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Quashing the bullying isn't enough to lift the stigma. Boy dancers need to be championed
Unless you've been on vacation on a remote island with no cell service since last Friday, you're aware of the outrage Good Morning America host Lara Spencer sparked by mocking 6-year-old Prince George for enjoying ballet. Over the past 72 or so hours, her clueless and catty comments have inspired numerous hot takes, angry reaction videos, dance mobs, and a storm of social media shaming by celebrities and civilians alike. This morning, Spencer attempted to make amends by apologizing on air and talking to three male dance world luminaries about the bullying they endured growing up.
As a professional dancer-turned-teacher, I appreciate her apology. However, it is not enough. Boys doing ballet must be celebrated in order for it to become normalized, especially in this country, which has antiquated notions of what manliness means. The cliché that ballet is for the effete elite is pathetically outdated. Just look at this photo of the men of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Male dancers are required to defy physics while lifting women in a variety of contortions with grace and seeming ease. Yet it is never easy, which is why Spencer and her co-hosts, who laughed at her remarks, made a grave mistake when they thought we would be easy targets.
In my social media response to the kerfuffle, I shared a video of my elementary school students practicing tours en l'air.
Though they lack a proper dance studio due to financial constraints (I'll save my griping about the lack of budget for the arts in public education for another essay), these boys love proving their mettle. When a student makes a mistake, his classmates ask to replace him. Rather than give up, the boy will give it another go and soar.
On my first day of teaching this class, I was advised to work only with the girls because the boys expressed resistance toward ballet. I asked, "Have any of them ever seen or taken ballet?" The answer was no. "Let's give them the chance to meet me," I responded. "If they don't want to take my class after that, then they can play soccer."
Following my introduction to the group I asked, "I heard you don't want to take ballet. Why?" Their collective response: "WE DON'T WANT TO LOOK LIKE GIRLS!" I knew where they acquired that notion and assured them, "In my class we are going to do big boy stuff." And then I performed an Italian pas de chat into a revoltade, which looks like a flying ninja kick.
Before I could say, "Don't try this yet," the boys were up and flying across the room. After bringing class back to order, I made it clear that we would have to work our way through the basics before we could attempt "Bolshoi stuff." From that point on, they all begged to skip their hip-hop class to fit in additional ballet time.
I don't need any of my students to become professional dancers. What I want is for them to explore the capabilities of their bodies and the depths of their emotions through movement in a safe space. They are already experiencing revelations and demanding additional instruction to fuel their next breakthroughs. If an 8-year-old boy can fearlessly execute a double tour -- a move even professional dancers sometimes flub -- and explain the physical theory behind its function, what else might he accomplish? Anything he sets his mind to… unless he is shamed into believing that what he is doing is wrong or unmanly.
Boys doing ballet should be treated with the same excitement as boys signing up for Little League or soccer or other sports, with the parents and spectators cheering them on (at least on designated family days). As Gene Kelly noted back in his day, only if we start celebrating these boys as we do athletes will the teasing cease. Once a boy doing ballet becomes no big deal, we'll know the bullying is truly over.
A dancer, teacher and playwright, Juan Michael Porter II has contributed articles to Ballet Review, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, Broadway World and HuffPost. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Juan Michael Porter II. Photo by Todd Williams.
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