Adam Holms, co-founder and artistic director of the Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet in Connecticut, was once the only boy at a dance studio where his teacher wasn't sure what to do with him. “Recital pieces were always tailored to the girls, and I had to do the exact same choreography," he says. “For this one dance, I had to wear a cheap, sequined vest with blue bell-bottom jazz pants, while all the girls had these beautiful blue tutus. My costume was an afterthought."
If you have a lone male student in a class or the studio, the situation can present a choreographic—not to mention costuming—conundrum. Having a male presence, whether he's 4 or 14, changes the dynamic of a recital piece, and it's important to make him feel comfortable and a part of the team.
Deborah Lysholm, owner of Heartbeat Performing Arts Center in Apple Valley, Minnesota, says it's about acknowledging his individuality and not letting him feel ignored—or like an afterthought. “Embrace the gender difference and highlight the resulting energy," she says. “Never try to make an apple an orange."
Ultimately, a young male dancer needs the same thing any young female dance student needs: an age-appropriate role that he can relate to, one that emphasizes correct technique, and a costume in which he feels comfortable onstage. As choreographer, there are choices you can make to accomplish this. “Appreciate the challenge," Lysholm says, “as a way for you to grow and to shine as a creative teacher and choreographer."
Focus on a Story Line
Consider creating dances—or an entire show—with a specific story line. “I build the experience around storytelling because, for boys, this is a sure way to make them feel engaged and to hook them into the process," says Holms. This past spring, the studio's recital was an original adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier. “Pantomime and character development is an easy way for dancers to feel connected to a role," he says. “And if you create dances that celebrate your students' personalities and technical abilities, you will always hit a home run."
Lysholm says elementary- and middle school–age boys especially respond well to story-based dances, while high school students are usually most interested in channeling their emotions into their performance. “Elementary students respond enthusiastically when they understand they are part of a story, making it seem a team effort," she says.
Talk to the entire class throughout the school year about the roles of male and female dancers, as well as the importance of partnering, especially in ballet classes. Holms begins this discussion with students as young as 6, so they understand early on that “the role of a guy in ballet is to complement a girl," he says. “It also helps girls understand why they have to dance with a boy, and it teaches respect."
With 6- to 8-year-olds, simple partnering may involve walking hand in hand, or the boy can present a girl while he holds one hand on his hip. Boys 8 to 12 at Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet work on stage presence, and Holms always creates at least one moment in each dance for the boy to showcase his male technique (a tour en l'air, a kneeling position, an echappé battu). Boys 13 and up begin traditional partnering (small lifts and shoulder sits) in addition to the boy's featured moment onstage. “If a piece has 15 girls and one guy, all 15 girls get to partner the boy," Holms says. “Maybe it's just a brief moment where two girls each have one hand on his shoulders or he just walks one around in a circle, but each girl should feel like she's equally important onstage."
Select Appropriate Costuming
Highlight gender differences when choosing costumes, unless you choreograph a dance that is specifically meant to be gender-neutral. “It gives more 'real life' to the dance piece and allows each dancer to comfortably give it their all, naturally and instinctively," Lysholm says. “If you need to camouflage the imbalance of genders, be creative. Have each dancer in the same costume but a different color, or the same color but a different costume." During Heartbeat's “Dr. Who" musical theater–based recital production, for example, the 5-year-old tap class performed in a Western-themed dance where all the girls were cowgirls and the boy was a ranch hand. That same class also danced together in a ballet piece where each student, regardless of gender, was costumed as a different alien. Whatever you choose, make sure the boy feels like there has been equal thought and effort put into his costuming as the girls'.