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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Unprofessional schools


Tuesday

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So as you may recall, I've been having problems with my son's ballet school. He was asked to bourree in class again yesterday, and he politely declined to do so. His teacher, who was the AD, got very angry with him and said he should do whatever the teacher tells him to do, no matter what. I agree with this in most cases, but I think this circumstance was not a usual one, and therefore did not merit the same sort of response.

 

Today I was dropping DS off at the studio and the AD asked if I wanted to observe class. I told her no, I was just dropping DS off and she said, "well, I think you have a problem with my classes, so I was inviting you to watch". I told her very calmly that the only problem I had was that she was telling DS to do things that were not appropriate for a boy to be doing. I reminded her that I had asked many professionals both locally and internationally (thanks to the board) about this (including the manager of the ballet company who has an office upstairs) and she insisted that I was wrong and didn't know what I was talking about. She called me sweetheart and said I didn't even know what a bourree was. I told her I did, that it was also called couru, which means to run, girls do it on pointe. I even demonstrated! Then she said anyway, DS should have done what I said to do in class, no matter what. I reminded her he is a VERY dedicated student who never misses class or rehearsal, and has never been disrespectful in any way while he was at her school; it is simply that he knows it isn't right for him to be doing bourrees.

 

She again insisted that gender does not matter in the ballet classroom, which I firmly disagreed with and I told her that it seemed she doesn't know how to teach boys, and suggested maybe this is because she hasn't ever had any at the school and so she hasn't bothered to learn. I reminded her that my DS was the only boy she had, and suggested that her unwillingness to teach boys correctly was why there aren't any others. Needless to say, she was very upset and stormed off down the hall. On her way down the hall she yelled to me that if I didn't like it we should leave, to which I wholeheartedly agreed. At that point, her secretary told me I should ask DS's pilates teacher about bourrees, because he's gone en pointe. I said that I had spoken with him, and that despite the fact that he's danced en pointe, he thinks it is inappropriate for a 12 year old boy to be made to do bourrees in a ballet class. I also pointed out that the male teacher at the school who is a former Trockadero also agrees strongly with this idea. She said this has nothing to do with gender and I said yes, it does. She then shut the door in my face. I asked her for a refund of the summer's tuition, and hopefully we'll get it.

 

I'm relieved we're totally done with the school, but it is SO frustrating to have to deal with this sort of unprofessional, crazy behavior. My kid just wants to learn ballet. It shouldn't be this complicated! Oh, and by the way, this is a ballet school that is connected to a professional ballet company. The school boasts of being the only pre-professional school in our town. So parents, moral of the story is that a ballet school connected to a company that calls itself "pre-professional" is not necessarily that. Investigate, investigate, investigate. That is all I can say.

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:wub: Oh Tuesday, I feel for your DS and you. It's never a good thing to end this way, I do hope you get a tuition refund. I know it's hard to stick to your principles at times, but there is a limit. I know my limit was reached when the AD of my DS's former home city school called me to tell me that another DS parent would pay for tap lessons (I'm a single parent), which meant she had been discussing my financial situation with another parent. I couldn't believe it! That was the last straw for me. And my DS has never looked back. All I can say is onward and upward! :innocent:
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Unfortunately, I have also had some breathtakingly unprofessional experiences at places that were otherwise well run, although not as dramatic as yours, Tuesday. It makes me wonder what makes these people think it is all right to behave in such a manner, especially teachers of an art as disciplined as ballet!

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Just a question regarding the school versus professional company here: do heads of the company know what's going on here? Is this teacher also part of the company or is she strictly teacher for the youngsters?

 

It strikes me there is gross unprofessionalism going on here, not least some very forceful demands being made based on some fantasy that are quite damaging (not just to the young fellow in question at this time but the potential for more young fellows in the future).

 

Are there any male dancers or administrators in the professional company?

 

Perhaps a letter to the head/patron(?) of the professional company chronicling what's going on might be appropriate. This sort of abrasive recalcitrance serves nobody, certainly not any dance company (unless it's populated exclusively by misandrists who are not interested in male roles in their ballets), and definitely not any young fellows contemplating dance.

 

Very curious, very frustrating, *very* wrong...

 

 

David

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Tuesday, you did the right thing. There should be a Bronze Star for parenting.

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I am so surprised that this teacher would not be going out of her way not to make this boy feel special in her class. We always have different arm positions and some steps even for very little boys so they feel acknowledged in a room full of girls. Let alone the fact that by the time they are 12 they certainly should be doing other work. As far as bourees are concerned it is so ridiculous why loose a student over it. If he is really uncomfortable and expressed it then why not respect it. :)

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Wow, a bronze star! Thank you, Mr. Johnson. :)

 

It sounds like we will be refunded the summer's tuition, which is good news.

 

DaveS, to answer your questions, the head of the company may not be aware of what is going on yet, but DS's father went upstairs to explain the situation to the Managing Director and to tell him why we were leaving the school. He apologized and asked who it was that made DS bourree and said he understood why we were leaving. Dad said it seemed like he was being very careful about what he said, but he did ask dad if he was sure DS wouldn't like to come back to the school. Dad said no thanks, that we'd found another place.

 

This particular teacher is the school director. She was at one time a dancer with the company, but that was quite some time ago.

 

Yes, there are a number of male dancers and the ballet master is a male. The manager of the company is also male, and was one of the founding members of the company. He and his then wife ran the school and taught ballet there for a very long time. His now ex-wife was my ballet teacher, in fact. She is now the Artistic Director of the ballet company, and he is the Managing Director.

 

Memo, yes. I am surprised, too. But the general attitude we have observed is that boys at this school are more of a pain than anything. He expressed his unease with the bourrees a few months back, when they wanted him to do them for the school show. Again, the director was mad, and called us to complain. We explained our position and it seemed like she understood. I have a feeling this is her and the other teachers on an ugly power trip. I don't know for sure, but that is what it looks like from where I sit.

 

Their loss, totally!

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Now for a SILVER Star, she would have had to be actually shooting at you. :)

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I've been following this thread for quite some time. You bring up some very complex issues, and I apologize for not adding to the conversation earlier.

 

First of all, I want to make it clear that the way you have been treated is just wrong. Specifically: your son, you and his father all spoke with management to discuss your son's discomfort. At all times, you were treated dismissively. I firmly believe that whether you (the director) think you are right or wrong, you should take others' feelings seriously --- especially if they are paying you!

 

I think it's important to point out what was unprofessional here. I don't think that asking your son to bourree in class was unprofessional per se (see below). However, the way you were all treated was obviously unprofessional in any profession. Sadly, this level of interpersonal skills (or lack thereof) is all too common in the professional dance world. Dancers get hired and promoted for the most part for following directions and for doing great stuff on stage. I wholeheartedly agree that if you were treated this way, you have every reason to look for another school. However, that does not necessarily mean that the school you are leaving has bad dancing --- just bad interpersonal skills.

 

I don't like the attitude of "I'm the boss so do what I say" either. Ballet has an unfortunate tradition of such an attitude, but there are other ways to do things that fit better with modern American culture and get just as good results.

 

Another thing that disturbs me is the "shape shifting" (lying?) of the situation. Your son was originally asked to bourree on stage and he didn't like it. That issue never got resolved. Now the issue is bourree in class. The director, apparently forgetting the unresolved stage issue, said "gender does not matter in the classroom." But that statement of hers lacks credibility because she also seemed to have demonstrated it didn't matter on stage. If it had JUST been the classroom issue, I suspect things wouldn't have been so difficult.

 

I looked over the website of the school and company in question. A few things spring to mind:

 

1. The school is a for-profit institution owned by the director, with all unprofitable portions of the ballet enterprise (company & youth ballet) structured as affiliated non-profit organizations. Frankly, this makes me a little uneasy. Most of the high-profile ballet organizations I can think of either involve a company and school as one integrated non-profit, or as two affiliated non-profits. The Ailey School is even an official institution of higher education! But in your case, the "AD" is not just the artistic director, she is the person with direct personal financial stake in the school. To the extent that your son's participation might conflict with her financial interest... well, you get the idea.

 

2. The school and company share only a very loose affiliation. They were founded at significantly different times by different people. They have different corporate profit status (sole proprietor vs. nonprofit organization). They have different web domains, and their websites have different graphical layouts. In fact, all that I can find that they share in common is an address.

 

3. In much of our society, ballet is seen as an activity for young girls that helps them express and develop their femininity. In such settings, boys are actually NOT WANTED. This is not serious ballet, but there is very much of a market for it. And pink is its defining color. Pink walls, pink websites --- bad signs for aspiring ballerinos. The near complete lack of pictures of boys and men on the web site (and COMPLETE lack on the front page) is also a bad sign.

 

Another thing to look at is the approach the school takes to young children. In my experience, the better schools dress up the young girls in miniature adult ways, and they come on stage striving to look like miniature women. It's a kind of dignity. The not so great school are not able to make young kids look dignified, so they opt for cute instead --- especially for the younger kids. Take a look at some of the pictures in the photo gallery.

 

To the extent that this "girly club" dynamic is happening at your school (and I have no way of knowing for sure), you are in a very bad situation. Put another way --- if your son's participation breaks the illusion and causes three girls who otherwise would have taken class to stay home instead --- then your son is bad for business. That is the vibe the owner seems to be giving out to you.

 

4. Look at the faculty bios. The owner is likely less qualified than many of the teachers she has hired. This is unfortunately common. Plenty of my dancer friends have ended up working for studio owners who are far less qualified than they are. It gets most frustrating when they end up in conflict with the owner and end up having to not teach the way they know is right in order to keep their job. Money and nepotism can go a long way...

 

-------------------------

 

OK, forgetting all that and giving her the benefit of the doubt, I want to say a few things that might elucidate the teacher's position (which she has evidently done a terrible job of explaining). Whether or not what I describe is actually the teacher's position, I hope it provides some kind of long-term perspective.

 

As I mentioned above, I don't think being asked to bourree in class is in itself the end of the world. I had a teacher who would have us all bourree in class, he said it was good for the movement in the hips. He was of very high professional talent and credentials; he danced with the Ballets Russes of Monte Carlo and trained with George Balanchine himself in the early days before NYCB. I had another teacher who had his men's class do what amounted to center pointe exercises for an entire summer program. Not only is he also widely held in high regard, he absolutely does not like "effeminite men."

 

So what gives? Both these teachers understood that ballet class is TRAINING. It is not the "real thing," but rather, it is preparation for the real thing. Exercises are to be evaluated based on how they change your body. Sometimes, that involves practicing things you will do on stage. But sometimes, it involves practicing things you definitely will not do on stage, but you're practicing anyway because it will improve your body for the things you do want to do on stage. Flic flac is a perfect example --- it's a step that's common in ballet class but has no use at all on stage.

 

Of course, most students, especially kids, don't really understand this. For most of us most of the time, class IS dancing, because we really don't perform much (if at all) outside of class. Class is therefore not only a tool for improving the dancer's body, but also a vehicle for continued self expression (which is the reason most of us dance to begin with). And this is where your son seems to be getting caught up --- the self expression elements of class began to conflict with his identity.

 

Beyond everyday self-expression, many of us have fantasies of who we would like to be. Swanilda. Cinderella. Prince Charming. The Sugar Plum Fairy. These heros become our alter egos, and our hope that we can embody them is a major factor spurring us on to work harder as dancers. Reality, of course, is that the typical dancer will spend a lot of time embodying a snow flake or a nameless partner and may never get to embody the heros of our youth. But that fantasy remains an important part of ballet psychology for the student and professional alike.

 

Issues of identity don't easily get resolved for the professional dancer either. Professional dancers are asked to do so many roles so frequently that they sometimes lose a sense of identity altogether --- everything becomes role-playing, usually SOMEONE ELSE'S role. At that point, class and performance have nothing to do with self expression, and the dancer's need for self-expression goes unfulfilled. That is an occupational hazard. Seriously, I know one dancer that after dancing intensely for a few years, her sense of self was a pointe shoe --- something that others step into and mold to the shape of their selves (feet). I suffered a similar kind of identity crisis after a while, in which the roles I kept being asked to play conflicted so much with my own sense of identity that it caused serious internal dischord.

 

So certainly, identity is very important to all dancers. But it's also important for the dance student to understand that the PRIMARY purpose of class is to train the body, and that involves a high degree of bodily objectification. Sometimes it's better to leave one's self out of it and just do the exercise.

 

As for gender: As was demonstrated in the previous thread, it is often possible to find examples in the past of gender associations that one is uncomfortable with today. For example, others pointed out that men have danced with garlands in the past. That is because our cultural construction of gender is fluid and keeps changing every generation. However, I really could find no on-line refernces to men (as men, not in travesty) bourree on stage --- although it's still possible that it's happened, it's a big world out there. But I don't think this kind of historical research does much other than to justify whatever people want to do anyway. And I don't think such justification is needed.

 

In general, I must question the concept of gendered steps. A step is the smallest element of dance. What does does it do for us if not just every dance or phrase, but every STEP becomes a self-expression of our gender? What does it mean if steps become "masculine" or "feminine"? Ultimately, it means a loss of opportunity for men in dance --- much more than for women. Why? Because people don't get so concerned when their girl wants to practice double tours as when their boy wants to bourree. Today it's bourree, tomorrow pique turnes, the day after saut de chat --- and pretty soon, there aren't many steps left for men, other than the press lift and the double saut de basque!

 

So in the interests of maintaining and enhancing a depth and variety for men in dance, I must actively fight against the concept of gendered steps. As Winston Churchill said, "this is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!" Maybe I'll make a bourree dance for five men, one in which the onlooker would never mistake them for five women. I'm sure I could. A step is just a step.

In a related vein, I'm concerned with the tendancy in the wider society of defining our masculinity in terms of what we DON'T do. How would it sound if we said "girls don't play baseball, girls don't do sports, girls don't work professional jobs, girls don't do jumps in ballet class, girls don't dance in technique shoes...." You get the idea. I call that a negative construction of identity, and it can leave one hollow --- especially for boys in the world of dance, which is so girl-centered already and typically leaves boys grasping for any sense of gender definition they can find.

 

Rather than focus on a list of steps boys don't do, I'd rather focus on a list of things (steps and otherwise) boys DO do --- and to make that list as big as possible. And I wouldn't worry so much about breaking the rules here and there. Even better, we need to find a way to feel more secure JUST BEING as men and boys in the world of ballet, without always having to emphasize that we really still are men. I believe my chest and hips are a dead giveaway, no matter what step I'm doing at the moment. Not only would that approach be a lot more constructive to our identity, it would also result in greater participation of boys (if only we can figure out how to make it work).

 

Finally, I understand the idea of treating boys like they're special. As a boy in ballet, I ALWAYS wanted to be treated specially --- in fact, I felt an entitlement, that I was SUPPOSED to be treated special all the time. Looking back, I think that dynamic was bad for me and bad for my training:

 

1. It removed any need to work hard for results. I was going to be put in a special position on stage whether or not I rose above the competition --- since there was no competition. Ultimately, I did not learn to dance as well as I should have, and I came to believe that the girls in class were always and permanently better than me (but I didn't dare admit that). It took me a LONG time to overcome that problem --- ultimately by working very hard and developing the same technique as anyone else.

 

2. The special positions in a dance may be prominent, but they usually involve less dancing. Students need practice, and dancing in a corps is what gives you that practice. I wish I'd had the opportunity to dance and dance and dance in the corps every year that my girl classmates had. Coming out and doing a few lifts does not give you the same experience. Is it any wonder that I ended up behind?

 

So giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt here --- her refusal to treat your boy like he was too special could actually have been doing him a favor in the long run. Had I been in her position, I certainly would have handled it differently upon hearing from you. I probably would have split the dancers into two groups --- group 1 does bourrees and group 2 does not, and make sure your son is in group 2. Problem solved. It would not have been too hard, but I really do believe that treating boys like they are special can work to their detriment.

 

Really, identity issues aside --- if a boy spends the first 8 years of his ballet life doing things indistinguishable from his girl classmates --- then he will have built a very good technical foundation. Add post-pubescent muscles to great feet, alignment, etc. --- and you will have a phenomenal dancer with phenomenal jumps too. Even if he ends up picking up stylistic elements you don't like (which are actually just as wrong in girls as in boys) --- little bits in the arms and hands and wrists are easy to fix. Arms and hands and head change in every bit of choreography anyway. Getting the legs right is a lot harder.

 

So that's my $.02

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Wow, citibob. I think you've got their number, hahaha! What a post.

 

A couple things, though. The school was just recently bought back from the owner by the ballet company. So it is in fact owned by the ballet company, but I know the website doesn't reflect that, and explains why the sites are so very different in how they are laid out. That is really the only thing that I think you weren't aware of. I can't explain the mess that is the company website, but the school's website hasn't been updated because the school's director does not stay on top of things and did not give the webmaster the info to update the site. I know this because my friend's son is the webmaster of the school's site. Or was, up until about a week ago, I should say. I believe he quit.

 

The company was founded by the current AD and Managing Director when I was studying with the current AD at the school. This couple did not found the school, but rather bought it from another person. The Managing Director trained at the school that became their school. The school was later sold to the current AD (or director, as you may prefer) when the AD/Managing Director got too busy with the company to keep it going. It might have changed hands when the company combined with another small city in another state and the whole company moved to the other state.

 

I think it has been made pretty clear that boys are not wanted at this school. From the men's bathroom being co-opted by women to the issues with the bourrees, there are big flashing EXIT signs everywhere.

 

Regarding the issue of the bourrees, I like what you wrote, and I understand where you're coming from. I am not sure this is what the teacher/director meant. I think she just doesn't know anything about ballet. Here is another example of what was going on at the school: there is a 23 year old man who takes class there occasionally. I watched a class she was teaching while my son was dressing, and she had this man bourreeing across the floor with his hands in the "giselle" pose, crossed in front of his chest. It looked absolutely ridiculous. What is that about? Surely she isn't having this guy doing that to build strength! My son came out and saw this and nearly died! He was so embarrassed for this guy and practically ran out of the studio to get into the car as fast as possible. My son knows that isn't right. I know that isn't right. This sort of stuff makes him distrust his teachers. He knew he was really their only boy student, but we all really wanted to have confidence in their ability and willingness to learn how to teach him. We kept waiting for the ballet company to help, which they did to a certain degree by offering DS lessons with the company men when they were in town and letting him take company class a few times. The ballet master also invited DS to participated in a character workshop he was teaching to the advanced girls at the school.

 

My son was also told by one of his teachers at this school that boys do NOT do bourrees and was instructed they are "not for him" when the girls in his class were taught them. This same teacher is now saying boys can bourree and girls can do double tours. However, nobody is teaching any sort of tours in class. My son has only done tours in the occasional five minutes his teacher had AFTER class. This has been very sporadic. They don't even use class time to teach him "boy" steps.

 

So yeah, he hasn't benefited from any sort of "special" boy treatment at this school, unless you count being treated like an obstacle as special.

 

The other thing I am questioning about your thoughts on bourrees is that they are coming from you, a mature male. A 12 year old boy who is having a hard enough time just getting decent dance training isn't going to have the luxury or the ability to be so open-minded. I think the age he is at is a particularly sensitive one in terms of these sorts of things as well, which is why I am so concerned about the bourrees and the director's attitude.

 

I do understand and agree with you that most ballet training at the younger ages is the same. That isn't really the issue, though. The issue is that he is being told to do something that nearly every single dancer we have asked, male or female, has said is not a step that boys do, period. Like you said, it's a no-brainer to devise a way to let the girls bourree and the boy do something else.

 

I really appreciate the time and thought you put into your answer, citibob. I have no doubt I will come back to this thread and read it again in the coming years. Thank you for that, it is great to hear your perspective.

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The school was just recently bought back from the owner by the ballet company.

 

The changes you describe are so much, I can't keep track. Instability of that sort is almost never good for the students, at least not while it's happening.

 

and she had this man bourreeing across the floor with his hands in the "giselle" pose, crossed in front of his chest.

 

Ha ha, my morning laugh! This bourree is not just a step, it's become an embodiment of the Giselle character. (As an aside; crossing your arms in front of your chest can be very useful for many things at the barre for developing alignment, if your hands are held firmy on your shoulders. But obviously, this is not that.) Too bad there are so few heros in the traditional classical repertoire for boys to embody.

 

I am not sure this is what the teacher/director meant. I think she just doesn't know anything about ballet.

 

That's a problem that cannot really be solved and can have serious consequences in so many ways. Looking at the bios, I suspected it.

 

They don't even use class time to teach him "boy" steps.

 

Again, I have come to believe that there's no need to work on the steps until after puberty because of the strength required. Certainly as a kid, I felt they were simply impossible and my feeble attempts were a waste of time. With more strength and technique, I eventually came to do them OK --- not spectacularly well, but OK. (But of course, the problem above makes it impossible to explain or defend what happens in a coherent manner; incompetence can also always be a reason).

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I think I should explain what my "stars" allusions mean. The Bronze Star and Silver Star are US Army (and other services) combat awards. They involve bravery, intrepidity under fire, and general hardihood while fighting. The next step up from the Silver Star is the Distinguished Service Cross (roughly like the UK D.S.O.), and the next up from that is the Medal of Honor (UK = Victoria Cross). All denote valorous conduct while engaging the enemy.

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