By Will Grant
Photographs by Deborah Bonello
August 14, 2013
In a small dance studio in the Mexican town of Cholula, about a dozen young dancers are being put through their paces under the eyes of their watchful teacher. But while it is hard enough for any ballerina to make a decent living from ballet in Mexico, these dancers face an even greater challenge: they are men.
It takes a certain bravery to wear a leotard to work in Cholula, where machismo is still rife.
“I have three brothers and they would always mock and bully me about ballet,” says Faustino Rios, 26, one of the most accomplished dancers in the Antoinette Dance Company. But now they’re my biggest fans!” he says proudly.
Though his family was eventually won over, Faustino initially hid the fact he was learning ballet. “It took me at least two years before I invited anyone to come to see me dance.”
He remembers that his mother was totally unconvinced by his new passion until she finally saw him dance. “When the performance was over, she was waiting for me outside the theatre, crying with happiness, saying, ‘How did my son get so good at this?'”
Mexico’s most famous male ballet dancer – Isaac Hernandez, a soloist at the Dutch Ballet Company – says he was lucky because dance ran in his family.
“Both my parents were ballet dancers,” he tells me during a rare trip to his native Guadalajara. But my father had to leave Mexico when he was very young – he went to the United States when he was 17.
“He didn’t want that to happen to us, so when he offered ballet as an option to me and my siblings, he gave us 100% support,” Isaac recalls.
But according to Miguel Calderon, a footballer turned dancer for the Antoinette Dance Company, that kind of acceptance and support is still not the norm in Mexico.
Now a teacher of dance as well as practising it himself, he recalls how a group of boys came into one of his classes and started making jokes about ballet.
“I told them: ‘I was a football player too, but I bet you can’t handle an hour and a half of one of my ballet classes’. Well, they accepted the challenge and now I have 11 boys learning ballet!” Miguel says.
Someone who has done more than most to break down the ingrained ideas about traditional male roles in Cholula is the boys’ instructor, Ivonne Robles Gil. Over the years, she has trained around 50 young men in classical dance, even providing those from low-income families with grants so they can afford to study.
She says that change, even though gradual, is well under way. “Mexico has improved a great deal in terms of ballet,” she explains as her dancers warm down after a strenuous session.
“Now you find many more male dancers, including some who have achieved national and international acclaim. This has opened the minds of people in society, but also the minds of boys who might have wanted to dance but were fearful of being judged for being dancers,” she says.
And it is not just the young boys who are making great leaps in Mexican ballet. On the other side of Cholula, inside a stuffy dance studio, adult dance teachers have gathered for a masterclass in Benesh Movement Notation, a system similar to a musical score which can document any form of dance.
The teachers come from all over Mexico, urban centres as well as rural areas. Watching over them is the doyenne of ballet in Mexico, Julieta Navarro. The Mexico director of the Royal Academy of Dance for more than 25 years, she says the current boom in ballet is irreversible.
“When I started my job, there was just a very small group of teachers, mainly in Mexico City. But the academy has been training new teachers and that has given us the opportunity to have more schools and more students,” she explains.
Now, she says with pride: “There are very few states where we have no academies or no school.”
Dreaming of success
She confesses she does not know what lies behind the speed of ballet’s expansion in Mexico over recent years. But she says its popularity among boys can be partly attributed to a hugely popular film on the subject.
“Billy Elliot! Thanks to Billy Elliot many of the boys really dare to say, ‘Yes, I want to be a dancer, I want to dance, I want to try ballet.’ So that was a really big help, not only for Mexico but for the rest of the world.”
In Cholula – where some of the dancers still keep their passion for ballet secret from their friends and relatives – the British film has been an inspiration.
The story of a boy whose family bans him from dancing only to be won over and see him take the lead in Swan Lake has allowed many of the male dancers to dream of achieving a similar feat.
© 2013 BBC