Ballet companies throughout Grand Rapids are breaking down negative stereotypes of boys in ballet and are making sure all children have the chance to explore a passion for dance.
For the past few hundred years, dance has generally been considered an activity only for women, with young girls lining up to wear tutus, crowns and pink shoes and parents signing up only their daughters for dance classes. Especially in ballet, where the ballerina is the celebrated star and the few male dancers fade into the background, men and boys are not usually top of mind. However, as time goes on and the general public, and especially parents, become more open-minded, activities like dance become attractive to kids—and parents of kids—of all genders. With benefits like athletic cross-training, unique theatric roles and a chance at a career in professional dancing, boys have much to gain by taking a shot on the dance floor.
"[Ballet] is a fantastic discipline for a boy or a girl. It gives the students the opportunity to build a healthy body, learn concentration, learn musicality and to see the benefits of their own personal artwork," says Bruce Jarvis, secretary of the board of directors at the Michigan Ballet Academy
in Grand Rapids.
Bruce Jarvis, right.A dancer for more than 40 years, Jarvis is well-versed in the benefits of male ballet classes, but certainly witnessed negative stereotypes of men in ballet as a young dancer. "I got teased at school," he says. Now a father to a male ballet dancer, Jarvis has witnessed the changing mindset toward men and dance. "The stigma has definitely been reduced," he says.
"They key to getting more boys into dance is education," says Jarvis, a staunch proponent of the MBA's free beginning class that is offered for boys aged five to 12
"My boys class continues to grow in size each year, so I do feel that parents are more open-minded and the stereotype of ballet being only for girls is changing," says Atilla Mosolygo, junior company artistic director and school principal at the Grand Rapids Ballet School
, which also offers free introductory classes for boys aged five to 12
. "All the boys in my class are there because they enjoy movement and dance."
Male dancers also play a unique role in classical ballet productions, and are vital to the theatrics of the choreography. "Without male dancers, it would be very difficult to create and choreograph versatile works of art," says Mosolygo. "Many well-known ballets require a leading male character (for example a prince or a villain) and other multiple roles."
Mosolygo has been himself dancing for 30 years, beginning at age 10 at the National Ballet School in Hungary. Going on to dance at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York and later Grand Rapids Ballet, Mosolygo has been teaching at the company's school for the past twenty years. As a career dancer and teacher, Mosolygo is a passionate proponent of male dancers for the diversity and versatility of a company.
"It is very important to be able to tell any story, show the relationships of the characters and have a balance," he says.
While some may still not be convinced at the inherent benefits of boys in ballet, they may certainly take comfort in the athletic advantages. "Many athletes take ballet class for endurance, increased flexibility and coordination," notes Mosolygo, supporting the commonly-known fact that many football payers participate in ballet classes as a proven cross-training method.
"It actually takes more strength and endurance," says Judy Genson-Wadsworth, director of Grand Rapids' CARE Conservatory of Ballet
, comparing dance to other sports. "They're better trained. They have more muscle mass. They have more cardio," she adds.
While many young dancers enjoy the craft simply to burn calories and increase strength or as an entertaining hobby, some do go on to pursue ballet—and other forms of dance—as their career.
"Our guys go on….and they're successful at it," says Genson-Wadsworth. A few of her male students have gone on to study, and dance professionally in New York. These include Joe Carroll of "Bandstand"
and Mikey Winslow of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
, both opening this spring on Broadway.
Jarvis notes that the shortage of men in ballet actually increases a dancer's chances of succeeding at the professional level—either on the stage, in a ballet company, or in teaching. "Boys are a scarce commodity. If you work hard and have some talent…you can go on to a career in dance," says Jarvis.
Aside from fame and fortune, attained by some, and a career in arts, pursued by others, introducing boys to ballet is simply a useful—and fun—educational experience. "The arts provides something that is extraordinary for young people," says Genson-Wadsworth. Merely the experience can open doors for boys that would otherwise remain shut.
Mosolygo also believes in introducing children, both boys and girls, to dance very young. "It is important to introduce dance at a young age as there is a greater chance that they will continue to enjoy it as a hobby or pursue it as a profession as they get older and keep it a part of their lives—whether that be as dancers, teachers, or supporters of the arts," he says. "As a young child, their mind is open and fresh to new creative ideas and the eagerness to learn and explore is great to work with."
At GR Ballet School "they will receive the highest quality dance instruction in a nurturing and encouraging environment and develop a love of dance, knowledge of technique, self-discipline, poise and grace," says Mosolygo.
Whether dancing on their own or part of a "pas de deux," or "step of two," boys have much to gain by participating in ballet classes. Especially when dancing classical productions, "the boys have a very special role," says Jarvis. Utilizing weights to develop both upper and lower body strength, remaining stable and oftentimes lifting their female counterparts, male dancers accomplish unique and difficult feats of athletics. Whether undertaking demanding physical training or simply fighting the stigma that "boys can't dance," male dancers are finding their role in ballet.
"They need the strength to do that," says Jarvis.
Photography by Adam Bird.