By Maria Cestero and Helen Jiang
The Ballet Center in Ronkonkoma reported a ten percent increase in male participation on Monday since they announced free ballet classes for boys ages 5 to 17 on Sept 12, 2018.
The organization’s goal was to attract the interest of parents through free classes and incite the love of dance in these young children.
“There’s a femininity that goes along with a man’s movement on stage,” Frank Augustyn, Director of the Dance Program at Adelphi University, said. “Ballet is such a delicate artform as the man appears to be light and featherlike, an ethereal type of look.”
The lack of male ballet dancers is related to the social stigma associated with males in dance, involving sexual orientation and male masculinity, Augustyn said. Male dancers are viewed as feminine and graceful, words that go against society’s image of what a male should be.
Augustyn grew up in a conservatory setting with his age group. He explains though he’s heard stories of negativity towards males in ballet, he himself was not surrounded by the stigma.
“My son was the only boy in a nutcracker recital 30 years ago,” Joann Cascio, an office assistant at The Ballet Center, said. “Then in second grade, his teacher took his school to see the recital, and he quit ballet right after that.”
How social aspects like sexual orientation got associated with the art form stems decades back, according to Augustyn.
“Back in the mid 60’s and 70’s, ballet was seen as a safe haven for the gay man,” Augustyn said. “The community was accepting of these people, regardless of their sexual orientation.” This topic was further discussed in Augustyn’s documentary, “Footnotes: The Classics of Ballet.”
To this day, males in dance still have a social stigma attached to them. However, they are an essential part of the art. “Ballet resists gravity. The woman doesn’t look like she is from this earth and it was men that accomplished this,”Augustyn said.
“Without men, there wouldn’t be Swan Lake, or Nutcracker, or any other classic ballet,” Laurie Solomon, an instructor at The Ballet Center, said. “We need the men to continue to art.”
Classes separated based on gender at a young age has both benefits and its drawbacks, according to Luke Muscat, a dancer who also teaches boys only classes at Mark Morris and Steps in New York.
“Boys classes are a paradox,” Muscat said. “On one hand, they help offer these boys a community, but on the other hand, they also feed into the stigma by having separate classes just for boys.”
Muscat is currently in graduate school, writing his thesis on child development. He encourages coed classes and stresses the importance of words used during these classes.
According to Muscat, the children are too young to think about societal views, it’s mainly the parents that worry about how their child will be perceived.
At young ages around three and four, children have not developed and determined their specific gender roles, and so coed classes are entirely possible, Muscat said.
The Ballet Center also coed youth classes. “Both boys and girls work on coordination, strength, and flexibility,” Debra Punzi, Artistic Director of the Long Island Ballet School, said. “Working together as a group helps them learn better and appreciate the arts.” Every week, the school brings in professional dancers from New York City to perform and talk with the children.
Punzi believes that times are changing, and that people are more accepting of male ballet dancers.
“My grandson has never been bullied,” Jeanne Perry, a grandmother to a student at The Ballet Center, said. “Everyone at school knows he dances, but there isn’t any problems with teasing or of that sort.”
“Teachers should use language to create a gender-neutral experience,” Muscat said. “Replace the word graceful with smooth, and when they do a good job use the word sensational rather than beautiful.”
By use gender-neutral words, there is less emphasize on stereotypical gender roles associated with sex, but more focused on the dance experience itself.
Since Sept 12, 27 more boys have joined The Ballet Center.