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Pirouetting past gender

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Fighting an age-old cultural stigma of the male ballet dancer.

For the past 2 years, my daughter Anna Lee has attended a weekly ballet class. Dressed in a pink leotard, tights and a tutu, she skips, leaps, sashays and curtseys in time to Czech children’s musical tunes. Far from becoming the next Anna Pavlova, Anne Lee is learning basic coordination, posture and rhythm as well as mental concentration that may improve her sporting and creative endeavors later on.

During the lesson, I try to keep Anna’s younger brother quiet and out of sight. But it’s a lost battle every week. Compelled by the music, Oliver wriggles from my arms and begins to mirror the dancers’ movements. He weaves in and out of the group of girls with his arms in a modified 4th position, bobbing his head in time to the music and chanting “la la la”. One week I approached Anna’s teacher and asked her if she knew about any boys dance classes in Prague. She didn’t but said he was welcome to join her youngest class in the autumn.

When I told Radek that I planned on signing Oliver up for ballet class, he was both shocked and disapproving. Although dance class is fine for both genders, in theory, Radek argued that with all the girls in Anna’s class wearing pink tutus and pretending to be princesses and fairies, this particular setting was not ideal for Oliver. My retort that Anna’s current male classmate, Jakub, performs the trampoline maneuvers better than any of the girls didn’t sway him. Although Radek agreed that Oliver needs an outlet to expend his dancing energy, he’d prefer his son attend a gymnastics class. Generally speaking, Radek is comfortable letting Oliver push Anna’s pink doll stroller and ride through the neighborhood on her old pink motorcycle, so his attitude toward dance was somewhat unexpected.

During the weeks of my ongoing debate with Radek, I ran into a Czech father who grew up taking ballet lessons in Prague at the State Opera. Although it was hard to imagine this soccer-loving father of two as a former ballet dancer, he impressed both my children by performing a few spins during a children’s storytelling class. Discovering my friend’s hidden talents gave me a healthy, masculine role model to offer Radek. Additionally, I got some support from a skateboarding/ski instructor friend who encouraged me to go ahead and let Oliver take ballet lessons, saying that he wished more young boys took ballet to improve their balance.

Despite the 20th century efforts of Soviet-born male ballet pioneers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, the hype associated with these famous names hasn’t completely erased the worn-out stereotypes that are used against the average boy dancer. Along with contemporary disdain for the perceived feminine aspects of male dancers, there is also the cliché of fathers not wanting their sons to learn ballet. In the 2000 British hit film Billy Elliot, 11 year old Elliot drops his boxing class and takes up ballet. Initially he faces contempt and disdain from his father, brother and their coal-mining community, but eventually his extraordinary talents convince them to concede their boy-dancer stereotypes.

In Newsweek’s March 2008 article “Don’t Judge Me By My Tights” professional ballet dancer Sascha Radetsky says that despite being teased for dancing as an adolescent, his love for the mental and physical elements of dance and the creativity it fostered, plus support from his parents and dance teachers, meant “ballet was worth a fat lip or a black eye.”

In my opinion, taking a year or two of ballet at age 2 will only improve Oliver’s coordination, focus and mental toughness. Rather than merely following in his sister’s footsteps, I’d like to imagine that Oliver is getting a chance to pursue an interest that’s singularly his. As long as Oliver plays with children of both genders in a variety of settings, I believe he’ll continue to develop well-rounded hobbies, dancing included. As for Radek, he’s agreed to let Oliver give ballet a try, hoping that Oliver’s dancing skills may improve his winter sports abilities and lead Oliver to show his dad a few new tricks.

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