By Jay Harvey
Photograph by Matt Kryger
The Indianapolis Star
November 6, 2012
When preadolescence meets a boy’s dance dreams, the collision can be jarring. “Billy Elliot The Musical” tells one such story, but there are many others in our culture, whenever a youngster resists pressure to channel ambitions of grace, strength and physical discipline into sport and is instead mesmerized by ballet or contemporary dance.
Just as dance itself is a matter of assembling a sequence of steps and positions into an artistic result, so is a male dancer’s search for identity and acceptance a step-by-step process, an education that is woven through specific, rigorous dance training.
First lesson: Interest must be intensely engaged, because later it will be called upon to withstand both the challenges of dance itself and indifferent, even hostile, outside attitudes. “Boys are brought up to play sports, girls to be dainty,” said Luther DeMyer, 13. “I don’t have a big interest in sports.”
Luther takes classes at the Indianapolis School of Ballet, which, like many other schools and companies across the nation, is now preparing its annual production of “The Nutcracker.”
His interest began with tap dancing, going back further than he can remember. “My mother says I was so ecstatic when I saw tap dancing,” and that form gave him a direction that would lead to ballet training. Since third grade, the teen has been committed to dance.
Second lesson: Learning how to build on the support for dancing a boy gets from people close to him, usually at home. “My parents were my biggest supporters,” recalled Zach Young, 28, who is in his fifth year as a member of Dance Kaleidoscope, Indianapolis’ durable contemporary-dance troupe. As he grew up in Columbia, Mo., both parents were involved in the arts, “so I always felt I was doing something important.”
Luther’s mother suggested he take ballet, and his father is the one who builds up his morale when he doesn’t feel like going to class. “They’re really supportive of me,” the Center for Inquiry (School 84) student said.
Some parental support emerges from nowhere, however, and has an element of surprise about it. Nora Brennan, casting director for “Billy Elliot,” has met many supportive parents who are mystified by their son’s interest. “They’ll say, ‘I’m a teacher and my husband is a truck driver, and he just loves to dance all the time. We don’t know where this comes from; we just keep helping him find good teachers.’ “
Third lesson: Pushing aside challenges — and loneliness — as the boy becomes a man. “The attitudes are out there,” said Brennan. “For every 20 girls in a dance school, there’s one boy.” In their “other” schools, they may encounter bullying, “and some have to pretend they don’t dance.”
Young once taught at a dance school without a single boy in his classes. “I had friends that didn’t care what I did,” he said of his teen years, but he recalls that “the response was negative in general. It’s better now because of shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ “
“I think it’s different with the mothers of girls,” Brennan said. “No one ever says: ‘I hope my son is a dancer.’ ” This greatly reduces the kind of pushiness you sometimes hear about whenever auditions for “Annie” are announced. At “Billy” auditions, “they meet other boys that dance, they exchange phone numbers and become Facebook friends.”
Fourth lesson: Using the toughness that develops from doing something unusual to persevere. “There is a kind of grit — enormous determination that they all have in common,” said Brennan, who heads a four-person “Team Billy” that’s often on the road going from audition to audition. The team looks for solid dance technique above all, honed through at least four years of training, but there’s always the probing question that Brennan puts like this: “Is this the kind of boy who gives up quickly?”
Because many of the aspirants have never acted or sung before, this appetite for learning is a must. The show requires the boys to do gymnastics and master training in styles they might not have known, like hip-hop.
Having started at 9, Young gave up dancing his junior year in high school, casting his lot with the varsity golf team. He talks vaguely about his swerve away from dance, saying it was a matter of “politics.”
“It’s hard to start when you are 9 years old,” he said, suggesting that “very few who start that young continue.” In his case, he missed dance so much that he returned his senior year and never looked back.
Fifth lesson: Getting dreams realized, or at least moving in that direction, with a growing sense of reward. “I was a professional at the age of 19,” said Young, who was in a company that traveled and competed. “At first I was interested in the competition, then I did it just for the art of it. I got to see different professional dancers and could be inspired by them.”
“Most of them just want so badly to play the role, and they work so hard to do this,” Brennan said. “It comes from within. It’s not because it’s encouraged and it’s not for any kind of approval from parents. They just love to dance.”
Luther, who would like to dance and choreograph professionally when he grows up, is among that number. He savors the satisfaction of getting nondancing friends to appreciate what he does. When he was in Butler University’s “Nutcracker,” “they came and saw all of the boys dancing, and they thought it was cool.”
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