The Toronto Star
November 1, 2013
When Cole Sweet’s parents first urged him to try dance lessons at age 8, he wasn’t keen. But once he signed up for hip-hop and acrobatic classes at the Oakville dance studio his older sisters frequented, he was hooked. A year later, Cole started ballet — it turned out to be “pretty fun” — and he hasn’t stopped.
“When people think of ballet they think of, like, girls and pink tutus,” says Cole, now 11. “They don’t think really think of the importance of male dancers because we have to lift the girls. . . . It’s pretty intense.”
He’s not the only one who loves the intensity. A growing number of boys are slipping on dance shoes. This year, Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) has the highest percentage of boys in its entry-level Grade 6 class in its history: 65 per cent. Currently, there are 6 girls and 11 boys, including Cole.
The school also has the largest enrolment of boys in its 54-year history, with 59 boys in Grades 6 to 12, or 41 per cent. By comparison, when the Toronto school opened in 1959, all 27 full-time students were female; of the 202 after-school students, only nine were boys. Over the last 20 years, the percentage of full-time boys has fluctuated between 23 and 34 per cent.
There have been other spikes in male attendance in the past, most notably when Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov rose to international stardom in the 1970s, and after the 2000 film Billy Elliot and its 2011 stage adaptation in Toronto. (Four boys who played Billy in the Toronto production, about an 11-year-old who discovers a passion for ballet were NBS students.)
There are likely many reasons for the recent spike in interest among boys, says Laurel Toto, junior school manager. Toto, along with other experts, point to a greater social acceptance of boys in dance; the popularity of dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars; the so-called Billy Elliot effect; and the realization that ballet, with all its jumping and turning, is intensely athletic, which appeals to many young boys.
The phenomenon isn’t confined to NBS. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, dance was the 10th most popular “sport” for boys aged 5 to 14 in 2012, with participation rates rising in recent years.
And in the United Kingdom, an August survey of 1,000 children aged 2 to 12, done by retailer Mothercare and charity Save the Children, found more boys (8 per cent) than girls (5 per cent) wanted to become a dancer. In order of preference, the top jobs for boys were doctor, soccer player, dancer and teacher. For girls: doctor, teacher, soccer player and dancer (see Ballet is attracting more boys)
Often, says Toto, boys don’t initially seek out dance. Many, like Cole, become interested because a sister is taking dance lessons and they see how much fun it is. Typically, boys start out in other dance forms, such as tap or jazz, and only later discover ballet. Many will take up ballet because they want to participate in dance competitions, which require them to demonstrate various styles.
Benjamin Alexander, also in Grade 6 at NBS, started tap at age 4, with his older sister’s encouragement. Months later, after seeing a recital of ballet dancers dressed as reindeer, he wanted to do ballet. “I really wanted to be a reindeer so I started ballet and I loved it,” says the 11-year-old from Chatham. “(Ballet) made me feel like I just always had an urge to dance.”
When other kids learned Benjamin was doing ballet, “they were kind of confused,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘Oh, you’re doing ballet? Hmm.’ It was weird. They didn’t bully me about it, they just, were confused about why I did it…. Probably because I’m a boy.”
Although there’s still the stereotype that ballet is effeminate, the perception is slowly eroding, says Toto, who’s worked at the school for 30 years. “I think a lot of the boys… will say they prefer not to tell people they dance (ballet),” says Toto. “But I think parents are trying to say to those boys, ‘Don’t listen to that. If you want to do that, try it.’”
Benjamin says he hopes that as more people realize the athleticism and physical demands in ballet, those stereotypes will dissipate. After all, he notes, hockey and football players do ballet to help with dexterity and co-ordination. In July, Steve McLendon, a 320-pound defenceman for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he does ballet, noting “It’s harder than anything else I do.”
Also this summer, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, 70, told Q Magazine that ballet helps keep him in shape.
Popular TV shows and films are making all dance forms, including ballet, accessible to the general public, says Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, professor of dance at York University. “Boys, their parents and their teachers are seeing more examples of young men in dance,” says Fisher-Stitt.
Boys and young men may initially be attracted to other dance forms, but realize to go further they need more training, which may include ballet, she says. “For all dancers in this day and age, the wider your dance vocabulary, the more opportunities you have in the professional environment,” says Fisher-Stitt.
She suspects Ontario’s public school curriculum — dance is now required from kindergarten to Grade 8 — may be piquing the interest of some youngsters. “Those students might decide to carry on with their training — it could be somewhere like the National Ballet School, or an arts high school, or maybe it will be in a university.”
When it comes to school, Cole says he’s focused on trying to “survive.” After graduating, he hopes to become a principal dancer in a company. And if that dream doesn’t take flight, he wants to make and test video games.
The NBS national audition tour starts Nov. 4 in Moncton, NB, and ends in Toronto on Feb. 9.
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