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An $8,000 grant helps Peabody Dance get boys into ballet

By Jennifer Kaplan
Dance Studio Life
Photograph coutesy of Peabody Dance
October 12, 2010


Boys. Well, they’ll be boys, which means attracting them to and keeping them interested in ballet can be an uphill battle.

While a handful of Billy Elliot-wannabes might join a ballet class at age 5 or 6 if their mothers sign them up, keeping them motivated for the long haul challenges ballet teachers and artistic directors around the country. At Baltimore’s Peabody Dance Training program, beginner boys dance only once a week to start. And their classes focus much more on physical agility and strength than on grace and elegance.

Teacher Meredith Rainey, a former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, is a role model for Peabody Dance’s boys. (Photo courtesy Peabody Dance)

Peabody Dance is housed in the venerable Peabody Preparatory music conservatory, a part of Johns Hopkins University. The program enrolls about 300 students from preschoolers to adults; 100 are enrolled in the pre-professional ballet program, taking classes three to six days a week depending on their age and level.

 “We would get a handful of young boys in the children’s program, mainly 5- or 6-year-olds,” says artistic director Carol Bartlett, “but usually being in a class that’s mostly girls discourages them. Plus, the boys come to a point where they’re doing soccer and all sorts of other things that interfere with the Saturday dance schedule.”

And, sometimes, she adds, parents have to overcome prejudices about their sons taking ballet—especially American parents. Bartlett allows that some, fathers in particular, don’t want their sons devoting extracurricular hours to what many falsely believe is a feminine pursuit.

With the help of an $8,000 grant from the Estelle Dennis Dance Scholarship Trust (honoring longtime Baltimore dancer and teacher Estelle Dennis, a former Denishawn dancer) to support boys seeking careers in dance, last year Peabody Dance trained 18 young men in the fundamentals of ballet, at no cost to their families.

The Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys removes two impediments to getting boys into ballet—and eventually into tights. First, their ballet classes, along with their shoes and uniforms—bike shorts and, ultimately, tights—are fully paid for by the grant.

Second, they dance only with other boys for their initial training, most frequently in classes taught by men, like former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist and choreographer Meredith Rainey and Jason Reed, a Juilliard graduate and director of outreach at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

In the late spring, Bartlett, along with artistic adviser Barbara Weisberger, holds auditions to ferret out what Weisberger calls “raw talent.” She should know. Weisberger was among Balanchine’s first students, one of his protégés, and she founded Pennsylvania Ballet. Bartlett and Weisberger spent a weekend in Baltimore school cafeterias and gyms, observing boys ages 9 through 15. The first year brought nearly 60 hopeful or curious youngsters to the audition; earlier this year, about 30 tried out. Bartlett attributes the second-year dip to public school teachers who lost interest in the program after its initial marketing push.

“We’re looking for anatomically good potential, good turnout, and good proportions in the boys,” Bartlett says. At the end of the audition, she allows time for a bit of improvisation. “That’s always revealing; what we find is very interesting.” The improvisation gave the audition panel a chance to see the boys in their element, expressing themselves and their musicality without the pressure of learning a combination of steps.

“We look at their musicality and what they bring from their own movement vocabulary. There are boys who are a little reticent when you are putting them through the audition ritual of stretching the feet, turning out, pliés, relevés, and all that,” Bartlett says. “When you let them do what they’re used to doing, other things are revealed.”

At this point in the audition Bartlett and Weisberger noted the boys’ sense of rhythm, elevation, and agility. Then the panel narrowed down the field to a crop of 24 (the maximum they have space for), who were offered slots in the tuition-free program. Bartlett expected some boys to reject the offer after they learned more about what ballet entails, and others to drop out during the year. The first class began with 20 boys and ended with 16 holdouts who made it through the year and performed in Peabody’s production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Among the holdouts was Isaiah Stanley, a 17-year-old from Reisterstown, Maryland, whose interest in dance was sparked by participating in community theater. His mother, Yosette, an English teacher, sees real value in the program, whether or not ballet becomes an eventual career for her son. “He’s my compass telling me what he wants to do. This isn’t something I said he had to do. And this prepares [the boys] for life. They have to have discipline, commitment, follow-through, and all that is taught in ballet.”

Logan Paschall, a Baltimore ninth-grader, found ballet through his interest in hip-hop. In 2007 he was cast in Debbie Allen’s Kennedy Center production of Alex in Wonderland. “I still like hip-hop; that’s my favorite form of dance. But learning all the styles makes me a better dancer and a better person,” he says, wisely echoing Allen’s oft-spoken insistence that her dancers master multiple genres. An added bonus, says Logan, who plays football, baseball, and basketball and runs track, is that he’s now a better jumper on the basketball court.

One Saturday last spring, a dozen boys lined the barre, clad in white T-shirts and bike shorts or tights. Weisberger, 85, noticed the boys fidgeting at the idea of a guest watching them. “Just do what you do and relax,” she assured them.

Reed led them through a fast-paced warm-up of jumping jacks, jogging in place, and pushups. “Get in charge of your breath,” he advised. During a point-and-flex exercise he explained why mastering the action will prepare their feet and legs for large jumps. Back on the floor, he catered to their boyish affinity for all things gross. “Remember how it feels when you throw up?” he asked and explained that it’s the same physical feeling that goes into performing a Graham contraction.

Reed finished with a mind-bending sequence of torso bends and changing arm positions drawn straight from Horton technique. Then he sat the boys down and explained the method behind his rapid teaching style. “I didn’t start dancing seriously until I was 18. At 20, I got into Juilliard. Even though I thought I had the training I needed from CPYB,” Reed told the boys, “I had so much catching up to do. Most of the kids had been dancing for 10 or 12 years. The more well rounded you are in dance—and that means understanding techniques aside from ballet or hip-hop—the more successful you’ll be.” The boys nodded gravely in agreement.

Troy Rice, a Baltimore City seventh-grader who attends Dr. Nathan A. Pitts Ashburton Elementary/Middle School, has been dancing for eight years. He plans to turn pro. “I used to get teased,” Troy says, “but now that everybody knows I dance, they realize that I can do it. And it’s really fun and technical and I like doing something that’s hard.” He admits to being intimidated by Rainey at first: “He’s really strict, but I realize that’s what you need to be a professional.”

A senior from Owings Mills, Maryland, Marcus Robinson wishes he had started ballet classes earlier after realizing how much he has to learn. “I thought it was going to be easy,” he says. “People already know that I’m a good dancer.” And he is: he blew the audition panel away during the free dance. But he soon realized he has a long way to go. “It’s disappointing that I started so late.”

Gabe Needle’s parents travel 45 minutes from their Annapolis home every Saturday to take him to these ballet lessons. A sixth-grader who enjoys chorus, robotics, and history as well as community theater, Gabe says, “I like that classical ballet is the foundation. Learning it means I can actually do more styles.” He says that at first his school friends thought ballet was “girly,” but he told them, “I want to be a triple threat.” Now they mostly leave him alone.

Director Bartlett knows the odds of producing a pro dancer, male or female, are slim. “Let’s face it, a lot of these boys started at 12 or 13, which is late, but not too late for a boy. If a boy has a good body, he suddenly hooks into a passion for dance and throws himself into it, I think he can start pretty late and progress pretty quickly. Even Meredith didn’t start dancing until he was 15.”

Bartlett is keenly aware of the possible risk in offering a tuition-free program for boys only. She knows about another prominent Maryland ballet school that for many years offered a ballet scholarship class for boys. The program flourished, with up to 18 boys filling the classes each year—that is, until a parent of a girl complained and threatened a sex discrimination lawsuit. Rather than go to court, the school simply stopped offering boys-only scholarships.

“That is in the back of my mind,” Bartlett says. “Right now the Peabody parent body is delighted to see so many males around. But we’re very careful about not calling it a scholarship program. The boys aren’t getting direct scholarship money. What they’re getting is training; thus we call it the Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys.”

No matter what it’s called, boys are dancing ballet. And take it from young dancer Logan Paschall’s mother, Sheila, who initially put her son into a dance class at age 4. “Now he loves this and wakes up early to be sure he gets here on time. Sometimes [kids] don’t know they’ll like something until they try it. At first he didn’t want to go to ballet because it was with a bunch of girls. But he saw what ballet could do for him, and having something like this opens a lot of doors.”


Copyright 2010 Dance Studio Life


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