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By Lisa La Plante
The Berkshire Eagle
April 17, 2011

Tom Masters grew up in an era when boys who danced defied social expectations. They were mocked. They were bullied. Times have not changed all that much, he said. “There is a stigma attached to male dancers. It is considered a feminine art form.”

Still, he persevered through school and a successful dance career, and is now helping local boys to embrace dance as both an art and a sport. Masters is in his second month of teaching a boys-only dance class at Berkshire Pulse Center for Creative Arts.

One of 35 dance classes offered at the center, Dance for Boys is geared for 8 to 12 year olds with little or no previous dance experience.

What takes place in the studio each Wednesday afternoon barely resembles dance as nine boys act out imaginary scenes using props such as balls and hockey sticks. They run. They spin. They hop. They pretend to shoot imaginary adversaries. All the while, they learn to dance — though they might not realize it.

The class began with just one boy, 10-year-old Brighton Sawyer, who was already taking a hip hop class there. He recruited some friends, and Masters, who teaches third and fourth grades at New Marlborough Elementary School, recruited some of his students, as well as his own 7-year-old son, Mickey.

During the first full class, Masters asked the boys to try a plié ballet step and they clammed up. So he tried a new tactic.

“The focus is to get boys to move more. We take a general sport and we abstract it into movement,” he said, explaining how he has incorporated basketball and hockey into his classes.

Masters, who has taught both girls and boys to dance in the past, said around the age of 8 or 9, girls begin to get serious about the art form. “They have more self control and they pay attention to the details,” he explained. They are willing and able to perform small, intricate steps.

Boys, on the other hand, “are still highly energetic and they believe that bigger is better,” he said, adding that boys are also resistant to learning technique because they think it is “too girly.”

So Masters allows boys to be energetic; to have bigger, bolder moves, and he makes it a game. “As they get used to moving, and as they get used to their own bodies, we can add in more intricate steps,” he said.

During one recent class, the boys practiced a multi-step move that started as a stretch and then progressed into a “Michael Jackson pop” as Masters described it, with the boys on their toe tips with bent knees.

Some of them mastered it, while others stumbled. Most of them laughed and several let out a Michael Jackson-style “Ow!”

“Some of these boys won’t end up dancing, and some will,” Masters added. “These are useful skills, no matter what they do in life.”

The concept came to him when he was studying elementary education with a minor in dance at the State University of New York at Geneseo. While doing an internship with a dance school, he said he found the boys were having trouble focusing, so he took them to one side of the gym and worked with them as a group.

Athletic energy

Boys have an abundance of athletic energy, which is generally channeled into sports, said Bettina Montano, artistic director and founder of Berkshire Pulse. “But they are kids and there is an incredible creative energy there too.

“This is a creative dance class that breaks away from the traditional notions that can so often disinterest a boy from starting dance,” she said. “There is a whole element of expression and emotional aspects that are supported as well.”

During one recent class, Masters had the boys practice different ways of moving about the room to the beat of a drum as he intermittently called out different rules such as “no walking” or “backwards only.”

Several of the boys began acting out a shooting scene as they crept, crawled and leaped about the room, slowing or quickening their movements to the tempo of the drum.

“Good. I love that you are starting to naturally turn this into a story,” Masters encouraged, adding as they got noisy: “Dancing is about telling a story with your bodies, not your mouths.”

He gives them props like yoga balls and hockey sticks to work with first, so they will relax and be willing to continue moving when the prop is taken away. At the same time, they build teamwork and athletic skills that will be useful in sports like football, soccer or baseball, he said.

“I wanted to experience something new,” said Brighton after a recent class. “I’m a very energetic kid and I had to find ways to get the energy out.” He said taking hip hop and boys dance has helped him to sleep better at night. “I’ve gotten much more flexible in this class,” he said.

Iler McGrath, 16, began taking dance classes at Berkshire Pulse with his sister when he was 7. “It was social. I got to be around other kids,” he explained.

Home-schooled through the eighth grade, Iler said he did not feel the same negative peer pressure as other boys. “It was just what I did. I didn’t think about it too much,” he said.

Commitment issue

It was not until his pre-teen years that he noticed he was among the few boys in his classes. “I was a loner for about a year and then I made friends with the girls,” he said.

The difficult times, though, had nothing to do with his gender.

“There is always the issue of commitment and how far you are willing to go and how much of yourself you are willing to give in order to dance,” Iler said. “In order to progress further, you have to get through it. It is like this for anything worth doing.”

He still finds himself the only young man in most of his classes, and he takes six or seven a week, but it does not faze him. “I’ve stuck with it long enough, it has become a part of me,” he said. “I really like it and it is what I am good at.”

He managed to master modern, ballet, African and jazz dance and has been accepted for a North Carolina School of Arts summer program.

Movement for Boys is not yet practicing specific dance steps or learning a routine. Whether the class joins other classes at the end-of-the-year performance in June remains to be seen. “We are not going to do it, unless I see it begin to happen naturally,” Masters said, adding that students’ interests will determine how it progresses,.

Masters began to dance when he was 12. He had grown up watching his sister dance and when she moved on to other interests, he decided to try it himself. He started with tap and then branched out to jazz.

The tap dance class was for boys only and Masters believes that class gave him the confidence to continue. “Girls are intimidating,” he laughed, adding, “If it was a class with just girls, I probably would not have stuck with it.”

By the time he reached high school, he began to feel peer pressure against his choice.

Other young men would call Masters names, he said, adding “a couple of guys would physically threaten me, or push me into walls and lockers. I wanted to go to private school, but that was not an option,” he said. “For the most part, I just ignored them, and I stayed true to myself.”

Masters continued dancing through college and then danced professionally with ballet, modern company and musical theater companies in New York City. After six years, he was sidelined by an injury and began teaching dance instead.

Masters moved to South Berkshire in 2008, after vacationing here for several years. A big draw was Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, founded by Ted Shawn in 1933 as a way for men to get involved in dance.

Masters no longer dwells on the bad experiences he had as a youth, but acknowledges that bullies…. still exist. He hopes his class will give boys who want to dance a place to try it, without prejudice.

Sees acceptance

“There will come a day when there is an acceptance of this art form,” he said.

Masters said he would like to see the boys class grow to include different skill levels, while offering opportunities for younger students and for grown men.

“I’d love to grow this class to include more modern, jazz or tap,” he said. “We will see where they want to go,” he said of his students.

“We really believe in the individuality of our students,” Montano said of Berkshire Pulse. “We want to be sure the artist the person is to become has what they need. If we box them up too early,” she said, “they may never find their individual voice.”


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