Keeping Boys At Your Studio

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.

Music
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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