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Dance instructors would like that to change

 

By Andrew Adler
The Courier-Journal
Photographs by By Scott Utterback
March 7, 2010
[Edited]

 

It’s a few minutes before 6 p.m. on a Wednesday at the Louisville Dance Alliance, where clusters of children are preparing for weekly ballet classes. All of them are girls.

All, that is, except for Sam Graber. A trim, brown-haired 10-year-old, he’s a conspicuous injection of budding testosterone amid a small ocean of pink leotards and the occasional frilly skirt. He walks into a studio, joins them at the barre and begins warming up.

Welcome to the reality of pre-adolescent ballet instruction. Boys are a scarce commodity here. Ballet may be an athletic discipline, but at the elementary school level, it remains fundamentally a girls’ world.

Sam is a telling exception. He is in his fourth year studying ballet, fitting lessons into a schedule that often includes competitive swimming and soccer, or shooting baskets behind his home in the Highlands.

Ballet isn’t quite the same thing. “It was my mom’s idea to let me try it,” Sam recalls, adding that “I thought it was for girls, because I didn’t know any of my friends who did ballet.”

Sam took his first dance class alongside his younger sister, Annie, when she attended a camp run by the Louisville Ballet. Not surprisingly, girls were everywhere. “He was the only one I can remember that summer,” says his mother, Catherine Chamberlain, who teaches yoga and Pilates classes around town. “He’s almost always the only boy.”

Asked if her son ever talked about being a solitary ballet lad, Chamberlain tells of one time she and Sam were out having dinner. “I noticed a woman who does yoga, and who is a UPS pilot,” she says. “And I said to Sam, ‘Very few women are pilots at UPS — do you understand what that means? Wouldn’t that be an interesting position to be in?’ Sam said, ‘I understand that position — she should come to ballet and see me.’?”

Sisters often end up being prime motivators. “Quite a few of my siblings danced,” says LDA co-owner/director Josh Ford, who grew up in Louisville as one of six kids. “My older sister and younger sister both danced before I did. I got started kind of late, at 13. I was already an athlete in baseball and basketball.”

Ford’s delayed start carried certain consequences. “It was harder in eighth grade,” he acknowledges. “It’s middle school. There were some bullies there. High school (at duPont Manual and the Youth Performing Arts School) was great. It was a very open experience for learning, and I was very accepted there.”

Although Ford was part of a larger male contingent studying dance at University of Illinois, he recognizes the challenge of getting younger boys interested in ballet. At LDA — where he and his wife, Lauren, operate and teach in studios at the Mid City Mall — boys are more apt to be found in jazz or hip-hop classes. Ballet is a much tougher sell.

“It’s hard,” Ford agrees. One reason is that “you are starting to get men taught primarily by women — and where does the teaching of masculinity in ballet come from now?”

Ford makes it a point to teach his share of ballet classes, so Sam and any potential male newcomers can feel comfortable. “I feel that if they don’t get connected at the right point in their lives with the right people, it kind of falls by the wayside,” Ford says. “I would like to be a strong male, masculine presence for these young guys who want to dance and (who) feel like a fish out of water sometimes.”

Boy’s paths to ballet can differ widely. “Some of them have danced in other disciplines, perhaps musical theater as a young kid,” says Elena Fillmore, director of the Louisville Ballet School, “so they’ll seek us out. And they are usually very dedicated — they have to be, because there is still sort of a stigma.”

For generations, boys have been told that ballet is un-masculine or somehow inappropriate for young men to pursue. “It’s safe to assume that those stereotypes still apply,” Fillmore says. “Guys who want to dance have to have a pretty thick skin, and educate their friends that dancing is a highly athletic thing.”

No one knows that more than young Sam Graber. “It really helps you” on the playing field, he says. “If you are right-footed and you play soccer, it helps you learn to use your left foot better. And it can also make your kicks stronger.”

“I think of it as cross-training,” his mom says. “It does require a lot of strength and a lot of athleticism. He loves doing all those jumps and that kind of cool stuff.”

Still, even Sam understands the trickiness of being in the minority gender. Asked why he thinks more boys his age don’t join him in class, he answers: “I just don’t think they want to do ballet. It’s a thing where it’s kind of embarrassing to do, if you are a boy.”

At least boys get to do manly solos. The LDA ballet students have been rehearsing a scene from “Swan Lake,” and Sam gets to dance the role of a hunter bearing a bow and arrow. “He tries to shoot his sister, who is a fairy,” mom observes.

Sometimes boys begin when they are simply too young. David Schultz, whose two daughters take classes at LDA, tells how his younger son took pre-ballet classes beginning at age 5. “It was OK,” Schultz recalls, “but I don’t think ballet was for him. He wanted to do something else. And at that point it was just kind of tumbling, not really ballet. He just wasn’t enthused about it. He’s happy doing tae kwon do, and has started basketball.”

Elizabeth Bricking, whose 8-year-old daughter, Adrienne, takes ballet, has had less success persuading her 10-year-old son, Matthew, one of Sam’s best friends. “I’ve tried to convince him to try some hip-hop here,” Bricking says, “but he hasn’t accepted that yet. Literally, he’s got so many other things going on that he doesn’t want to do one more thing.”

[G]etting children to move is more important than how they move. “At a younger age, it’s normal to want something with a quicker pace to it,” Ford explains. “So when a kid chooses jazz over ballet, it’s not the jazz is more acceptable than ballet as a male — kids don’t think that way. Jazz is fun; there’s more activity to it.”

There are additional considerations, too. “Boys historically start a bit later than girls” taking dance class, Fillmore says.

 

Copyright ©2010 The Courier-Journal

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