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Dance and men in America


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Did anyone catch this article in The Austin American Statesman yesterday by Sandra Lomax entitled Where the boys are: American Ballet Theatre comes to Bass Concert Hall? Here's just a bit from the piece:

Blame it on our Puritan heritage, but the fact remains that American parents don't think of classical ballet as a viable career for their sons. Men in tights just don't get the respect in the United States that they do in other countries.


Never mind that spandex-clad athletes strut their stuff in the public arena without criticism; social conventions still deny many American boys the chance to study dance.


Fortunately, there's no social condemnation for watching ballet dancers, especially the amazing men of the American Ballet Theatre, who perform at Bass Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday. Now boasting a roster of the world's top male dancers, ABT brings its star-studded company to town in a mix of contemporary and classical ballet.


The men of ABT have created quite a stir in recent years, not only for their outstanding stage performances, but as stars of television documentaries such as "The Wild Bunch: The Leading Men of ABT" and Hollywood movies such as "Center Stage." These behind-the-scenes documentaries and "ballet dramas" demystify ballet dancers' lives, training, and sexual preferences, illustrating their dedication to an art form that's as arduous as any professional sport...


...Of the nine principal male dancers listed on ABT's roster, only one, Ethan Stiefel, is from the United States. Others hail from Argentina, Cuba, Spain and Brazil.


What does this imply about the status of American male dancers?

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I read an interesting article about economics and career choices. The just of the article was that for a job to be accepted as "worthy" of a male career choice it must be capable, in theory, of supporting a family. This lead to the societial push at a very young age of what boys should and should not do for a living. They did not mention dance but I think the economic principals apply.


The article focused on what were traditionally considered pink jobs. When most nurses were female the pay was low. As a nursing shortage brought about higher salaries through supply and demand more males moved into the positions. This has been happening in many areas seen as traditionally female jobs such as administrative assistants, teachers (non-college) and hair dressers.


Interestingly enough, when men came into the field a pay inequity between the female and male nurses with on average males earning more than the females even where the females had more experience. Some types of systems jobs experienced the opposite when women started coming into the field.


While both parents working is the norm for many families, the male is generally seen as the breadwinner. A man that earns less than his wife is not seen as holding up his end of the bargin. Not my opinion, it was a very long article and I'm trying to condense it down.


The article was in a technology journal that I read dealing with diversity and equality in hiring, paying and promoting.


Getting back to how this fits into why boys are not allowed to wear tights and learn ballet, when they go onto that diving platform or football field there is both an athletic frame of reference and the hope that the kid will turn it into either a college scholarship or the less than 2% chance that he will play professional sports and make fairly large amounts of money.


I think that if arts was supported in this country and a living wage was available for the dancers there would be a lot less push back when the boys said that's cool I want to do that.


I don't agree or disagree with the article completely but it makes an interesting point.

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In reading the article in the A.A. Statesman, I was amazed at how the article only touched on the cultural/financial issues, regarding why the top ranks of ABT are filled with foreign males (and BTW, a lot of the females also). The training issues also are an obstacle for the American students. One could also point out that the foreign dancers were trained in schools that required ballet training from the beginning as one would study in grammar school. The borders are open now for foreigners at the top level to dance in the US. Without the development of a more rigorous and thorough training schedule for our young dancers, I am afraid the American dancer will only continue to fall behind. :)


We have the teachers in the US (who BTW, more often than not, are paid less than the first year corps members of ABT or NYCB). We do not get the students young enough and for long enough to compete. The European schools (also found outside of Europe), require that the gifted students begin their studies of ballet by at least age 10, six days a week, for 4-8 hours of ballet related subjects. An inner core strength is developed at this young age that is difficult to gain ground on at an older age.

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Interesting take on this cmtaka, perhaps that does enter into it subliminally. I tend to think that we Americans, generally speaking, just aren't open enough to seeing men express themselves in dance...unless it's tap dancing or maybe Broadway musical dancing, but even in the musical venue or the back up dancers on the TV extravaganzas, I think there's an underlying assumption that most of these men are gay. There is a huge homophobic contingent in the big, broad US of A. :) I believe this is one of the themes that they try to counter in "The Wild Bunch: The Leading Men of ABT" and in the movie "Center Stage". Granted, before these we also had the star power that McKenzie describes here:

...Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 and joined ABT, he set a new standard for ballet artistry in the West. His headline status as international star and political refugee brought massive publicity and exposure for his dancing, as well as for the company. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, he influenced ABT tremendously, first as a performer, then serving as artistic director from 1980 through 1990.


"Baryshnikov definitely raised the bar on male ballet technique, but he also brought ballet into everyone's living room through television and movies," McKenzie says.


From there on McKenzie contradicts himself a bit as the AD of ABT, in my opinion, saying that

Today's male stars don't rely on the flash and dash of past generations, but rather bring a new sense of precision and refinement to their physical feats.
I mean who does not believe that ABT is filled with male stars who use their "flash and dash"? Naturally, I don't mean to say that they are not excellent technically, but the "men of ABT" are known for their electric charisma and their power.


But back to how all this relates to boys and ballet. I think you've done a great job on picking up on "the status of male dancers in America" vrsfanatic. Unfortunately, the way things are now in the USA, there really are rare opportunities such as you've described. We've had similar discussions about the lack of proper schooling at a young age in this country.


It seems to me that the way to continue to break down the aversion to male ballet dancers is to continue to use the media to use

These behind-the-scenes documentaries and "ballet dramas" demystify ballet dancers' lives, training, and sexual preferences, illustrating their dedication to an art form that's as arduous as any professional sport.


Like Olympic contenders, the men at ballet's international competitions keep breaking records.

and to expose youngsters at an early age and their mothers and fathers to a variety of really good ballet. I guess I'm preaching to the choir here. :)


I wonder how the exposure begain the young men who dance whose parents post on and read this forum?

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It is unclear to me why Mr. McKenzie continues to state that the Barishnikov years were filled with men who were more "flash" than the current roster of dancers. He was after all one of those men and he was a beauty. Not flashy at all. The technical level of the men at ABT was very high before Mr. McKenzie, until the end of M. Baryshnikov's leadership. During the period of adjustment, before Mr. McKenzie took the helm, there was a period of questionable level for many of the dancers. The company was dealing with retirement of some known dancers, dancers flight due to lack of direction, no teachers for company class, artistic upheavel until it was decided what direct to go, and no money, to name a few.


The article is more for publicity and not dealing with the facts. It is a good story, but not based on reality. :)

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I wonder how the exposure begain the young men who dance whose parents post on and read this forum?



My son's first exposure to dance came on one lazy Saturday afternoon while watching PBS. Michael Flatley's "Riverdance" came on and my son sat motionless the entire time he watched it. He was 3 years old. I lived with my mother at the time who was a dance and ice skating fan. She took more notice of my son's interest than I did and purchased the video tape for him . He watched it over and over and memorized the darn thing. (Most parents stick in Disney movies to entertain their 3 year-olds, I was using Riverdance to get my housework done!!) He took a brief tap class for a few months, until he saw Baryshnikov's Nutcracker. He hasn't looked back since. 6 years of classical ballet training already under his belt at age 10. Baryshnikov is still his idol to this day.

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My DS was first exposed to ballet on a PBS special. My sister likes to point out that we are one of the few families she knows that actually watch PBS past the Sesame Street stage. Maybe she is right. I also think that as far as the training goes, don't most dancers in other countries have to go to boarding school to continue to a high level of dance? Maybe there is an american dislike of splitting up the family at play here also. I see the same" look down the nose" affect on my son that rows and my son the gymnast as my dancer gets. I think that most people jsut sneer at unfamiliar stuff. If its not football or basketball, its probably not worth doing.

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I always find it interesting that most people are convinced that I somehow pushed my son into dancing. As if there is no way in heck a boy would actually choose ballet on his own. 80% of these people are moms of young female ballet dancers!

My son is quite versed in adamantly explaining to people that "boys are in ballet too!--Who else can lift up the princesses?!"

Edited by dancetaxi
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Knock knock... Even though I am not a parent (trust me, that is a GOOD

thing; it's all I can do to keep my houseplants going) I'd like to add a few

comments to your discussion, displaying my razor-sharp grasp of the utterly

and completely obvious.


1) Part of the reason that American male ballet dancers are not highly esteemed

in our contemporary culture is because the fine arts in general are suffering. From

what I read, lots of orchestras and dance companies and fine art museums and

theaters, etc are strapped for cash and competing more intensely for their slice of

the ever-shrinking arts funding pie... These organizations are struggling to

reach younger patrons, with mixed results.


2) Another reason that American male ballet dancers are not highly esteemed

is that I would suggest that male dance of almost any type is not widely esteemed.

(So, it's not a problem that is restricted entirely to ballet) I don't know what your

perspectives are as parents in the parking lots, lobbies, and studios of American dance

academies, but I see very few boys/men in any area of dance. Even hip-hop -- In years past

I took hip-hop classes where, as in ballet, I was often the only guy. In the social domain

I see women pleading, cajoling, urging their male companions to dance in clubs, but

more women than men are dancing. Why?


3) As BW wisely points out, I think our society is quite homophobic for starters, and

also intolerant of expressivity, sensitivity, and other traditionally feminine traits in men.

I think this is just another facet of a tremendous pressure for conformity.

Sitcoms exploit this for humor, politicians exploit it for creating "in" and "out" groups,

capitalists thrive on it (telling us that true individuality is expressed via the consumption

of mass-market goods), etc. The resulting rigidity in roles and behaviors is stifling. So the

man who is both strong and tender, assertive and yet expressive is the exception and not

the rule. We're all the poorer for that, as individuals and as a society.


So what do we do? I have two suggestions, both offered with full knowledge that

this is yet another sermon the choir can recite from memory...


First: Be patient. Change takes work over time, as ballet teaches pretty clearly.

Don't give up -- keep encouraging (not pushing) your sons, students, classmates, and

friends to discover the expressive part of themselves, and help pick them up when the

steamroller of pop culture knocks them down. The little things count, and compound

over time into big changes, but only if you keep investing. Stay positive, stay focussed;

it's up to those like dancetaxi to lift up the dancers who lift up the princesses! :)


Second: Be impatient. Spend your energy and money and time on alternatives. Be

aware of alternative ways of being and creating, and start speaking up about it. We can

polish our talking points here and then put them into action in our television viewing,

our spare time, our PTA meetings, our religious and social gatherings and so on. American

culture, be it in sports, or the marketplace or the school or the mass media seems increasingly

violent and aggressive, and we are an effective answer to all those folks who are wondering

what to do when overpaid NBA players are acting like thugs and freedom of expression

is stifled and those who are different are ridiculed and mocked.


Finally: I am continually amazed at how much hard work is beneath the surface of ballet -- how

much grit and guts and stamina are required to make something ethereal and beautiful

and fleeting as dance. Maybe that can be an inspiration to all of us in the choir/minority...

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I took my DS to the "Nutcracker" at about age 5 I think. He was mesmerized and came home and said that he wanted to lift the ladies over his head. At that point his sister danced recreationally and he used to sit and watch her. I did not put him in classes at that time because as discussed here there is such a stigma attached to boys in ballet - he started at the age of nine and I'll never forget the look on his face surrounded by all these little girls in pink. He was scared but very focused as well.


Then I took him to a National Ballet of Canada performance of "Swan Lake" and that's when he turned to me and said - "That's what I want to do - I want to dance ballet on stage." No looking back from that night. Unfortunately, we have had to let him go away to dance for further training. But we were just having this discussion tonight on the phone, where he confirmed once again to me that he is in the right place and loving every minute of it. But there is still such social hell to pay for this passion - it is a homophobic society in North America. And in Canada, if it is not "hockey" then it is simply not worth doing. Not that there's much pro hockey going on right now though is there! :)

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Well, I'll cast my vote for you DeadPirateRoberts! :) Very well written and you've given us all some great advice in plank #2 of your platform. I really like your suggestions and commend you for the way you've expressed your views.



Yes, I am part of the "choir" but we can all use some reminiders on how to go about making things "change". :D

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Guest justthedriver

As mom to a DS, we're very fortunate to live so close to NYC. We go to ABT as much as the budget will allow, and my son's continually inspired by his heros there, particularly Cornejo. Did anyone else see the excellent piece on him in the recent New Yorker? Riverdance was a big influence with us, too; oy, my floors. I finally took him to the Nutcracker when he was ten, and that did the trick in turning him to ballet (though the jumps which I apparently have to see this minute in the living room are literally popping the nails out of my old floorboards. ) DreadPirateRoberts, what an excellent critical essay and what a rockin' screen name. It IS true, though, that ballet guys CAN get college money from schools with dance departments, just like their brothers in spandex pants (though not the cheerleaders...)

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Very nice and thoughtful post DreadPirateRoberts! :shhh::pinch:


I do think that the idea of boys and men in dance is sloooowly changing. I'm sure that it is due to a hundred different slight changes in the way our society thinks of gender roles. My DS is not overt with his dancing in terms of shouting it from the rooftops, but does not try to hide it either. He has support from all his friends at his elementary school, who are an even mix of girls and boys. I thought that ideas here in the midwest would be pretty conservative in regards to such things, but to my surprise, my son has not yet been teased at all. He was teased in 1st grade when we lived in Arizona, but luckily, he was able to shake it off.


As a matter of fact, there are really a good amount of boys at both his current small dance school, and the large school that he will be transfering to after Nutcracker is over. There are far more boys at the dance schools here in Ohio than in the Chicago area where we just moved from, which also surprised me a bit. :lol:


baby steps..... :thumbsup:

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Oddly, what with Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo and other centers, Ohio is one of the most sophisticated places in the US when it comes to ballet!

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I realize that now! :grinning::yes: I just grouped it in with the rest of the midwest and thought that farm folks don't care much about the arts!! :(

But you are right. It's really a pretty happenin' place. And I'm glad for my DS' sake. I was worried that the move to Ohio might limit his training options a bit.

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