When you think of ballet, do you think of boys?
By Jamuna Chiarinl
December 14, 2015
[P]rima ballerinas get a lot of the spotlight [but] male ballet dancers play an essential part in the ballet and do a lot of the heavy lifting! Artslandia asked six of Portland’s best professional and pre-professional “ballet boys” (and men) what it takes to wear the tights. Here’s a hint: strength, grace, and inspiration!
[Portland, Oregon, USA] –
How’d you get started?
While many girls are encouraged to “be ballerinas,” or dream about it from a very young age, dance is a discovery that takes many boys by surprise! The boys we talked to report falling into dance by luck, instinct, “genetics,” or even by accident!
Jurica: There were free ballroom classes at Billings Dance Studio where we lived, and my mom pretty much forced us—my brother and I—to go because it was free and she wanted boys who could dance with girls, which would improve her chances of grandchildren and whatnot. We ended up liking it and decided to go to Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, and really got into it in eighth grade!
Simcoe: I was inspired by seeing figure skaters like Scott Hamilton do amazing tricks and turns on the ice. I would always be spinning around the house, tearing up the carpet—so it was actually my father’s idea…to put me in dance lessons. I was convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy it, probably only because it was something new, which I tended to shy away from. My dad proved me wrong, though. After my first dance lesson, where I was taught how to do an actual “pirouette”, I was hooked!
Skinner: My dad was a gymnast on the University of Michigan gymnastics team, and he put me into gymnastics as a kid. My family is very physically active, always doing something physical; I think it’s just in our genetics…We had a really great small civic theater in our hometown. I auditioned for musicals and loved being in those…I was always one of the kids who could pick up movement quickly…so they always stuck me into the dance numbers, and I loved doing those! When I was applying to colleges, I was either going to apply to musical theater or dance…I could sort of carry a tune, but I wasn’t that great…so my path just followed dance…My dad had ideas of me taking business classes, but that held no interest for me.
Both Garcia and Kindell took dance classes at West Sylvan Middle School. For Garcia, it was a choice—but for Kindell, it was a crash course.
Kindell: They had dance for PE, and somehow dance got on my schedule by accident. I didn’t forecast it at all; I was like, “I don’t want to do this,” because none of the guys did dance, and I was so nervous. I was about to change it, but of course I’m a huge procrastinator and I waited until the last minute, and the principal said, “No, you can’t change it; we told all the students they had until this date to change their schedule.” I thought, “I guess I’ll have to do it,” so I did it.
Getting teased, and getting better.
Sometimes, especially when they’re starting out, boy ballet dancers have gotten teased by their friends and classmates for doing what other kids see as a “girl” sport. Especially in conservative communities, and in the past, boys who dance have been given a hard time.
Skinner: As fine as it was in Muncie, it was pretty conservative. Not very many friends knew that I was dancing. I only told close friends; I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. I decided not to do flap ball changes down the hallway at school. Maybe in this day and age, I’d be all over it…but not in the early 80’s.
In Portland—an open-minded, arts-friendly city—some boys are able to become dancers without ever getting teased.
Jurica: I was already going to an arts school, and it was normal to see kids walking down the hall in their tights, anyway. My friends were already my friends, and if they didn’t like me ’cause I danced now…well, then, they weren’t my friends anymore!
Simcoe: I actually didn’t have any difficulties growing up, which, from talking to others, is quite unusual. I was always known around school as one of the “artsy” kids, but nobody ever gave me any grief about it.
Others report trouble, even here.
Swartz: In fourth grade a few people gave me a hard time, like, “Ahaha; you wear a tutu!” That’s the worst. When I first started dancing, I felt the need to cover up ballet by doing something “masculine.” Heavy music and horror movies became that for me.
Kindell: The fear was so much. I was so scared that I was going to be the only boy in dance.
It’s tough, the boys admit. But as you get older, it gets better.
Swartz: I found that ballet is masculine, I got more confident, got more respect for it, and no longer needed to cover up anything. Now, people are more taken aback, they’re interested. They ask, “What’s it like?” It’s a whole new world that people don’t know about. They’re more accepting the older you get.
Kindell: My issues weren’t extreme. I did have some, but once I got to eighth grade, people became much more supportive.
Fewer boys = more opportunities.
Boy dancers may get teased more than ballerinas, but they also get more of something else: roles! Because ballet has been (unfairly) popularized as a “girl sport,” most people who are trained in it from a very young age are girls. That means a girl dancer has more company in ballet class, but also much more competition when she tries to get a role or a job as a dancer. When a girl auditions, she hopes the director will choose her special talent from dozens—even hundreds —of other trained ballerinas. That’s a lot of pressure, and not just on her toes!
Meanwhile, many dance companies and ballet productions struggle to find enough trained boys and men. When only a handful of boys apply, most of them—sometimes even all of them—will be chosen. It’s just easier to stand out among, say, 5 dancers, than it is among 50.
Skinner: Being a male dancer was definitely a benefit to me…Of the 80 or 100 ballet majors [at college], there were maybe 8- 10 men.
Because they’re so needed, boy dancers have the luxury of starting later and competing more casually—which becomes clear in the way they describe their auditions.
Swartz: With no prior training, [I] auditioned for The Nutcracker. And because there’s always such a need for guys, they took me. I wore jeans to the first rehearsal. I finished up Nutcracker and John Gardner, who was artistic director at that time, approached me and my mother and said, “I’d like to give you some private classes and catch you up to your age group.”
Jurica: [My Juilliard] audition was in San Francisco, and I’d already been there twice and felt comfortable. I didn’t take it too seriously—not to say I wasn’t respectful or anything—but I just did my normal routine. It was really fun—not very stressful, surprisingly comfortable, it was good for me to go into it relaxed. I just had this attitude that if it happens, it happens.
It happened. And it happens for a higher percentage of boys than girls who try. Perhaps the luckiest of this bunch, Garcia got into OBT without an audition at all.
Anthony Jones, School Director of OBT: Kevin Irving [OBT’s artistic director] saw Michael in a [Jefferson Dancers] performance last year, and contacted Steve Gonzales to offer him a scholarship…He really stood out on stage and captivated us! This does not happen that often.
Ballet looks easy, but it’s hard!
When ballet is danced well, it looks effortless, but the boys will be the first to admit it’s actually very hard work! It takes a lot of energy to leap high into the air, and a lot of muscle to lift other dancers above your head. That means these guys have to train and rehearse day and night.
Simcoe (full-time dancer): We start class at 9:30 every morning…an hour and a half long. Then we typically rehearse until 5:30, with our lunch hour at 2. Our schedule changes day to day…Some days, I’ll be in rehearsal all day long…Other days, I may only be scheduled for a couple of hours, in which case I might have time to fit in some physical therapy…I have to do weight lifting to keep my upper body in shape, and a little Pilates, and cross-training exercises to strengthen my core.
Garcia (student): Um, [my schedule’s] kind of hectic. I go to school in the mornings, and then I usually have dance classes in the afternoon, or I go to rehearsal at OBT, or I go back to school for rehearsal or come back to OBT for an evening technique class. [I also do] cross-training—that’s one thing that my family stresses a lot—swimming and doing other kinds of athletics.
They also have to teach their bodies to do moves that, at least at first, feel really unnatural.
Jurica (student): The hardest thing is…handling your imperfections. In the beginning, you don’t care because you don’t know what the technique is. Like when people told me to point my toes, I literally thought they meant to crunch my toes. I didn’t realize they meant point my ankles. Once you understand the technique more, you have more of a responsibility to do things correctly to the best of your ability, because you know. So, actually, the more and more you do it, the harder it is to do!
Advice for dancing…and for life.
So often, we do things we’re told to do, things we’re used to doing, things we think other people want from us. But ballet boys have learned to take risks, make discoveries, and challenge themselves every day. Even when you’re doing something you love, ballet boys know that life is a balancing act.
Kindell: [When] you find this thing that is everything to you, it clicks. Even if there are all these things you have to do that are hard to do, or you don’t have people taking you, or [you don’t] have the money, you know you have to do it—and there are other things you have to give up.
Simcoe: With the minor strains and sprains, it takes a while to learn how to take it easy. Know how much or how little to push your body, while still trying to do your job. I think dancers have a reputation for pushing through the pain a little more than is healthy for them.
Jurica: At the end of the day, it isn’t win-or-lose, but an inner competition: how much better can I be than before? It’s exciting to see that growth.
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