Ballet is still very much the preserve of little girls as parents seem reluctant to put their boys into dance classes, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler
As we walked into the studio, I held Fionn’s hand tightly. It had all been my idea. I had seen him jump off the couch in a twirling spiral and land on the floor like a Romanian gymnast. I saw his name in lights. Dance classes, I thought.
As we approached the assembled masses of (mainly) mothers and their daughters it became apparent he was the only boy.
Fionn, God bless him, couldn’t have cared less. He ran into the place with that what’s-the-craic-here attitude he has. Around him, the occassional strop was being thrown and every now and then, the studio door would swing open and a slightly hysterical ballerina would walk out in tears. Had he been one of them, I had told myself, I wouldn’t mind and every time the door opened I got ready to tell him that it was ok if he didn’t want to go.
But not only did he make it through that first class he made it through the next 16 weeks. Every Saturday morning, without fail and not once did he waver. My boy, a man among...girls.
So where were all the other boys?
“It’s difficult to get people in Ireland to put their boys into ballet classes,” says dance teacher Kate Buckley. “Boys are still very much associated with rugby and GAA and there just isn’t much media around boys and dancing.”
Kate, who runs her own dance school in south Dublin, estimates that only about 2% of her pupils are boys and most of them attend hip hop classes. Ballet is still very much the preserve of little girls.
“That’s quite different from the UK and other parts of the world,” she says. “And there are quite a few reasons for that. For a start, we don’t a huge surplus in numbers here. In the UK, for instance, there’s enough people who want their boys to do dance that they have A-levels in dance but it’s not even on our curriculum so there’s a problem with access. You have to go private.”
“Then there’s a culture of it over there,” she continues. “There’s the Royal Ballet School for example and in that, there’s a fairly even split between boys and girls. I think the West End has a lot to do with it too, they have real career options over there.”
When I speak to dancer Lewis Smallman by phone, he is taking a break from rehearsing that evening’s performance of Billy Elliot in Cardiff. The show comes to Dublin later this month. Lewis was six-years-old when he started dancing.
“It was a bit strange,” says Lewis of his first few classes. “I had never actually danced before and I was the only boy, so I didn’t get to talk as much because the girls would talk to each other. I had quit gymnastics and I wanted to do something instead. It was my mum’s idea to put me into ballet class and it was a good decision.” It was not long before the now 12-year-old’s talent was spotted and he was offered the chance to dance in a more serious capacity. The young star works hard though and can practice anything up to five hours a day. He also admits that having to stick to a strict diet with no chocolate or sweets can be tough at times but he is genuinely excited by the pay off.
“It’s quite tough,” he says. “But it’s worth it when you’re standing on stage and everyone is clapping and cheering. I love dancing. I can just be me and I can just go.”
The main choreographer for the upcoming production at the Bord Gais theatre is Jeron Luiten, who himself did not start dancing until the age of fifteen.
“I had danced all my life,” he explains, “but privately in my bedroom and I kept doing that until I realised that this was actually something that I really wanted to do.” When Jeron eventually told his mother she suggested he try out in an amateur school. He showed such promise that she took him to Amsterdam to audition for a number of academies, one of which hired him.
For Jeron support and understanding are key to getting the most of a boy’s potential.
“Find a place where your boy is comfortable,” he says. “He needs to be surrounded by positivity. They actually need to like what they are doing. With boys, you have to make sure that the teachers are really understanding.”
“Often there might be one boy and fourteen girls in a class and it might be difficult for boys to understand how to behave around girls. You have teach them but in such a way that makes him feel included.” Kate Buckley agrees wholeheartedly.
“If you’re thinking of putting your boy in a ballet class the teacher has to be qualified to know how to deal with children regardless of ability,” she says. “So for instance, I’m qualified from Royal Academy of Dance and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and we have to go through training to know what to do.” “When it comes to boys, it’s an uneven playing field,” says Kate, “so we have to tell parents there are not going to be many boys but that we do have a syllabus that caters to boys.” Indeed, as Kate points out, dance teachers are looking at boys quite differently from day one. Even in the early years the focus will be slightly different.
“You’re looking [into the future] at the 18-year-old version of them,” explains Kate. “So you’re looking at how physically strong they are and how athletic they are, it’s more of a gentle quality you’re looking for with girls. Of course, you want that with boys too and they have to have the footwork but they also have to be able to lift, so it’s quite different.” For Kate, it’s that physicality that many people seem to miss when they think of ballet.
A number of years ago, Pittsburgh Steelers, Steve McLendon, a 320lbs nose tackle, caused a bit of a stir in the world of American Football when a news feature about his weekly ballet classes appeared on national television. For the footballer it was a no-brainer. The weekly lessons helped him with his balance, spatial awareness and lower body strength.
“What you need is the profile of something like a footballer and to build something around that,” says Kate. “But you also have to bring it into schools. Maybe at first with some workshops and then gradually into the curriculum. Some older colleagues of mine have tried to get it onto the curriculum but the funding just isn’t there.”
At the end of Fionn’s 16 weeks, we were invited to see his class put on a performance. At one point, Fionn, wearing his sporty grey tracksuit bottoms, went up on his tippy toes, raised his head like a swan and soared above his little tutu-clad peers. He kept it up, all the way across the floor.
“Just like Nureyev,” I thought to myself before thinking again, “or maybe Ronaldo”. I raised my eyebrow and saw his name in lights for a second time.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved