By Albert Samaha
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"Yuri is going to make it respectable for American boys to dance," comments a character in the 1977 ballet film The Turning Point, referring to a heartthrob Russian defector played by the young Mikhail Baryshnikov. Was he right? Have attitudes changed in the past quarter century?
In Billy Elliot, the Universal release now playing across the country, a young boy in the unlikely environment of a northern English mining town develops a love for ballet. When his father and brother (both miners on strike) discover he's secretly taking ballet lessons, they erupt in fury, sending the singular message: Boys don't do ballet. But they do, and you can see dozens of them in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, opening November 24.
"[W]hen the boys were walking down the street, other boys would lean out of cars and call 'faggot' at them."
Billy Elliot, set in 1984, has a very specific working-class context, though Billy's dad merely states, with more intensity, what my own middle-class, classical-music-aficionado father said in the '70s when my seven-year-old brother wanted to start ballet. Would either man react differently today? Is class at issue here, or social attitudes? (In Cuba, it's as prestigious for a man to be a ballet dancer as a baseball player.)
In many ways, things look better than they did 15 or 20 years ago: New York's School of American Ballet (SAB) and the school of the Dance Theatre of Harlem boast higher male student enrollment than ever before, and the number of gifted male dancers currently onstage indicates that more men are feeding into the pool, probably at younger ages. (The earlier the start, the more physically feasible a strong classical technique becomes.) One reason for this increase is media exposure: A significant number of the men and boys entering the field first decided to dance after seeing Nureyev, Edward Villella, or Baryshnikov on television.
But those who have committed themselves to dance reveal that, in many ways, social prejudices have barely changed. Their survival in the art form seems to have less to do with class or exposure to the arts than with their individual capacity to resist peer pressure. American Ballet Theatre (ABT) star Ethan Stiefel, whose father is a prison warden, grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. He began dancing at age eight after "tagging along" to his sister's ballet class. "I have to give my dad a lot of credit," he says. "In fact, he was more open than me." Stiefel's family moved to Pennsylvania when he was 12; he didn't tell the kids at his new school that he danced. "I felt self-conscious," he says. "I'm not proud of it, but I didn't want anyone to know." Stiefel abandoned ballet briefly when he was 14, and although he attributes the decision to the stress of keeping up with his schedule, he acknowledges that "it's an age when a young man needs to prove himself, and ballet can't really do that for you then."
Even after adolescence, there are issues for male dancers: "I still deal with it today," says Stiefel. At the dealership where he bought his motorcycle, when the question of his occupation came up, he wondered, "What do I tell these people? I'm proud of what I do, and I tell the truth. You'd think that over time, with people like Baryshnikov, image would have made more headway. But perceptions don't seem to change."
Eric Williams, an 11-year-old ballet student from a rural area outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, recently spent five weeks training at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's summer school. His mother, Debra, served as a dorm supervisor and says the social pressures the kids face, as they enter adolescence, are enormous. "The stories older boys tell concern me. The teasing becomes meaner around age 13 or 14, and a tremendous number of boys stop dancing at that age; many said to me, 'I'm thinking of quitting.' At the summer school in Carlyleit's a small townwhen the boys were walking down the street, other boys would lean out of cars and call 'faggot' at them."
Vincent Paradiso, a 15-year-old student at SAB who commutes from Westchester, confirms the difficulty of holding on to your own identity at this age: "My dad didn't like me going to ballethe's a mechanic, and I think he's had a difficult time with his colleagues. I felt bad for him. When I got into SAB a few years ago, he was even more negative, and I nearly gave up just to please him. But I just couldn't."
Younger boys seem to be able to block out most of the negative messages they receive: Eric Williams says, "My friends at school sometimes tease me and call me Twinkletoes, but they don't mean it badly." Charles Askegard, a principal with NYCB, says that growing up in Minnesota was "really hard. School was awfulI was constantly in fights and arguments about ballet. But I loved dancing, I didn't let it matter." Jock Soto, an older NYCB principal, also "had a terrible time," but "just lived with it." Several of these dancers also noticed that other kids are threatened by the focus and intensity ballet students need to succeed.
"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."