Catlin Gabel: what education can be
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Despite all of our attempts to raise children unencumbered by gender stereotypes, the would-be Billy Elliots of the world still are charged with educating the sometimes narrow-minded and uneducable among us. What happens when a boy decides he wants to take ballet? Even though when asked to name a famous ballet dancer, the names Nijinsky, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Balanchine come readily to most, as a parent of a boy who danced for a while, it was discovered that even folks who consider themselves enlightened can say things that put you and your child in a box. There’s the “Ballet is good for athletes” box, and the ”Good for you for supporting your son’s sexuality” box. Either box is fine, but there is also the ”My son loves to dance and is good at it” box!
Though we’ve made strides in gender equality, there are still subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, social norms surrounding a child’s predilection for an activity and its association with his or her sexuality — seemingly more so for boys than for girls. Even if people don’t come right out and say it, the question hangs in the air. The confounding thing is that people feel the need to categorize a child’s sexuality — either way — based on a love of an art form.
My son demonstrated a love of dance from an early age, flying through preschool, and the house, with great leaps and bounds — and on occasion not defying gravity and requiring stitches. He wanted to dance, so we signed him up for ballet. For a while he was the only boy in the class, and at the age of 4 or 5, he didn’t really notice or care.
When the ballet school had summer camps, he was the one prince surrounded by a dozen princesses. During recitals, he was hard to miss. To be the only boy in a ballet school means getting a lot of attention. A couple of years in, another family with three boys joined in and they were sometimes in class together. When my son turned 8, we took a break and that was it. Maybe it was because he changed schools in second grade, had new friends, or became aware that not everyone thought a boy ballet dancer was a normal thing.
For Lucas Threefoot, company dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, the fact that he was a ballet dancer was something he shared only with close confidantes. Lucas states, “The reason I decided to hide the fact that I was a ballet dancer was because people generally automatically assumed that I was gay. They were wrong, and I was usually hurt and a bit insecure, so I never really stuck up for myself.”
For the boys who choose to continue on, the desire to dance has to come from within; they are keenly aware not everyone understands the motivation to dance and they protect that part of themselves, not sharing their dancer side with just any casual friend. As Lucas says, “I learned my lesson in middle school, as my naiveté taught me that people don’t always accept you for who you are. In high school I was very guarded about letting that information out.” However, he didn’t let the fear of being teased or bullied keep him from doing what he loved — ballet.
For Lucas, his journey started with a body in constant motion — spinning, leaping, jumping and hurling himself through the air, inspired by the summer Olympics. His mother decided it would be best for him to have a controlled environment in which to be airborne, and signed him up for his first class at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre at the age of 4. Lucas says, “They started me out in a class called creative movement. I remember loving running around the studio with a scarf pretending I was a butterfly, fox, or other animal.” Fast forward 20 years, and Lucas is a soloist with the company.
If a boy stays with it and becomes a professional male ballet dancer, attitudes change. Lucas goes on to say, “As adults, people are much more accepting, and if anything, way more interested in such an unusual profession. Also, I learned that if you are confident in yourself, then people will be much more accepting of you. It’s learning to be self-assured that is the hard part.”
Being self-assured through adolescence is tough in general, and for boys who dance, their self-assurance may be tested. They will likely encounter some less enlightened peers in the middle school years. It’s important for boys of this age to have the support of both parents. Parental support, especially from fathers, can be critical for young male dancers. Lucas shares, “My father has always been supportive of me in my dancing. In fact, he has performed next to me on stage several times! Not something he would have done if I had not been in the community, but definitely a show of support.”
Male ballet dancers do what they love despite the obstacles they socially face. They are the minority in classes — sometimes the only boy, or one of just a couple. At the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, once a week, all the boys from different levels have a class together. Even with strong parental support, boys need strong male dancers as role models and teachers to advance. According to Lucas, “I’m not sure how old I was when I first had a male ballet teacher, but I remember Fred Locke well. I think he made a big impression on me, especially early on.”
Lucas goes on to say, “A good male teacher is imperative; there’s nothing like a good strong male figure. Second of all, a focus on big jumps, partnering and a princely demeanor is just as important. Males are asked to do different things from females in ballet, and our bodies are built differently anyway, so I think it’s important to differentiate in the way they are taught. But they should be pushed just as hard as the girls!”
Having the support of other male dancers as cohorts is just as important as having male teachers. For Lucas, it’s important to be a role model for younger male dancers, just as others were for him; to offer kudos, support and understanding. He says, “Just the other day I ran into a younger dancer who I hadn’t seen in seven years, and it was great to reconnect with him. I always try to encourage boys to keep with it, because ballet can be incredibly hard sometimes, both physically and mentally.”
Ballet takes tremendous dedication and stamina to pursue professionally. Dancers, both male and female, have to make tough choices, giving up time for other activities and socializing with friends. Dedication doesn’t come without moments of doubt. Lucas says, “There was a time when I was in middle school that Haydee Gutierrez — the ballet teacher who had been so influential in my early years — left, and that was hard for me. I lost my passion for ballet for a while.”
Even though he fell back in love with dance, he says, he does feel like he “missed out on a lot,” as a teenager. Lucas states, “The fact that ballet training is so intensive means that there’s not a whole lot of time for other things, especially later on in your dance education. That being said, I have no regrets. I had a blast, and there’s no way I would be where I am now without all of that hard work and dedication when I was a young boy.”
The upside for boys who want to dance is that ballet studios want them in class! For example, at the School of Oregon Ballet Theater they are “Looking for the Next Mikhail Baryshnikov.” On the Web site, there is a featured video of a young male dance student, Joseph Warton, a young man who by all accounts is learning about discipline, perseverance, grace, etiquette and hard work in addition to ballet technique.
Because there are fewer boys, the opportunities to obtain professional-level training are a bit more favorable. All the way through the ballet experience, women outnumber men, and because of that there is a sense of camaraderie among the male dancers. Lucas says, “There tends to be less competition among male dancers than female dancers; we are able to get along well. Plus, we’re a rare breed—gotta stick together!”
In our society, the view of male dancers may or may not change in the future. In Europe, dancers are much more respected. In the United States, dance is seen as a primarily female activity. When asked why culturally, dance gets less respect than it deserves, Lucas replied, “What are popular here are individualistic or competitive activities. Americans want a ‘team’ to root for; ballet’s not about that.”
For young men who make the grade and become professionals, there are perks. Lucas says, “One great thing about being a male dancer is that once you’re through school and have made it to the professional side, being a dancer is regarded in a much better light. Then there is the added benefit that you get to be surrounded by amazingly beautiful women! The journey is a hard one, but it is most definitely worth it.”
Ballet is a physically and mentally demanding art form, and most dancers retire sometime in their 30s, leaving years to pursue other careers. While Lucas has many more years to go before retirement, when asked what is next, he relayed his interest in science and technology, especially theoretical physics. However, he’s not interested in being a mere technician; he wants “to be a discoverer!”
Tammy has loved writing ever since she had a poem published in her grade school newsletter. Visit her blog at mamacandance.blogspot.com.
- Article and thumb : Xuan Cheng and Lucas Threefoot rehearse for Christopher Stowell’s Ekho.
- rotating: Petrouchka (Brian Simcoe) and “The Friend” (Lucas Threefoot) with the “Girl” (Yuka Lino) in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka