By Kiki Sideris, Nicolas Pennisi and Vincent Asito
The Ballet Center in Ronkonkoma is offering free ballet classes for boys ages 5 to 17. Classes start September 12th and end in June. Beyond the $25 registration fee, the classes cost nothing.
The nonprofit organization offers the free classes because boys are one of the most underrepresented populations in the practice.
An individual class is $20, while $350 buys unlimited classes for a month. Artistic Director Debra Punzi said most boys advance to take classes every day. That’s $3,150 in savings for the whole year.
“Ballet is not perceived as cool for males,” Jeremy Stanfield, who teaches master classes for Ballet Long Island at the center, said. “Men in ballet are not seen as masculine, therefore, there’s not a lot of interest to pick up this craft.”
Stanfield, 28, recalls a time when girls would reject him just because he was a dancer. Now, he looks back at this and laughs. Since then, he has scored a full scholarship to Stevens College in Missouri, where he earned a degree in dance. He has also taught modern ballet regionally and internationally.
“It’s very hard to get men or boys to join ballet,” Laurie Solomon, an instructor at The Ballet Center, said. “So when parents hear ‘free,’ they come.”
Solomon, who has been teaching dance for 27 years, said she could recall a time when there were no boys in her classes. Now she teaches an upwards of 10, citing a 75 percent increase in male enrollment.
According to a 2009 study by Doug Risner, a professor of dance at Wayne State University, only one in 10 children and adolescents studying dance in the United States are male. Over 96 percent of them face some sort of verbal or physical abuse because they choose to dance.
“There’s still a lot of social worries about boys and dancing,” Punzi said, alluding to the stigma attached to men in ballet. “The population is not educated enough. Being a dance artist is not going to influence other aspects of your life.”
Often times, they are stereotyped as feminine and/or homosexual. According to Risner’s study, 85 percent of male ballet dancers believe that more boys would study the form if they weren’t teased and harassed repeatedly.
Marty Lauter, 21, a Long Island native who has been dancing ballet for seven years, believes that this is a byproduct of “toxic masculinity,” a concept that restricts men from expressing their emotions and feminine traits. As a gay man, Lauter “rejects those toxic behaviors.”
“Dancing showed me that there is strength in being soft and graceful and I think that’s a huge fear young boys have: being soft,” Lauter explained.
The stigma affects both gay men and straight men alike.
“No matter what your sexuality is, being a male in ballet is difficult because you have to deal with people criticizing you outside the class,” said Stanfield, who identifies as straight. “It’s looked at as something women usually do.”
The Ballet Center makes sure boys feel as comfortable as possible when they first start off by not making it mandatory to wear leotards and tights. Although they have to wear ballet slippers, they can swap the tights out for sweatpants or basketball shorts.
According to the center, ballet teaches focus, respect, strength and awareness “in a way no other activity can.” Punzi and Solomon added that it helps with sports like baseball and football. Even the nose tackle for the New York Jets, Steve McLendon, credits ballet for helping him with his football career.
The American Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a study comparing levels of fatigue in ballet dancers and athletes and found that the former had more endurance and experienced less fatigue than the latter, even after performing the same exercises. This is because of the extensive landing techniques ballet dancers practice repeatedly throughout their careers.
Boys often look to older male ballet dancers for encouragement. Instructors aim to inspire boys to pursue ballet by taking them to professional shows. At the shows, Solomon said that the boys can see that it takes strength to lift a woman during a pas de deauxs (a duet between a man and a woman) and self-confidence to perform in a leotard and tights. The experienced dancers on stage serve as role models for the younger ones.
Stanfield has a message for any boy who is skeptical about taking ballet, “you can’t worry about what other people are saying,” he said. “Don’t let other people take that happiness away from you.”