By Carrina Stanton
For The Chronicle
Photographs by Holly Pederson
and Dan Schreiber
October 26, 2009
Mick Gunter leads a group of boys in a series of push-ups. Next, they lay on their backs and try to lift and hold their legs about three inches off the ground. Their muscles start to quiver with the next exercise, where they balance with their bodies in the shape of a V with only their bottoms on the ground.
One might think they were getting ready for some sort of sport or martial art. In reality, they’re warming up to dance ballet.
“Most people think ballet is a sissy kind of sport but they’re completely wrong,” said Gunter, who recently opened Centralia Ballet Academy with his wife, Nancy.
When the Gunters opened the ballet academy in downtown Centralia, Gunter said he knew he wanted an all-male class to be part of his curriculum from the beginning. In growing the next generation of dancers, Gunter said one of the hardest parts about getting males to dance ballet is breaking stereotypes. Boys are typically not encouraged to take ballet. In fact, Gunter did not start dancing himself until 1998, though it interested him as a child.
But Gunter said ballet can have various benefits for males so he offers a class that stresses basic ballet while being geared toward things boys like. In one class, he explained how the word plié looks very much like the word “plier,” a tool that opens and closes like the move. He encouraged his class to remember the move Rond de Jambe as being like running your foot around the bases in baseball. His all-male class also dances to music from Super Mario Brothers and James Bond.
“I try to make dance something they can relate to by using things they’re familiar with,” Gunter said. “Other classes are usually lots of girls and sometimes being the only boy can be intimidating. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable.”
Most people think of ballet as being a female dance form, full of tights and tutus. But the first ballet performances can be traced to the Italian and French royal courts of the 1400s, where females were not permitted to take part in the theater arts. Dancers were male, including men wearing masks in female parts, until about 1680. From then both sexes were equally praised in the art form until about the 19th Century when male dancing began to decline with the appearance of romantic ballet, in which women excelled.
Male dancers began to reemerge in the 20th Century but they didn’t gain respect as contributors to the art until well into the 1960s when Russian dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov began to emerge and choreographers began to write pieces for all-male casts. Tanner Calder, 18, of Napavine, who has been dancing at Southwest Washington Dance Center in Chehalis for three years, said watching videos of some of these great male dancers really showed him how physical and athletic ballet really [is].
“Watch footage of them dancing and you’ll understand completely what they did for ballet. They created male ballet,” Calder said.
Centralia Ballet Academy has a total of six male students. The Southwest Washington Dance Center has five male dancers this year. Calder said just a couple years ago he was the only male dancer at the Chehalis studio and for some unknown reason their ranks have steadily grown. He said he’s happy for the company, both from a performance standpoint and also that as the number of male dancers grow, so may the public perception of them. Calder, who actually gave up a spot on the football team to dedicate his time to dance, said he still encounters a great deal of ignorance about male dancers.
Fellow dancer Vernon Keech, 27, Chehalis, who danced as a teenager then returned to the art form last year, said he missed the creative outlet and physical strength dance gave him. But Keech admitted that when he decided to return to ballet, he felt a lot of pressure from his male friends who would take verbal jabs at him whenever he mentioned dancing. Now, he said he tries to educate those around him about just how strong male dancers must be.
“They say, ‘What do you do?’ and I say ‘I dance’ and they give me this, ‘Oh really?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, it’s really cool,’ and then I expound on the really cool parts about it,” Keech said. “It’s physically challenging. It requires mental discipline and teamwork. It’s like being in an organized sport and it’s just as hard.”
Soccer player Austin Hawkins groaned Saturday during his first male ballet class at Centralia Ballet Academy when Gunter showed the class some of the stretches. The 12-year-old from Chehalis said he was curious to try the art form and was surprised at how hard it was. “It was pretty difficult because I’d never done it before,” Hawkins said after the hour-long workout. “I’ll definitely be back.”
Gunter said ballet is not just for those who want to dance. He recommends dance to any athlete or martial artist to improve their balance, agility and strength. He pointed out that Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Lynn Swann began dancing at the age of 8 and never stopped. The top highest vertical leaps recorded by the National Basketball Association range from 28 inches to a little less then 6 feet. Talented male ballet dancers can leap 4 to 5 feet high with no running start. On good days, Baryshnikov could leap six feet.
Daniel Holloway, 13, of Olympia, who has been doing ballet for four years and recently started taking classes at Centralia Ballet Academy, said most of his friends are supportive of his involvement in ballet. For those who aren’t, he said ballet has given him the ability to prove male dancers are not wimps. “I only had one kid who thought ballet was just for girls, but I beat him in wrestling so he gave that up,” Holloway said with a grin.
In many respects, ballet is much like any other sport, Keech said. You have to learn to work together, especially when it comes to partnering with a female dancer. He said lifting a 100-plus pound dancer is not as easy as it looks. Lifts are a 50/50 relationship, with the male dancer lifting at just the right moment and the female learning to hold her core straight and in just the right position to help her partner. Keech said it is something that has to be learned. You can’t just walk onto a stage and lift a partner or someone will get hurt. One exercise dancers at Southwest Washington Dance Center use to strengthen their muscles is lifting the 5-gallon water cooler jugs. The dancers place their hands on either side of the 40-pound jug, much like placing their hands on the waist of a partner. Then they lift the jug up, down and to either side. “We have to know how to support ourselves and how to position ourselves,” Keech explained.
Besides striving for credit for the difficulty of their sports, local male dancers said more than anything they want to find a way for ballet to have a place among athletes. Gunter said he’s not trying to lure any athletes away from sports but rather encouraging them to take his class as a way to condition for their chosen activities. As someone who has seen both the physical act of dancing and performance change his life, Gunter said he simply wants to share the experience with more males.
“We want to make it so that you can still be a guy and do ballet,” Gunter said. “You can still like sports and go to ballet as well.”
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