Boy Crazy

Five strategies to fill your program with males

“I have always believed there are boys who love to dance,” says Barbara Weisberger, founder of Pennsylvania Ballet and an artistic advisor for Peabody Dance in Baltimore, Maryland. “Of course, that’s when you can find them and get them past the doors and get past the 100 girls!”

Recruiting and keeping boys in dance is a perennial challenge. How do you get guys to open the studio door, and then once they’re in, how do you feed their interest? DT talked with five schools that maintain thriving men’s programs to learn what it is they’re doing right.

Create a class for boys only.

Five years ago, Weisberger started a project for young male dancers at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. With funding from the Estelle Dennis Trust, the program could offer tuition-free training and supplies like ballet slippers. Twenty-three joined The Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys that first year, and while there has been attrition, many of them continued for several years. As the program has progressed, it has concentrated on attracting younger boys, 9 to 11 years old, who will be able to train through the critical high school years. Auditions are held in local schools, and word of mouth about the program is strong.

Baltimore-area boys can audition for tuition-free training at the Peabody Institute.

“The weekly all-boys class helps them get used to dancing without having to go into a class where they’re the only boy,” says Timothy Rinko-Gay, former coordinator for the boys program. If teachers spot a boy with particular dedication or potential, they might add more classes—mixed boys and girls—to his schedule.

There are four all-male classes a week in three levels for the 30 boys in the program. The curriculum follows a basic ballet model, although centerwork will include more jumps and turns, “so they feel like they’re doing manly stuff,” says Rinko-Gay.

“They like to work on things that they see older guys doing,” he adds. “It gets easier for them to stay motivated as they get older and take more dance. They see the rewards start to come through performances and watching themselves progress.”

Find the right role model.

Never underestimate the power of a good teacher to inspire boys and attract male dancers, says Erik Saradpon, director of hip hop at Temecula Dance Company. The Southern California studio where he teaches has 50 boys, ages 8 to 20, in the competition track and more than 100 in the recreational program. “They come for hip hop, but they wind up taking tap, jazz, ballet,” he says. “I have a well-known hip-hop group called FORMALity, so we get boys who know my reputation and are willing to step into a studio and try. That gives you leverage to use hip hop as incentive to do it all.”

While offering hip-hop classes can be attractive, Saradpon warns that getting the right teacher is key. “You need to find someone who is committed, community-centered and not self-centered,” he advises. “Hip-hop teachers are a dime a dozen. Plenty of people who teach hip hop show up late, don’t really teach, don’t break down the movement. You want someone reliable and dependable who can see the program in terms of years and isn’t impatient.”

Erik Saradpon, teaching men’s hip-hop class

“Boys in particular want to come into the studio and be athletic,” he says. “Sure, they like seeing pretty girls, but they have to be able to measure their progress in compliments and personal achievement. I set goals for them, and every year it’s bigger, whether it’s going to New York, winning scholarships, getting that trophy.”

Reach out to an underserved community.

Using hip hop and African dance to get boys in the door is one of Fabian Barnes’ tactics at the Dance Institute of Washington in Washington, DC. While he has a small percentage of boys enrolled in pre-professional classes, he has even more success with recruiting teens through his award-winning outreach program, Positive Directions Through Dance.

Barnes started the initiative in 2000 to help kids in underserved communities discover dance. The program has since evolved into a workforce development program under the Department of Employment Services. Thirty youngsters—about half of them boys—receive not just dance classes, but also a safe haven where they can get a good meal, do some homework and work on their moves. They even get a minimal stipend for putting in hours in class. Plus, by encouraging would-be hip-hoppers to use the DIW studios as a lab for their own choreography, Barnes says, he gets them used to coming to the studios.

“Guys will show up and spend hours in the studio improvising. They get used to seeing other forms of dance because they’re always here,” he says. “And if you watch them, you see they’re incorporating ballet steps without knowing it. They’re walking on pointe in sneakers, doing attitude turns. So after they’ve been in our program for a while, we might put a ballet teacher in there with them. The ones who show more interest—we might offer to put them in the pre-professional program with ballet students.”

There are many hurdles to keeping these kids in the program: everything from poor grades to trouble at home to not having train fare to get to class. The Positive Directions program manager monitors homework assignments for the kids, stays in touch with parents and teachers, helps fill out paperwork when needed. The hard work has paid off. Students from Positive Directions now dance professionally in Los Angeles and on tour with hip-hop, pop and R&B artists. In 2011, Barnes received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for the program.

“Talent is not a problem,” says Barnes. “We try to help and guide them to whatever social services they need in the community. But the number-one thing is that they have to love to dance. Number two is that they have to realize that, like anything, you only get out of it what you’re willing to put into it, no matter how talented you are.”

Emphasize the masculine.

For many boys, ballet sounds like something that only girls in pink tutus do. Tammy Schmidt, director of dance at the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts, combats that image by creating an experience of dance that can speak to boys.

“Instead of putting a boy at the back of a row of two straight lines in a recital, we do pieces that showcase the athleticism of dance,” she says. “Often choices in costuming, music and choreography tend to gravitate toward a female dancer. But the more that you can create something unique to boys, the more likely they’ll be to want to do it.”

The 45-minute weekly technique classes for boys blend barre work with strength and conditioning exercises along with some work on more exciting steps like pirouettes, or tours that allow the guys to feel challenged physically.

“Any boy of any age can come to the class, and depending on who shows up, we make it appropriate to that level. In the past we offered it for free because we had funding,” says Schmidt. “This year we are charging a minimal fee, a flat rate of $10 for 10 classes. We want to make it as accessible as possible.”

As the boys advance, they can add an extra 15 minutes to work on more specific elements of men’s technique than just leaps and turns. The goal, says Schmidt, is to get the boys to the next level, whatever that might be.

Some who started in this program are now dancing professionally, while others have transitioned into college dance programs. “If nothing else, we’ve given them an appreciation for dance,” says Schmidt.

Let students create their own dances.

There is no major in dance at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Though classes are held in the sports complex, dance can be used to fulfill the fine arts requirement. When faculty member Annette Urbschat took over the Creative Dance class six years ago, it drew three or four guys in a class of 12. Now, she routinely gets as many as 12 guys in a class of 16. “I ask them why they take my class, and they’ll say, ‘It’s because I can’t draw,’” she laughs. “And they can take my class more than once—each time is different because it’s not just exercises; they get to create something new. One guy took it three times!”

Urbschat describes her class as “genre-less,” an elective in which the students create their own material, exploring ideas of composition using basic movement like walking, running and everyday gestures, and expanding from there. “There was a critical-mass element—the more boys who got involved, the more saw that it’s OK for men to dance,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of athletes take the class, so she teaches the students to adapt and refine gross motor movement from martial arts, skiing and hockey into a routine. The course culminates in an outdoor annual showing in spring where hundreds of other students can watch their friends.

“The guys never thought they could be creative with movement,” she says. “And they learn to make their own choices. That introduces them to the arts, but it’s also mind-opening for them. They not only get to know their bodies, they learn that movement can be something other than competitive—it can be just about the beauty of it.” DT

Former dancer Mary Ellen Hunt writes and teaches dance in San Francisco.

Photo by Mal Druskin, courtesy of The Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program

Photo by Anthony Kin, courtesy of Temecula Dance Company

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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