By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
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"Actually, I don't think the younger boys understand a lot of the negative stuff," comments Debra Williams. "My husband is a police officer, 6-2, 240 poundsbut he's never had any problem with the image issue, which is probably why Eric doesn't worry about it. People do ask us about it all the time: They say, 'Aren't you afraid your son is going to be gay?' But he's 11! I don't think about that at all."
Her family disapproves of Eric's involvement in dance; they just assume that "male dancer" implies "homosexual."
Even if boys are aware of these social messages, they rarely discuss them. "They're always having to prove how strong they are, mentally and physically," says Mrs. Williams. "They feel that they have to deal with these issues alone." "It's also difficult to talk to one another," comments ABT's Stiefel, "because you are dealing with your own issues of sexuality and peer acceptanceeven as a heterosexual boyat that age, and the connotations that ballet brings up make it even harder." (Paradiso says that before coming to SAB "it was a disaster" with girls. "They all thought I must be gay.")
Class or racial background seems to make little difference in these experiences: Charles Askegard, whose father was a farmer, says, "When I moved from a private school to a public one, the kids were actually nicer about ballet." Desmond Richardson, a former ABT principal now freelancing and working with the Complexions dance troupe, who grew up in Queens, agrees. "Sometimes it seemed to be worse for the kids from more privileged backgrounds, because 'that's not what you're supposed to do.' "
"There will always be the 'tights problem' when you talk about men doing ballet," says Laveen Naidu, who runs Dance Theater of Harlem's outreach program, "but it's about transforming perceptions. The company's school is next to a basketball court, and lots of the boys go back and forth. There's come to be a respect for them in the neighborhood."
While perceptions about boys dancing may have altered in certain urban pockets (perhaps influenced by the popularity of hip-hop and a degree of sophistication about gender roles), it seems clear that a boy who wants to do ballet today faces little more general social approval than did Billy Elliot in 1984. "It's still very tough for boys," says Askegard. "There may be more boys dancing than before, but it's not as though the numbers are even nearly level with the girls." Shy and gangly José Sebastian, a 12-year-old SAB student from a single-parent family in Manhattan, hasn't told most of his public school classmates that he takes ballet, for fear of being teased. He comments wistfully: "I think that it's fine for a boy to do ballet. Some football players take classes to get muscles. I tell the other kids that, but they don't believe me."