Creating a boys’ program that works
By Ryan P. Casey
As a young dance student, I was often the only boy in my class or the school’s performing ensemble, a scenario that provided its share of opportunities: starring roles, solo spots in company shows, extra attention from instructors, and, of course, plenty of partnering.
But there were also challenges and inequalities to surmount: I sometimes struggled to feel like I was a part of the group because the girls could be reluctant to include me. Trophies I received to commemorate educational milestones featured leggy women in passé; there was no male version available to order. Sometimes I had little privacy or personal space to change backstage at a performance, while the girls had spacious conference rooms or dressing areas.
A picture of a boys’ class on school posters, or a performance by male instructors in the recital will demonstrate to reluctant boys and their parents that you foster a male-friendly environment.
Of course, I love my studio—almost 20 years later, I’m still there, teaching every week. And as I work with male dancers in my classes, there and at studios and universities across the country, I reflect frequently on my own career and consider how I can give these young men the best dance education possible.
There are obvious advantages to creating a program that includes and accommodates males. Female dancers can gain invaluable partnering experience before departing for college dance programs or auditioning for companies. Having at least one male dancer in a class also increases the range of characters and storylines that can be choreographed into a routine.
Brian McGinniss, who has been director of Miller Marley School of Dance & Voice in Overland Park, Kansas, for 12 of his 33 years there, explains that offering exclusively male classes in ballet, and ballet and jazz partnering, helps distinguish Miller Marley from other schools. These classes, McGinniss says, “set us apart from having a typical dancing school environment,” and give Miller Marley a professional orientation.
But for many studio owners, the first step—getting boys to enroll—can prove daunting. There are simple changes you can make, starting with marketing, to attract this sometimes elusive clientele.
Be sure to include boys or men in all marketing materials, advertisements, and promotional efforts. A picture of a boys’ class on school posters, or a performance by male instructors in the recital, will demonstrate to reluctant boys and their parents that you foster a male-friendly environment.
Recruiting your first male dancer may take some effort, but once you’ve created a boy-friendly setting, they’ll likely keep coming. “The secret to getting boys is that once you get several, more are likely to join because they won’t be the only one in the class,” says McGinniss. “You want boys to see that there are other boys, and you want girls to see that there are boys, too.”
And don’t forget the sibling factor. Many boys start dancing because their sisters do. There’s a pool of potential students in your lobby, fidgeting and waiting for their sisters to finish class. Take simple steps to make them feel welcome and comfortable.
“Get rid of the pink,” advises Billbob Brown, director of the dance program at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. His men’s class, which he has been teaching for almost a decade, had 14 students last semester and has included as many as 22. He notes that many studios have pink walls and furniture and decorate their spaces with pointe shoes, tutus, and more pink. “Boys won’t be interested. I suggest displaying a variety of colors, which is more inclusive. There are plenty of popular images that can connect boys and girls: dinosaurs or superheroes, or images of nature, architecture, or space.”
McGinniss says it’s important to ease boys into your program rather than overwhelm them the second they walk in the door. “Most boys sign up for dance class because they want to learn hip-hop, they want to do better at musical-theater auditions, or they have parents in the arts who want to introduce them to dance,” he says. “You don’t want to scare them away by saying, ‘We’ve got a great program, and you’re going to do this, this, and this.’ ”
He also suggests that it’s unwise to push them into ballet right away; it’s not usually what they are initially interested in. Let them take the classes that got them in the door. At Miller Marley, boys are assimilated into regular coed classes, of which they can take two of their choice. Once they’re hooked, they’re required to develop a foundation in tap, jazz, and ballet, all required for competition. Partnering and men’s ballet classes are by invitation only. When they have achieved a certain advanced level of ballet, boys who are involved in one of the studio’s performing companies are placed on scholarship—an additional incentive.
“The secret to getting boys is that once you get several, more are likely to join because they won’t be the only one in the class.”
At Creative Motions Studios in Akron, Ohio, director Natalie Orr looked to superheroes to create a boy-friendly school. Because she has a young son, Orr wanted to make her school a place where he would not only feel comfortable but also dance with other boys.
Like McGinnis, she eschews pink and other typically female design elements. “Boys dress for dance in black and white,” she says, referring to her not-uncommon dress code, “so they can’t relate to seeing pink tutus and ballet slippers.” Her studio’s logo features an androgynous dancer—no cliché dancer in a tutu or a ballerina in a leap or an arabesque. “Over time, everyone has decided it’s a guy,” she says.
Orr then developed a superhero program. Designed for boys ages 3 to 6, the program incorporates hip-hop, creative movement, tumbling, and martial arts. The instructor, Brenton Andrea, gives students superhero names, uses related analogies (“Pretend you’re Spiderman about to spin your web!”), designs obstacle courses in which the children can pretend to be their favorite comic book protagonist, and choreographs recital routines inspired by classic characters like Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The boys are interested because “they already know so much about it,” Orr says. And they aren’t alone; after the program’s inaugural year, a number of girls requested a superhero class too. Their request was granted, and the two groups’ combined recital performance the following year was a crowd favorite, spurring an increase in enrollment of boys. Last year, the studio’s third season, out of approximately 120 students, 10 were boys.
Designing a men’s program
It’s important to remember that young boys often are rambunctious and come to class with a lot of (and sometimes too much) energy, which can lead to roughhousing and a lack of focus. Plan activities that will allow the boys to run around and expend some of their excitement. Let them race from one side of the room to another 10 times, for instance, or play a few rounds of freeze dance.
Creative Motion’s superhero class accomplishes what Brown insists is necessary for teaching dance to a class of mixed genders: it is appealing to both sexes. For example, instructing young dancers in a creative movement class to “act like a butterfly,” he says, ignores most boys’ interests and inclinations. Being told that they can be princes in a princess-themed class, says Orr, is not going to cut it with many boys, who would probably prefer the role of a superhero or ninja.
It’s also crucial to pay attention to the differences in male physicality. “Women’s bodies are inherently different,” says Brown. “If you ask your students to sit down in second position, it’s going to be a lot easier for the women. The men will feel an immediate sense of inadequacy.”
In developing his men’s class, Brown took careful note of what male dancers found appealing. “I would ask questions, hear their reactions, try occasional questionnaires, read their writings, hear their reactions to concerts, see what worked quickly on them and what they struggled with,” he says. For example, he found that ballet, with the trappings and preconceptions that often surround it, scares men away, but hip-hop is popular. And modern, including the Horton, Limón, and Cunningham techniques, feels gender-neutral.
His students work frequently in parallel position and with flexed feet, initially avoiding the “feminine” look and feeling of pointed feet. Because many of the college-aged guys Brown teaches are athletes or simply want to look comfortable on the dance floor, he emphasizes developing strength, focus, body awareness, and directionality. He takes music suggestions and regularly incorporates hip-hop combinations from movies and music videos. Ultimately, he wants students to feel comfortable and enjoy a good workout.
“You want to empower men to have a wider movement vocabulary, but in a way that acknowledges their masculinity,” he says. “You want them to feel strong and powerful.”
When you have males in your classes, be mindful of music choices and choreography, whether for warm-ups, across-the-floor exercises, or routines. A female vocalist crooning a sad love song, or a parade of pop anthems geared toward adolescent girls may make young male dancers uncomfortable. Hip or pelvic isolations, shimmying shoulders, Fosse-esque cocked wrists, and other movements tinged with femininity may also not feel right to male dancers of any age, regardless of their sexuality. Make sure you are conscious of these elements if they exist in your choreography, and always have alternate options for the boys. Don’t simply tell them, “I’ll figure out what you’ll do here”; be prepared to teach the alternate phrases so the boys know their roles in the dance are as important as those of their female counterparts.
Being told that they can be princes in a princess-themed class, says Orr, is not going to cut it with many boys, who would probably prefer the role of a superhero or ninja.
Remember, too, that many boys who are uncomfortable about certain moves may be too bashful, ashamed, or frightened to speak up. They may be unwilling to question your authority, or unsure of how to voice their concern in front of the class, especially when surrounded by girls. Don’t assume that male students will tell you if they would prefer music, costuming, or choreography to be modified. Anticipate these issues, have options prepared, and don’t hesitate to offer them if you sense discomfort. Doing so will allow boys to feel more fully integrated into the class and less like aliens in a female universe. Being part of a cooperative, inclusive environment in which everyone functions on equal footing will help the boys foster healthy relationships with girls in and outside of the classroom.
Having male dancers available creates endless choreographic possibilities. Make the most of them. Don’t choreograph a number that’s clearly meant to be danced by girls and then try to make a boy fit in; design a dance that uses him effectively and displays his strengths. At the same time, don’t force him to conform to the generic idea of a strong male dancer. While male students should practice lifts, jumps, and turns, give them the chance to use other kinds of strengths. Lifting and partnering might not be their forte; learn what their best skills are and figure out how to display them.
Building a strong male program takes time, but, as McGinniss notes, since boys constitute a smaller group, they will also be one of your most loyal.
“Some girls [stick with] dance because their mother started them when they were 3 and they haven’t found a different passion,” McGinniss says. “Boys stay in dance class because they want to be here. They’re in demand. And they love it.”
Ryan P. Casey, an alumnus of YoungArts, The School at Jacob’s Pillow, Legacy Dance Company, and NYU, is a Boston-based teacher, performer, choreographer, and freelance journalist who directs Ryan Casey & Dancers.