Boys Will Be Boys

Posted on December 1, 2011 by
Selwyn's outreach students get excited about male choreographers.

Selwyn’s outreach students get excited about male choreographers.

Keep male students engaged in dance class.

It’s your first day at a new school. You’ve gone over your lesson plan and moved the desks out of the way. Now, you’re staring at a sea of young faces, several of whom—mostly the boys—are eyeing you warily.

Chances are you’ve encountered your share of similar situations, since it’s not uncommon for students to be anxious when trying something new. But teachers across the nation say that male students aren’t as reluctant to move as stereotype might suggest. “Every kid wants to jump, turn, use his imagination, laugh and sweat,” says teacher Adam Holms, who for three years has led a summer residency at the Los Lojas Community School in Ecuador. “Dance class takes the best aspects of physical education but puts an artistic spin on it.” Still, there’s no question that boys have different learning needs than girls and possess a different physical energy that needs to be harnessed or explored within class.

Use a Hook
When Lynn Reynolds started teaching at West Briar Middle School in Houston, male participation in her elective dance program was nonexistent. In her third year, she enlisted three boys to partner girls in a tango performance number. The next year, she decided to try to attract even more boys by launching a hip-hop and break-dancing class. “I started hip hop with the girls and let the word of mouth spread,” she says. “Once I had a few boys, I took them into gym class to show off their b-boy moves. This year I have 75 boys enrolled.”

Sometimes what will hook students will change from school to school. Amanda Selwyn, artistic director of New York City–based organization Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre, works with school faculties and administrations to tailor dance workshops and residencies to the specific needs of each student population. At one high school in Brooklyn, the principal requested that Selwyn open with a Latin dance unit, to cater to the predominantly Latino population. Although 10th- and 11th-grade boys might normally be reluctant to participate in mandatory dance class, in Selwyn’s case they were eager to dance with and impress the girls.

Provide Role Models
Holms, Reynolds and Selwyn all recommend showing boys of all ages pictures and videos of professional male dancers. Selwyn leads units on male choreographers. “I say, ‘Here is a strong, masculine man who dances for a living; you can dance, too,’” she says. “Boys are especially impressed with athleticism.”

Reynolds has decorated her dance classroom at West Briar with posters of male ballet, modern and hip-hop dancers alike, to show boys the various avenues male dancers can pursue.

NYC teaching artist Karen Curlee, who co-directs outreach organization Together in Dance and leads non-elective 10- to 20-week residencies in schools for grades K–5, often has students watch videos of classic dance works and then choreograph their own sequence based on what they saw. She shows dances such as “Sinner Man,” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, and Martha Graham’s dramatic Steps in the Street. She finds that young boys enjoy emulating the strong, passionate moves they see onscreen.

Make Dance Physical
“With the dearth of phys ed, outdoor play and recess, boys are so happy to get up and get moving,” says Curlee. In her creative-movement classes for elementary-aged students, she emphasizes the joy and fun of movement rather than the fine points of technique. One of her lesson plans involves showing Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and discussing the idea of everyday movement as dance. She notes that when asked to create their own sequences, boys often incorporate sports moves—dunking a basketball, kicking a soccer ball or sliding into home plate. “I support and encourage those choices,” she says. “They’re creating locomotor movement using shapes that are instinctual to them.”

When teaching technique, it’s best to start by letting boys move as they want, then refine their moves. During an across-the-floor series Holms might challenge boys to jump over an obstacle, and then say, “Wow, you jumped really high—but can you come down with pointed feet and make no sound?”

With energetic boys, you may have trouble getting them to slow down. “Boys want to move big,” Reynolds says. “They attack movement. Getting through warm-up is the hardest part of class. They want to get to the ‘real’ stuff.” Stress the importance of warming up, but let boys know that they do have something to look forward to. Reynolds says her boys are more willing to slow down for warm-up or to learn choreography if they know that they will get to do bigger moves at the end of class.

Create a Community
Boys of all ages need to feel like they’re part of a group. Give them opportunities to perform for and receive feedback from each other. In break-dance class at West Briar, boys enjoy the cypher, a circle in which each boy gets to present his best moves while the others cheer him on.

Holms suggests not asking students to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself: “If I’m sweating right along with them, they say, ‘He’s doing it; I can do it.’” Positive encouragement works best. Boys need to be challenged, but if they’re new to dance, they may be more likely to open up if they know they won’t be told what they’re doing is wrong.

In Curlee’s creative-movement classes, “it’s about meeting boys where they are and having them find their own creativity and voice,” she says. “I’m not judging or giving steps that they have to follow. They create their own work from their own body vocabulary, and they gain confidence and self-esteem from that.” DT

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Amanda Selwyn and Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre

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