Mix fun, competition, and discipline to keep boys engaged and challenged
By Theodore Bale
Establishing an effective program for boys in ballet requires special considerations when it comes to motivation, progress, injury prevention, and social interaction. Three experts with demonstrated success in teaching classical technique to boys share their thoughts:
- Jefferson Baum, former director of dance at the National Dance Institute in New Mexico and current faculty member at The School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Santa Fe, New Mexico;
- John Grensback, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Academy in Eugene;
- José Mateo, artistic director of José Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Was a boys-only ballet class part of your own early training?
John Grensback: My training was a bit unusual. My teacher was Ed Parish, who had studied with the great Nijinska. Ed pulled me from the streets onto the stage. He became my foster father and the one who raised me. He was known in Chicago for his well-trained boys, and his Nutcracker production was always filled with boys. There was a very athletic boys’ class. He
made it fun for us, and many boys were saved from a troubled environment by dance. At times it was over our head, but it kept us occupied, and some of us even went on to become professional dancers. Ed gave us little stretch boxes for our feet, if you can believe it. But he would make it fun for us and told us not to worry if we didn’t have the perfect body. My motto now is “Serious Dance, Serious Fun.”
José Mateo: I started training very late, and it was exclusively with young girls. When I started modern dance, however, there were a lot of boys. Princeton had just gone [fully] co-ed [in 1969], so lots of boys were already enrolled. When I started training seriously in ballet in New York, there were always a healthy number of men in those classes, but at the Princeton Ballet Society it was exclusively young women and all of the men were guest artists.
The modern dance training at Princeton was wonderful because of its proximity to New York, so we always had teachers who were in the companies of Alwin Nikolais, José Limón, and Anna Sokolow. We got a different look at different techniques. Erick Hawkins was a big influence for me.
When I went to Europe for the first time in the early 1970s, I realized that men could have extension. You didn’t see that in America very much at that time. A lot of what had been considered solely women’s technique in America was not only possible but required of men in European ballet.
Jefferson Baum: My mom, Nancy Baum, was a teacher at Chicago Ballet. She started a boys’ class, and we did pushups and calisthenics, and then we had to go to this barre thing and kick out our legs. At the end of the year, she asked us to be in a show. We were only 14, and she said, “You’re going to be in the show with girls.” The girls came in and they were basically wearing nothing, and we all said, “OK!”
John Prince did a master class, and after that he told me that I was talented and could really do something, but I would have to leave and go to a school. I didn’t want to leave my friends, though. My mom and sister had gone to Interlochen [Center for the Arts] in Michigan. I auditioned there and the director told me that I was talented but she wasn’t going to accept me. I was crushed. She said, “One other boy here is better than you are, and you need to be the best.” She told me to go where I could get proper training and I ended up at North Carolina School of the Arts. I found her years later when I was a dancer at Metropolitan Opera Ballet and I sent her a dozen roses and thanked her for not accepting me!
I studied at NCSA with Duncan Noble, and he had a special way of doing men’s class. I learned a lot from him, and he became the “Jedi master” of my ballet world. After that I was at the School of American Ballet with Stanley Williams and he took a real interest in me and helped me a lot.
When I was learning ballet I had a boys’ class, and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev were household names. All of us aspired to be like them. Who are the heroes now?
John Grensback: I went to a party at the School of American Ballet when I was 14 and there was Peter Martins. He gave me great advice. I was in class with Fernando Bujones, Gelsey Kirkland, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Boys were treated a bit more special in those days because there weren’t so many of us. I never paid for class. Our American dancers are our stars now. Many of them are good at tricks, but the art form has declined slightly. Carlos Acosta and Ethan Stiefel are examples of how we have surpassed even the Russians. Today’s American male dancer is as strong as anybody.
José Mateo: I don’t know that we have those role models now. There are certainly a lot of dancers in the U.S. who have the technique of Baryshnikov or Nureyev, but their personalities have not been promoted in the same way. I remember doing a flyer with a picture of Baryshnikov in the center, surrounded by pictures of male athletes, when we first opened our school. Every time I return to that flyer, I think it’s the most effective tool for marketing ballet to boys. That was around 1987. Baryshnikov was in the movies then, and was still dancing and moving into his White Oak Dance Project. But Nureyev had moved to Paris and was a little out of the picture in terms of the minds of young boys.
On the recent Ballets Russes centennial, I was surprised by how much Nijinsky had fallen out of the public sphere. In the dance boom [of the 1960s to early 1990s], everybody knew who Nijinsky was. It’s shocking how little ballet history young dancers have. We take our students to the Harvard Theatre Collection whenever there is an exhibit on costumes and theater. There are still ballet students who don’t know about Diaghilev.
“Our culture is less homophobic today than it was 30 years ago, and I think for that reason we have more boys in ballet class now.” —José Mateo
People measure achievement in ballet by the companies they join, but there is less awareness of what we are trying to accomplish here and what makes a great male ballet dancer. I feel there is a great decline in the dance community itself in awareness of what constitutes a fine male dancer. Sometimes I catch my students watching a ballet variation on a cell phone, and I’ll ask them who is dancing. Often they don’t know.
Jefferson Baum: Role models? There are none. When I tell the boys that I took class alongside Baryshnikov at the School of American Ballet [taught by Stanley Williams], the boys know about him. They are clueless about Nureyev, though, who was also in that class. So, no, the boys don’t really have anybody at that level to aspire to—Fernando Bujones, Peter Schaufuss, or Peter Martins, for example. One of my best friends is [former New York City Ballet principal dancer] Jock Soto, and I had him do a workshop at National Dance Institute, and we’ve talked about him doing some classes at Aspen. There is someone who the boys can totally look up to. Another guy is Peter Boal, [artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet]. He brought part of his company down to Santa Fe about a year ago, and we brought the boys to see what Peter is doing.
What problems disappear or arise when the boys study separately from the girls?
John Grensback: I remember those tough boys’ classes. I think the healthy competition is good. I’ve seen, as a dancer, the ones who think they are better. I’d rather have a good student than one with a superior attitude. They have to enjoy what they are doing and you have to make it fun for them. I disagree with making it so tough on boys mentally that they don’t want to do it. They should feel really good about themselves after doing a class, just because they finished it.
José Mateo: The nature of male competition becomes immediately evident. I am reminded of those National Geographic or other nature programs about male domination and territorialism! A boys’ class becomes a competition almost in the measured sense that scorekeeping accounts for in sports—seeing who can jump the highest, be best at turning, and reign in batterie. These are the hallmarks of accomplishment for boys. It becomes difficult to draw their attention to such things as port de bras, phrasing, and musicality. Certainly Baryshnikov and all the great technicians since demonstrate prowess, but that’s not only what made them great. It’s the ability to integrate all those skills with nuance and subtlety that makes great artists. But it’s hard to get men to focus on those things when they are by themselves.
Jefferson Baum: A big thing in my class is discipline. As a teacher, if you are not in the driver’s seat in a class of boys, forget it! This is how we end class: We do a reverence, and then the boys come shake my hand and thank me, and I will thank them if they did a good job. If they’ve got a lot of energy on a certain day, we do push-ups, but on five counts up and down, and I do the counting. I tell them they need to finish every exercise strong.
Often the boys are beside themselves when the girls come in; they get chatty and start flirting and then they come across the floor to dance and they don’t know what they’re doing. Every so often I single a boy out and tell him, “I know it’s difficult to focus when there are so many beautiful girls in the room.” When he’s singled out, he will calm down.
I tell the boys that they have to focus ten times as much as the girls, because they are often ten times behind them in terms of technique.
Do boys need to begin training by a certain age if they want to pursue a professional career?
John Grensback: I knew a few dancers at Houston Ballet who started as late as 17 and became professional dancers, but they were swimmers or had a significant sports backgrounds. I usually see the boys around age 7 or 8, and I give them much encouragement and tell everyone to keep an eye on the new boy. The boys live for Nutcracker. When they see other boys dancing onstage, that helps, and I suppose that the fact that I am a male teacher also helps. I might tell the father of a female student who also has a boy, “In a couple of years I will have him here in class.” Half of them don’t succeed past six months, but the other half usually make enormous progress.
José Mateo: I look at this in two parts. My first argument is always to convince the parents that the benefit the boy draws from studying ballet outweighs the benefits of having a career in ballet. Answers about career are impossible to predict since the student could be injured the next day and be out of the running, or he could make incredibly fast progress. I always remind parents that it is all relative to the options they have. If the boy has a burning passion for something else, it’s more likely the other passion will result in a career. And that career might have better benefits and less stress. But if ballet is his primary passion, then I encourage him to pursue it.
Several years ago I read somewhere that dancers, on the average, end their careers seven years earlier than they expected to go. So “How long can I go?” is almost a moot question. Make your decisions based on your passion, not predictions that are impossible to make or to rely on.
Jefferson Baum: I started when I was 14. A couple of my great friends started at 18 or 19. But if you ask me the same question about a girl, I would say they should start at age 8 or 9. When the boys start late, they really put the nose to the grindstone because they know that they are behind. Those boys have to get really serious in order to catch up with the women.
What sorts of injuries and other problems need to be looked at from a preventive stance for boys?
John Grensback: We haven’t had many injuries, but I don’t usually have many things where they land on one leg, such as a saut de basque. I keep the boys on two feet. My boys are doing double pirouettes and double tours and they are doing fine. Their backs are fine because they do push-ups and pull-ups. I don’t really stress turnout, because I’ve been through that kind of pressure.
José Mateo: The young body has a certain amount of resiliency, and [the students] are also training their proprioceptive facilities. The most important thing is assessing the boy’s ability to manage turnout. Everyone looks at the range of turnout. But range is less critical than the way the boy manages that turnout, which could be detrimental to the development of the back. Boys generally don’t have the same range or ease of turnout as girls, and boys will force it more. Failing to manage it properly, combined with big jumps where you have the biggest impact on the spine, could result in serious injuries.
Maintaining the alignment of all those parts is critical, and I think is taken a lot less seriously by men. You can’t predict where the problems will turn up, but it’s likely in the ankles, knees, or spine. I always remind men of the level of virtuosity that exists out there. Are we working to exceed that? Because, let’s be realistic—let’s think instead about something that is theatrically engaging. I always encourage them to go to Cirque du Soleil, to see the extremes of what the human body can do. You’ll see those things that are at almost unimaginable levels. But those same people could not do even one phrase in classical ballet.
Jefferson Baum: A lot of boys get injured because they are not prepared to lift a girl, and they try to “brute force” it and injure their backs. I am trying to prevent that by doing heavy-duty physical conditioning in my classes. Lifting weights is injury prevention. The first half-hour of every class we lift weights and do push-ups.
In my case, I was thrown into advanced partnering without preparation. I was 6-foot-1 and weighed about 140 pounds. Of course, they put me with the tall girls. Within the first six months I had a major back injury. Probably knees are the second concern, and I think we can work with turnout not coming from the knees.
Despite many social advances, some people still think ballet is an unbecoming pursuit for a boy. What do you do to help boys and their parents overcome such stereotypes?
John Grensback: You can educate the uneducated very easily. Sometimes the fathers are nervous, and I explain that it just doesn’t make any sense. Ballet can be very supportive of sports and other things the boys like to do. Nutcracker can also change a dad’s attitude. When I was a student in Chicago, I told the boys who called me a sissy, “I am going to do something with my life.” They didn’t know what to say to that!
As a teacher, you get all kinds of boys, in different shapes, sizes, sexual preferences, and whatever else. I have never had any boys tease each other. When they come together, they forget everything else. I have had some feminine boys over the years and I have never had that problem of teasing. It’s a different world we live in now.
José Mateo: Our culture is less homophobic today than it was 30 years ago, and I think for that reason we have more boys in ballet class now. You can’t make generalizations about how appealing ballet is to either gay or straight kids.
However, if boys choose to go into ballet, there is a tradition that puts men into stereotypical roles that are hard to break. There are lifts and partnering that would be difficult to accomplish without those traditional roles. As unimportant as their own orientation may be in terms of pursuing a career or not, boys should know that they will have to be able to “do it all.”
In Europe they enlist boys in ballet before they have any real sexual awareness and just as many boys are brought in to class as girls. Our enrollment here in Cambridge is now 16 percent boys, and that is actually huge, and we have healthy boys’ classes. At a certain level, though, they still have to move in with the girls if they want to get on a serious level.
Jefferson Baum: Half my friends are gay, and I happen to be straight. When the boys see my girlfriend they say, “Wow!” Immediately that puts the fathers at ease, and I hate that! It just shouldn’t be that way. I quote a newspaper article I read some years ago, which stated that if ballet were considered a sport, it would be second only to football in degree of difficulty and injuries sustained.
For the first half hour of boys’ class I don’t play ballet music. I say, “Boys, today I am educating you about music,” and we listen to classic rock. I leave the door open, because you know those fathers are watching their boys!
Recently a father came up to me after one ballet performance and said, “You know every guy onstage is gay.” He said this in front of his son, who lives to dance and works constantly. His father doesn’t think his son can ever make a living doing dance. But then I told him that I have a 500-acre ranch in New Mexico, a condo I sublet in Michigan, an apartment in New York; I drive a Land Rover and a Chevy ’66 Bel Air, and I travel all over the world. I make my point loud and clear.
For more information:
Oregon Ballet Academy: oregonballetacademy.com/boys_program.php
José Mateo’s school: ballettheatre.org/school_ydp.
Jefferson Baum: aspensantafeballet.com/school/faculty_santafe.php; ndi-nm.org/teacherfeature.html
National Dance Institute: ndi-nm.org/our_programs.html