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By Susan Elia MacNeal
July 30. 2013

Mathew MacNiel at SAB“No, Mommy, no! Don’t make me go back there! Pleeeeeeeeease don’t make me go back!!”

Our then six-year-old son Matthew wasn’t crying about juvenile detention or foster care or the Russian gulag. He was crying about dance class. He didn’t want to finish his first year as a student at the School of American Ballet (the one created by George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and ballet master of New York City Ballet).

Eventually, my husband and I untangled the problem. Matthew’s problem was not ballet. The problem was being a boy in ballet.

“I don’t think you should make him go,” said my well-meaning mother-in-law. “He’s too young to handle it if his friends make fun of him.”

But how old do you have to be to stand up for who you are and what you love? When do we, as parents, teach that?

For us, ballet started with physical therapy. At nine months, Matthew had been diagnosed with torticolis, known in layman’s terms as twisted neck. He began physical therapy three times a week at nine months, and continued through age five. When he “graduated,” we asked his therapist what more we could do. A former dancer, she said, “Ballet. I don’t know of anything better for the body.”

The summer before kindergarten started, we took Matthew to the studio down the street and signed him up for summer dance camp—ballet, tap, and jazz. He loved it. He started dancing anywhere and everywhere, to all kinds of music.

And then in the fall, he asked for ballet lessons. We brought him back to the same studio. It was a disaster. Matthew was the only boy in the class. The teacher didn’t help things. “Ballerinas, over here!” she would trill, excluding my son, the lone figure in a white t-shirt and black leggings. “Fairy princesses, this way, please!”

And this sort of treatment of boys in ballet class at the beginner level is not unusual. According to Mark Tappan, Professor and Director of the education department at Colby College and the co-author of Packaging Boyhood: Saving our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and other Media Stereotypes (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), gender role awareness at this age is normal, but it’s brought on by media and cultural influences, not biology: “For boys, it doesn’t take long to get the message that certain activities are taboo and they should feel bad about themselves if they like something stereotypically ‘girly.’ ”

Or, as Matthew put it, “Too. Much. Pink.”

And that would have been the end of it, had we not watched the DVD of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker that December. Matthew was swept away, by the music, the dance, the drama.

“You know,” I happened to say one evening, “that particular Nutcracker is done here, in New York City. The Nutcracker prince is a kid who studies at the School of American Ballet. Someday, you might be friends with someone who’s really in it.” Behind Matthew’s eyes, I could see the wheels spin. “Mommy, I want to be in The Nutcracker.”

And that’s how he ended up at SAB. Twice weekly we’d trek from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Lincoln Center, where he took class with famous retired ballerinas. (One former star is known affectionately in our household as “The Yelling-est Ballerina Ever.”) And he loved class, saying, “At the other school, the teachers were nice, but at SAB, they’re firm. They show us how hard ballet is, that it isn’t just a game. I like that.” And not only were there other boys at SAB, but they were treated with respect.

More than respect, actually. Males in ballet are not just a rare commodity, but also a historically privileged minority. It’s a definite advantage to be a male in ballet. First of all, there’s less competition. And at SAB, all boys attend on scholarship—a savings, at the beginner levels, of about $7,500 per year.

Peter Martins is not just Ballet Master of NYCB and a major choreographer, he is also Mr. Balanchine’s successor as Chairman of Faculty at SAB. As Tappen says: “That’s the way the patriarchy works—men are privileged to have the authority to be the directors and leaders and ones in charge, with resulting higher salaries.”

But something happened to Matthew that year. He became increasingly aware of gender roles and terrified the kids at school would find out and tease him. He began to get stomachaches before class, not wanting to go. “Why not?” I asked finally. “Mommy, ballet is just too girly,” he confided.

The subtext, to quote Billy Elliot’s disapproving father in the eponymous film, is that male ballet dancers are thought of as “poofs.”

“They’re not,” Billy counters. “Ballet dancers are as fit as athletes!” But it’s that underlying homophobia that persists. And what my son, even if he couldn’t yet articulate it, was sensing.

Somehow, though, we made it through. A myriad of things helped. One was the incredible support we received from SAB. Matthew and his father were able to observe an advanced boys-only class—taught by a male teacher. “It was really cool that a man was teaching a class of all boys,” Matthew said. “It was really hard and athletic and I loved it.”

Although we went through a wrenching time of questioning and then resolution—Matthew ultimately made the decision to follow his love for dance and continue at SAB—it seems as if ballet itself is also questioning its own image and trying to tone down the pink.

When asked about his classmate’s reaction to his taking ballet, he shrugs. “They might still laugh,” he says, “but I’d like them to take a class and see how hard it really is. And then if they like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s OK, too.
“It’s all right for boys not to dance ballet.”

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the New York Times bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series from Random House. Her novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Dilys, and Barry awards. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and son.

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