Separate But Equal?

One of the biggest trends in ballet during the past 15 years has been special programs for boys at major ballet academies in the United States. The programs, many of them offering boys free tuition, have popped up as directors have intensified their efforts to address a longtime challenge: how to encourage young American boys to study ballet.

Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech School in New York City, with a unique approach to this mission, has had notable success—at least in part—by making dance a meaningful part of the regular public school day. But what really distinguishes the program is that not until the sixth grade do boys begin to take dance class with the girls.

Ballet Tech teachers say the boys-only classes are critical to retaining these students. They allow for the different learning styles and energy that often differentiate boys from girls.

“Of course I’m generalizing, but boys have got to move,” says teacher Daniel Levans. “They tend to be more rambunctious. We’re constantly having to play fly fisherman. You have to reel them in but slowly. The approach is different, too. Boys like to be confronted. It’s a more aggressive way of challenging them.”

The school currently enrolls 154 students in grades 4 through 12 and students must audition to enter. More than a quarter of the students are boys, though that percentage shifts from grade to grade (50 percent of the fifth-graders are boys, for example). Elementary and middle school students take their academic classes in classrooms located at the Ballet Tech School, housed on Broadway in the same building as studios of American Ballet Theatre. Another 700 youngsters participate in a free, beginner’s program held after school for third- through sixth-graders; almost half of these students are boys.

“We operate a New York City public school and just like other public schools, it’s tuition-free. Some schools have a principal interest in science or math. We have a principal interest in dance. It’s part of their regular curriculum,” says founder Eliot Feld.

Fourth graders begin taking technique class twice a week. By the time they reach seventh and eighth grades, students dance nine hours out of a 32.5-hour school week. High school students take academic classes at two area high schools, then go to Ballet Tech for dance class after school 12.5 to 14 hours a week.

Ballet Tech alum Jeremy Summerville says the boys-only classes pushed him to excel. “When it’s just the boys, competition is extremely important. It makes you work harder. You’re  trying to jump higher than the boy next to you,” says Summerville, 19, who is now a freshman at Bronx Community College and a teaching assistant at Ballet Tech. “It was fun when we got with the girls, but it was a different feeling with the all-boys classes. The boys classes push you to do your best and see how good you really are.”

And the high-flying energy doesn’t mean the boys are allowed to do whatever they please in class. “We also have to get them to hit those positions,” says teacher Christine Sarry, who directs the upper grades. “You can’t just go flying around. You have to be able to articulate the body.”

The all-boys classes aren’t the only unique part of the Ballet Tech program. In many ballet academies, students who are not seen as professional dancer material are gradually weeded out. At Ballet Tech, the goal is different.

“We want to identify talented children who, without this opportunity, would probably not have a chance to discover their gifts,” Feld says. “Some of these children may never be dancers, but we want to give them that exposure and the discipline and rigor and beauty of dancing.”

Some Ballet Tech alums have gone on to professional dance careers. But teachers said whether or not their students have such aspirations, expectations in class are the same for all.

“We’re not just playing around here. They have to take what we’re doing here seriously,” Sarry says.

Adds Levans, “Will they all be professional dancers? No. Can they all benefit and learn and grow from the program and will they continue to work and progress? If the answer for that child is ‘yes,’ if the commitment from them is there, then they stay.”

Summerville, who is studying radiology at Bronx Community College, says most of the students he graduated with last year have opted not to pursue dance careers, but many are trying to continue taking classes somewhere in the city.

“I always knew I would go to college. I figured I would go to school and try to keep dance in my life somehow,” Summerville says. “I think back on my days at Ballet Tech now and I don’t know where I would be or the type of person I would be without it.”

He concludes, “It’s amazing what you get there—the discipline, the peaceful environment, the support, the focus on dance and the arts. The things I’ve learned from dance have been great for me.”

Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer and dance teacher.

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