Many male dancers have been laughed at for going to the dance studio rather than the football field, teased for wearing tights onstage or otherwise struggled with the feminine stereotypes associated with dance, ballet in particular. As the parent of a 10-year-old who is the only boy in his ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop classes and the only boy in his elementary school who would rather dance than play sports, I understand these frustrations.
While some male dancers get past these difficulties, many others decide it’s easier to quit. Both male and female dance teachers play a major role in helping young male students deal with the special issues they face. Often, it is the teachers’ care and attention that mean the difference between keeping boys’ interest alive and letting it fizzle. The following tips can help you keep those dancing boys dancing.
Provide Role Models
Inspire young male dancers by taking them to see shows that feature men dancing, whether local musical productions or performances by touring groups such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Kenny Jimenez, founder of Motion Underground in Boulder, Colorado, suggests showing and discussing videos of famous male dancers such as Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and even Michael Jackson.
Male dance teachers provide positive role models for their male students, and can relate to their students’ problems and offer advice gleaned from experience. Anthony LoCascio, an eight-year veteran of Tap Dogs who teaches in San Jose, California, and is on the faculty of Professional Dance Teachers of America and Hoctor’s Dance Caravan, stresses that boys need male teacher involvement in their dance studies. He talks to his male students about his own positive and negative experiences: “I tell them stories so they won’t feel alone, and I tell them that even though I went through all that, I’ve been on Broadway and I’m still standing here as a dance teacher.”
Let Boys Be Boys—Together
Treat boys like boys in class, recommends Jerry Rose, a teacher at Beckley Dance Theatre in Beckley, West Virginia, and the assistant director of Hoctor’s Dance Caravan. “Boys, if you’ve noticed, are always jumping,” Rose says, noting that instructors should play on those natural interests and abilities. “Teach them both little and big jumps early in their dance career. [Jumping] is so much fun for them, and is something they can start before their technical ability has been realized both intellectually and physically.”
In addition, consider giving boys a class or classes of their own. According to Bethany Hooks, director of the dance program at Center Stage in Brandon, Mississippi, all-male classes can help boys become less self-conscious about their dancing. “As long as it’s just the boys in class they even seem pretty comfortable with doing ballet.” Jimenez adds, “Boys will find different ways to release [their inhibitions] when they are in that type of environment. Sometimes their expression [may be] hampered by the females.” Taking class with other boys also gives male dancers the chance to make friends with similar interests and build camaraderie.
Make sure you offer boys classes in a wide range of genres, not just ballet—for example, tap, jazz and hip hop—and encourage the younger boys to take a combination class, which might be less intimidating than a full hour of ballet.
Deal With Teasing
When young male dancers find themselves the brunt of bad jokes, dance teachers should offer not only an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, but strategies for dealing with these situations as well.
Jimenez suggests reminding boys that dancing is every bit as physically challenging as football or soccer. “[Tell] them that dancing is a sport and that it takes a lot of strength and [other] physical attributes that other sports require as well,” he explains. Plus, it enhances their ability in other sports.
Rose tells boys that dancing, even ballet, is not for “sissies” or just for girls. After all, it’s a man’s job to lift and turn the girls. If boys feel self-conscious in tights, Rose suggests pointing out they’re not much different from spandex football pants or wrestling unitards. Increasingly, some high school and college athletes are even taking dance classes to improve their alignment, muscle control and movement coordination. (For more on one teacher’s experience teaching sports teams, read “Out of the Studio, Onto the Field” in DT January 2003.)
Many young male dancers might also be comforted by the fact that, unlike most male athletes, they’ll be surrounded by girls. If the boys are ever asked, “Why would you want to go dance when you could be out on the football field?” Hooks suggests that they answer, “I can play football with the other guys or I can go dance with a bunch of beautiful girls. Whose shoes would you rather be in?” LoCascio tells his male students, “All the guys who play sports will be watching you dance with the girls at the high school dances, because you’ll know how to dance and they won’t.”
Be Prepared to Talk About Tough Subjects
If male dancers come to you upset by being called “gay,” “queer” or “fag,” LoCascio says, “You have to be very honest and treat them maturely. Tell them what those words mean, and don’t beat around the bush.” Explain that dancing does not make anyone gay, but also let them know that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality. Hooks adds, “Help the boys know who they are. The number-one thing is for them to have confidence in themselves and to be able to stand up to the other guys, to take the hassling and teasing.”
Male dancers also often face a lack of support or even open opposition at home, particularly from their fathers. If you come across fathers who would rather have their sons playing football or baseball, schedule a meeting with them to explain their support will help their sons feel good about themselves and their interests. “The father has such an important role,” Hooks confirms. “I’ve had to sit down with fathers and tell them, ‘Maybe in time your son will want to play football, but for right now this is what he wants to do. You need to encourage him.’”
Allow Boys Their Freedom
If your male students are struggling with peer pressure, feeling uncomfortable in class or finding it difficult to handle the negative issues associated with their dancing, stay positive. Don’t force them to continue. “If they truly like it and they leave, they’ll come back,” reassures LoCascio. “If you try to keep them there, they might end up hating dance.”
Nina Amir is a freelance writer and book editor based in Los Gatos, CA. Her book Chicken Soup for the Famous and Not-So-Famous is scheduled for publication in 2005, and she is working on several others.