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Popularity of hip hop and television dance shows is bringing male dancers into the limelight

Denise Ryan
The Vancouver Sun
December 11, 2010

Danny Nielsen didn’t get teased when he was growing up in Calgary — even though he was usually dragging a pair of dancing shoes around in his backpack. “I was bigger and taller than most boys when I was growing up,” he said. “People were a little scared of me.”

Nielsen, now artistic director of the Vancouver Tap Society, just loved to dance and he didn’t really care what anyone thought. Now he’s one of a growing cohort of dance teachers who is finding a way to make classes more boy-friendly.

He discovered dance at just seven years old, and had fully embraced his passion for the art long before he even knew the words gender or stereotyping. “My older sister danced, so as a young kid I was being dragged to the dance studio all the time. I had nothing to do when I was there, so I just ended up joining in.”  Nielsen’s story of discovering dance because his mom forced him to tag along to his sister’s classes is common among boys who dance.

Tyler Carver, 17, a student in Goh Ballet’s senior professional program, used to sit outside his sister’s ballet class after he finished playing soccer on Saturday mornings.  A bored boy in a school full of girls who might one day need pas de deux partners attracted the attention of Chu Chiat Goh, co-founder of the Vancouver ballet school.

“One day Mr. Goh said, ‘Why don’t you take a class?’ ” said Carver, who will be appearing as the Snow King in the Goh Ballet’s version of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker this season.

Carver said it was too awkward to say no — but not nearly as awkward as what followed. “It wasn’t easy getting into tights,” he laughed. Not only that, he was in a class full of girls half his age.

“I hated it,” he said. But he didn’t particularly enjoy soccer, either.

The next weekend Carver had the worst soccer game of his life: cold and rainy. After the game, he discovered the dance class relaxed him. He liked it.

Carver started mixing dance in with violin lessons, and eventually earned a spot in Goh’s professional program.

Not all boys are lucky enough to stumble by chance into dance. Nor are all parents willing to let them try.

Although girls now routinely participate in sports like soccer, hockey and baseball with plenty of parental and social encouragement, many boys and even more parents shudder, or laugh nervously, when the words “boys” and “dance class” are put together.

It’s cool to not be a “girlie girl,” but is it cool for boys to step outside the box of conventional masculinity?

The benefits of dance — athleticism, musicality, strength, grace, competition, movement and creative expression — are still stalked by cultural phobias and social stigma.

Thanks to pop culture, however, the door may be creaking open. The popularity of hip hop and television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, which pulls athletes like former pro basketball player Rick Fox onto the dance floor, is bringing male dancers into the limelight.

Dance teachers are also turning their attention to the different ways boys learn, and the importance of giving them their own road into the art.

Edmund Kilpatrick, 41, an independent Vancouver choreographer, dancer and dance teacher, started ballet when he was a teenager after taking dance in an acting program. He went on to dance with Les Grands ballets canadiens in Montreal before coming out west to dance with Ballet BC.

In Vancouver, he started teaching in various dance schools. “The question was always the same at the schools — why aren’t there more boys?”  To Kilpatrick, the answer was obvious: “The walls are pink, there are pictures of babies in tutus on the wall. What self-respecting boy would want to be there?”

He started to develop a teaching structure that would appeal to boys, and eventually teamed up with Artemis Gordon, artistic director of the Arts Umbrella dance school.

This included neutral wall colours, all-boy classes, a uniform of shorts or sweat pants and a mix of styles that included plenty of room for boys to be boys. “I wanted them to really jump, fly across the room, bust a move,” he said. It was all about “throwing water on the ‘dance is for girls’ thing.” 

When 10 boys get in a space together and see 10 other boys just like them it relaxes them right away, he said.  “I neutralize it. I want the space to be a place that jock kids can come, or the more sensitive. What kind of boy you are outside is what kind of boy you can be inside dance class.”

Ten years after starting work with Gordon at Arts Umbrella, one of his first boy students has just been hired on as an apprentice with Ballet BC.

“If a kid is getting teased, I say, ‘Look at the boys around you here. Are they different than you? Are you doing something you love? Are you having fun?’ ” Often, said Kilpatrick, it’s the parents who have hangups or worry about teasing.

Nielsen, now 23, supports the idea of boys and girls having separate classes, especially when they are starting out.

When he was a kid, he was mostly in classes filled with girls, and his passion for dance perplexed his parents. “My mom’s an accountant and my dad’s a plumber,” he explained.

Nielsen said his dad “flinched a bit” when he told him he’d be adding ballet classes to strengthen his technique as a tap dancer — but never discouraged him.

As soon as he could (and after placating his mom by trying a term at college), Nielsen left Calgary, and started jamming at tap festivals in the U.S. It was a thrill: “You are the only one doing it in your hometown and suddenly there are all these guys, great dancers, jamming together, improvising, pushing each other to get better.”

At the Vancouver Tap Academy, where Nielsen is artist in residence, students are split into boys’ classes and girls’ classes. It helps, he says, to allow boys to feel at home when they start dancing.

Theo Duff-Grant, 14, a student in the professional program at Goh Ballet Academy, said he always felt at home in the dance studio — even if it was mostly girls. “My sister started dancing at the Shadbolt Centre,” said Duff-Grant, who will be performing with Carver in The Nutcracker this year.  “I would see them dancing and copy everything. My mom saw how interested I was and she signed me up.”

Duff-Grant’s talent was obvious — he’s got flexibility, legs that go for miles and a lyricism that is simply innate. The teacher at Shadbolt immediately suggested that if he loved it, his mother should enrol him in a more professional school.

Duff-Grant trains at Goh with Carver.

Getting teased is “a fear” he admitted, but like Carver, it hasn’t really been a problem for him.  Part of what’s worked is being in a professional program: Both Carver and Duff-Grant attend three hours of high school each day, and the rest of the day they train at Goh.

Carver said although his dad was “not so excited” when he started getting into dance, that’s changed too. “He realizes how physically demanding the training is.”

It’s a deeply engaging, sometimes frustrating task each day for the boys: “Dancers can hit plateaus when things aren’t going right, you’re not advancing. I’m 6-foot-3, I grow, I lose my centre and have to find it again,” Carver explained.

But when he’s onstage, he says, “everything goes quirkier, there is so much adrenalin, it’s amazing.”

Nielsen is committed to engaging more boys in dance: “There’s just so much joy … just being in the studio and improvising, going through two T-shirts and you’re soaking wet. There’s just no feeling like it.”

© Vancouver Sun 2010

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