Contemporary dance might get boys through the door, but to keep them dancing you’ve got to let guys be guys
By Brian McCormick
The world of contemporary dance is luring boys like never before, glamorized by movies and TV shows like High School Musical, So You Think You Can Dance, and Glee. Guys who are taking modern classes are doing it because studios are making it part of their overall package, and they’re making it attractive—sending graduates on to conservatory dance programs and professional careers in which well-rounded dancers have the best options.
But getting boys into your studio is only half the battle—you’ve got to keep them. The three studio directors in this story have developed effective ways of doing both.
The holistic approach
Dori Matkowski, artistic director of Dance Dynamics in the Detroit suburb of Walled Lake, Michigan, has been training boys for 27 years. About 100 guys take classes at her studio, and out of the 80 dancers in the performing company, 16 are men.
Matkowski attributes the success of her program to her own training. “I was trained by a strong masculine teacher and have always had a personal knack for teaching guys,” she says, adding that she picked up additional tips about teaching boys at Tremaine Dance Conventions.
Her 24-year-old son has always danced, and Matkowski found that he could help bring other boys into the studio. “When he was in sports when he was young,” she says, “I’d pay him $5 for every boy that he could get to come to the studio. It kept him in dance and the business exploded. We’ve had 60 to 100 guys at a time every year since.” Matkowski encourages all boys who come to Dance Dynamics to take an all-male class at first. “Once they are comfortable,” she explains, “we encourage them to take both all-guys and co-ed intermediate classes.” Although 3- to 6-year-olds are all in classes with girls, Matkowski says, “we make sure all the boys are in the same class together. We don’t want them to feel isolated.”
She makes sure that the studio holds appeal for males of all ages. “We don’t teach only one class for boys. We have male teachers,” including the vice president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Matkowski says. “He’s a great role model, and it’s absolutely important to have those. We try to get a male demonstrator in the classes.”
Matkowski’s attention to the boys goes beyond classes, so that they are as comfortable onstage as in the studio. “We make sure the choreography is appropriate for the guys—that they don’t do the same things as girls and are not just props,” she says. “Some guys come in dancing like a girl because they’ve been in classes that have them doing the same things as the girls. We put them in workshop classes where there can be more male influence.”
And then there’s the masculine culture outside of the classroom and the stigma of dance as a feminine activity. Matkowski understands that boys often have a hard time socially because of their dancing. At her studio, “all the guys have mentors,” she says. She pairs them with older male dancers who have experienced the peer pressures and can help the younger boys navigate some of the social and emotional stuff associated with the stereotypes.
“To be honest, more time is spent in therapy about being a male in the entertainment world than on technique,” says Matkowski. “Dancing through middle school can be a dreadful experience in a Detroit-area suburb like this one. A lot of the boys can’t tell their friends at school [that they dance]. What they go through is horrible. When they get to the studio, we have to train them to let it go, to come in and be what they want to be. There’s a lot of nurturing.”
One way Matkowski tends to the boys is by working with their fathers. “They are dealing with some of the worst stereotypes,” she says. “We let them know there are other things their sons can do, that dancing can lead to careers in entertainment, improve coordination, and even improve abilities in sports.”
As a way to get the fathers more involved, the studio has a group called “Dancing Dads,” which provides comic relief and helps with technical support. An average of 24 dads and grandfathers participate each year. “It’s a very tight group,” says Matkowski, “and some of the men have developed lifelong friendships through their involvement.”
Matkowski says having the men present and actively involved sends a strong and positive message for her boys. They can also offer constructive criticism when it comes to moves some might consider too “girly,” and that helps reinforce the school’s overall masculine image.
The comprehensive program at Dance Dynamics includes requirements for choreography and teaching proficiencies that have to be fulfilled by high school—what Matkowski calls “survival skills.” Each class at Dance Dynamics includes some modeling, acting, improvisation, and public speaking. These exercises are designed to help build self-confidence and prepare dancers for real-life situations. Some classes also include an introduction to commercial theater and film and auditions, plus other tips about how to get into show business. “Advanced boys,” Matkowski says, “need overall training so they can get jobs in everything.” She holds her son up as an example of what the studio can produce: “He’s booked out for master classes, has worked at Disney, is currently working with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and he has also worked in film.” Recent male studio graduates have gone on to study at Juilliard and New York University and dance in West Side Story on Broadway.
“In the beginning, we only had a few guys,” Matkowski says. (The studio opened in 1982.) “Now, guys move here to train [at my school], and guys who are already out there working come in to take intensives and to be exposed to our really strong, really masculine program.” But, she adds, “our boys are not treated like they are special or king of the studio. Most of the time, boys transfer here because they want to go into show biz, and they like to be treated normally. When my son started working as a dance captain and swing assistant, he told me, ‘It’s a good thing we don’t treat our guys as special.’ They are more ready for the real world.”
Start them young
The Gold School in Brockton, Massachusetts, founded in 1964 by the late Sherry Gold, has been under the leadership of her son Rennie (twin brother of Dance Studio Life publisher Rhee Gold) since 1996. The studio offers classes in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and “a lot of modern. We have lots of kids who want to go into college programs,” Rennie Gold says.
“In our lobby you won’t see a lot of pink and pointe shoes. For classes, in the beginning, the boys wear soccer shorts and T-shirts, so they can be comfortable as boys.” —Rennie Gold
Arguably the studio’s most famous male progeny is Juilliard graduate Kyle Robinson, who was named “Mr. Dance of America” in 2005 by Dance Masters of America. He dances with Aszure Barton & Artists and has performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov as part of White Oak Dance Project. “It doesn’t get any better as a teacher,” Gold says, beaming with pride.
“Right now in the intensive program, we have 18 boys, from age 9 through seniors in high school,” says Gold. “We do what everyone in the Dolly Dinkle world says you shouldn’t do. We sell combo classes—ballet, modern, jazz, tap. There’s no ‘I don’t take this or that.’ And by the time they’re 10, they all wear tights in ballet class.”
According to Gold, schools can build their enrollment of boys “if [they] can get a few in the door, start them young, and keep them.” Keeping them means making them feel comfortable, he emphasizes. “In our lobby you won’t see a lot of pink and pointe shoes. For classes, in the beginning, the boys wear soccer shorts and T-shirts, so they can be comfortable as boys.”
Gold doesn’t offer separate boys classes. “That environment isn’t so great for learning,” he says. “But we also try to avoid having only one boy in any class; having just one other boy in the class can make a big difference.”
Like Matkowski, Gold recognizes how important it is to please the fathers. “There’s no Lycra or sequins; that would be too much for the fathers,” he says. “We do a lot of performances in street clothes. One day a mother complained, ‘I want my son to have a real costume!’ Even in my mother’s time—and there were less boys than we have now—she would deal with the fathers. Mothers would come in and say that the dads didn’t want their boys taking dance classes. One mother, a few years back, didn’t want us to call the house. Those experiences have made me very conscious of the father factor.”
Break the rules
Amber Perkins opened Amber Perkins School of the Arts in her hometown of Norwich, New York, “right out of undergrad” and has been going strong for 12 years. She has a second studio in nearby Vestal.
When the studio where Perkins got her teaching certification closed, she took over the space and about 85 percent of the students, almost all girls. Around the same time, she took over the choreography for the high school play—West Side Story—as part of her internship. To bring boys into the world of dance, Perkins got her brother, “a jock type with artist friends who also played a musical instrument,” to get his friends to try out for the show. She also brought them into the studio to take classes.
“Partnering class was horrible. The boys would march from one end of stage and pick up the girls. We had to work with what we had. In the beginning, we broke all the rules. These were guys who played football and basketball. We were either going to do it the way they could do it, or we weren’t going to have them. So in class they don’t have to wear proper attire, and they don’t have to take ballet.” This tradition continues to work.
Perkins’ brother Mikey and his friends started taking classes at 16 and 17 years old. “One of his best friends, who used to play football for Empire State College, is now in Pilobolus,” Perkins says. The school also has graduates in Garth Fagan’s company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and others who have performed at Radio City.
Perkins’ studio has more than 20 boys now, “including a quarterback and guys who are strict dancers. They all take technique, and we’re a heavy modern [dance] school,” she says. Male teachers and choreographers, including Perkins’ brother and his friends, strengthen the masculine image of the studio. “Our men are modern choreographers, so the work is more athletic, and the guys grab onto that,” Perkins says.
Despite the number of boys at the studio, Perkins still allows the jocks to break the rules. “They’re great partners, they move well, and we get them once a week. If a girl has an opportunity to dance with a boy, especially if it’s a duet, we do whatever we have to,” she says. “Meet them where they’re at, break the rules, and put them in a costume that makes them feel comfortable. They don’t want to wear a dance belt, so put them in dress pants; do whatever you need to do to make them feel comfortable.”
With the fathers, Perkins says, emphasize the athleticism of dance. “If you can make them feel like [dance will] make their boy a better basketball player, that can be huge.”