. Competitions are held throughout the year (my son will attend at least four). These can be a great source of pride for the children, but the idea can be stressful for them as well. He may very well want to stay in recreational ballet classes, but in my opinion it is very good to have the option of competing, especially for those boys who are goal oriented. This is an added expense, to be sure, but a sign of a good school is that it not only wishes to teach ballet, it wishes to test its own teaching by putting the students into competitions and expecting them to do well.

So now you’ve figured out why your boy wants to take ballet, and that you need to base your search at least partly upon what he expects to get out of it. You know what time of year to start, how to find a decent school, and what to do about uniforms and costumes. You know you’re going to have to ask a lot of questions, and you’ll be prepared to answer some yourself! You’ve been pre-warned that your boy may make a move into competitive ballet where the financial, physical and emotional costs are higher. Good luck, and I hope to see you and your boy at next year’s lessons!

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