I recently set up a classical ballet partnering master class for my youth dance company. A pas de deux class, if you will—think Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, etc., chock full of promenades, pirouettes and lifts.
I knew we would have plenty of girls interested in signing up, but enlisting boys is always a challenge.
Without much thought, we offered it for free to boys who attended because, here’s the thing: no boys = no class. At least, in a ballet partnering class—every Sugar Plum Fairy needs a Cavalier, right?
To my surprise, we had a parent contact us because she was offended and insulted by this. She explained that her daughter would not be attending the class because she felt our offering was “archaic, sexist and unfair.” She was shocked that we would extend this free to boys and not to girls. This made me step back and think.
In a time of movements such as #metoo and #timesup, was I taking a step backward in the wrong direction? As a teacher, who strives to empower girls and provide an environment where students support each other, and as someone who is generally forward-thinking, did I make a mistake?
We don’t normally offer free classes to boys (besides partnering), however, many schools around the country do, some even have completely tuition-free boys’ programs. The School of American Ballet, The Rock School, Ballet Academy East, Nashville Ballet and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet are just a handful (among many others) that are offering scholarships and free programming for boys. Why?
Well, dance (and ballet in particular) is one of the rare arenas where men are not dominant. According to Data USA, the gender composition in the field of dance workforce in 2015 was 87.6 percent women. Plus, most dance schools have an even higher percentage of girls than boys, since many boys start training at a later age than girls.
And then there’s the topic of diversity. Many scholarships across the country, in many different types of institutions, are offered based on the demographic. They act as incentives to fulfill whatever gender or race is lacking. Women are awarded scholarships in the sciences and in math, and there is a plethora of university scholarships for minorities.
If boys are lacking in dance, why should offering a financial incentive be any different? Should we take away all of these wonderful opportunities from everyone because they are not offered to all? Or, should we just take these opportunities away from boys, because their gender has the upper hand in most industries?
Yes, it’s true that despite the huge difference in ratio of men to women in dance, men do dominate as choreographers, directors and stage managers. But from an education standpoint, it seems unfair to punish boys just because they’re boys.
I keep going back to the word encouragement. In a way, boys need more encouragement in dance than girls do, and so do boys’ parents. Along with the level of difficulty dance presents inside the studio, boys are facing bullying and teasing outside of the studio, as well. According to the documentary Danseur, 95 percent of male dancers stated that they had faced physical and verbal attacks because they were dancers. Parents need to know their boys are welcome, wanted and protected at our studios and encouraged to follow their dreams.
Of course, both boys and girls will need encouragement in this field. Dance is a hard career path, filled with rejection, body-image issues and injuries. I can only imagine how it would feel to have a child come home crying because they did not get the part they wanted or they are struggling with confidence. But, to have my child attacked because of their gender for doing something they are passionate about is unfathomable.
So, what is the right thing to do? Do we in the dance community provide special opportunities to boys or not? If so, how do we let our girls know they are just as valued?