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By  Courtney Cairns Pastor  
The Tampa Tribune
Photograph by Andy Jones
February 10, 2011

 

TAMPA – Peter Stark stalked up and down his line of charges, barking out orders as they sped through leg and arm exercises, splits, pushups and crunches. Seven boys maintained stone faces. No one spoke unless spoken to.

At the end of the half-hour class, only flushed cheeks and dots of sweat betrayed how hard they had worked – doing ballet. “Listen,” Stark said, “if you want to do something easy, try football. This is not for wimps.”

It’s just the tone Stark wants to set in his Ballet for Boys class, offered at the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The class is an intense workout, combining strength training and cardiovascular exercise with ballet’s precision. It feels more like an athletic event than dance class, which is critical for appealing to boys and countering the stereotype that ballet is for girls.”You can get them over the hump of being interested in ballet,” said Stark, chairman of Patel’s dance department. “It’s a carrot.”

The musical “Billy Elliot,” which is on stage at the Straz Center this month, won a Tony award for its story spotlighting boys dancing ballet, but men are still the exception in the profession. Girls commonly outnumber boys 60 to 1 at auditions, Stark said. Of the 260 dancers enrolled in Patel’s Youth Ballet and Next Generation Ballet programs, 18 are boys.

The imbalance puts a strain on ballet companies that have to draw from a limited pool of male dancers. It also can be an advantage for men: A talented male dancer who works hard has a better chance at success than a ballerina, who faces more competition.

But ballet can be a hard sell for parents more apt to pursue Little League, soccer or martial arts for their sons. “People think ballet is girly,” said fifth-grader Alex Correa, who got teased when he first started ballet. Now he attends eight ballet classes at Patel every week. “It doesn’t matter. It’s so much fun.”

By creating ballet classes exclusively for boys, Stark hopes to give them more opportunities and change the perception that dance is feminine. That’s why he keeps his boys’ lessons fast and physical.

Boys and girls differ developmentally, Stark said. Girls at a young age can stand in lines and listen intently; boys respond better to nonstop action. Stark moves them swiftly from one exercise to another, breaking up the strength-building with repetitions where they race diagonally across the room to practice leaps.

Gabriel Mannheimer, a Northwest Elementary fifth-grader in Stark’s class, said his friends who don’t dance have no idea how hard he works. “They think life is easy for me,” the 10-year-old said. He has played football and finds his ballet classes much more difficult.

Stark’s class is preparing boys physically for the physical rigors of the profession. Men’s ballet has become increasingly more athletic since the 1970s, said Stark, who danced leading roles with the New York City, Washington and Boston ballets.

But the classes don’t have to lead to careers. What the boys learn will benefit them even if they don’t pursue ballet, said Dr. Denise Edwards, a pediatrics professor and director of the Healthy Weight Clinic at the University of South Florida. Ballet offers the cardiovascular benefits of other sports but also emphasizes flexibility, form and balance.

“Very few athletes have all of that,” she said.

Boys tend to work on their flexibility less as they get older, and ballet allows them to improve in that area, Edwards said. Ballet also develops core muscles and keeps backs strong.

Those types of benefits are what have drawn professional athletes to ballet historically. Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, for example, has said he credits his ballet and other dance classes with helping him develop body control, balance and a sense of timing that he could apply to football.

Alex, 11, found that his ballet practice helped him kick higher than other boys at taekwondo. He said ballet is different from other dances and sports he has tried because he has to concentrate on so much at once – he needs to remember his routines and also make sure his toes point out, his arms curve correctly and his legs turn the right way.

“It’s really hard,” he said. “It takes a lot of practice.”

Alex started ballet at age 9 after enrolling in a sampler class at Patel that exposed him to several types of dance. He thought he might like hip hop, but he loved ballet’s discipline.

“He just gravitated to the ballet,” said his mother, Tammy Correa. “Of all the things – I was really surprised.”

She thought it was a phase and he would plunge into something else soon. She worried about teasing, and he almost quit when kids made fun of him in fourth grade.

Correa is glad he stayed, though. Ballet has improved his confidence and maturity, and Stark is a wonderful role model, she said. At home, Alex struggles to pay attention and sit still. But in ballet class, he is focused and aware of how his body occupies the space around him.

It also expanded his appreciation of the arts. He enjoys theater more, was glued to various “Nutcracker” performances on TV during the holidays and knows many classical music pieces.

“It was challenging, so he persevered,” Correa said. “It’s really great to see somethng he’s so passionate about.”

©2011 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

 

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