It was picture I wanted to burn, and didn’t realize I still had from the first year I took ballet as a teenager.
It was the only photo of me taking class back in those days, the early 80s. It was a class photo for our teacher, one of me and the 10 girls I took class with. There, in the middle of the second row, I stood wearing a maroon scoop- necked leotard with black tights.
To put it bluntly, it was a girl’s leotard. It was something that I wore that I would die if anyone who saw me outside the class wore.
I’m glad that photo has long since disappeared before the age of Facebook.
But in a strange way, that long-gone leotard is a symbol for me.
It’s a symbol of courage.
It’s a symbol of the courage it takes for a boy growing up in a small town in the South back in the 1980s to take ballet … something totally outside of the box in the Heart of Dixie.
Balanchine once said “Ballet is Woman.”
For a boy growing up in the South, even today. “Ballet is Girl.”
Of course, Balanchine had a different meaning than how dance is viewed in culture.
But if you’re a boy (and later a man), the yearning to dance is completely counter to culture especially in a place where football is king (and for the record, I do love football).
If your family has no connection to ballet to start with, the first step in summoning up the courage to take ballet is confronting your parents.
My yearning to take ballet was really planted in a show I watched as a kid called “The Children of Theatre Street,” and later an ABC Afternoon Special called a “Special Gift,” about a boy who wanted to take ballet despite the pressures from home and school, maybe it was a short, lesser-known version of Billy Elliott for my generation.
Whatever reason, I wanted to so something boys my age in Alabama never want to do … take ballet. It was pretty much a girls only activity.
And you’d a thought I wanted to go to the moon when I asked my mother (and don’t get me started about my father) for permission.
It was … “You want to do what?”
You’d have thought I’d asked to go to the moon.
She gave her approval, not really enthusiastically, but at least she gave it. She was from up north (Pennsylvania), so maybe she was the one who was responsible for my outside of the box thinking.
I was 16. I had a part-time job. Part of the approval was that I paid for the classes, which I did.
The second step on the courage ladder was actually calling the city’s park and rec department to ask about classes. To the woman I talked to’s credit, she didn’t laugh her head off, but was very cooperative.
Step three was the actual walking into class to actually take the class. Even as an adult male who takes classes recreationally, those first steps into a new class in a new place is still a cause for anxiety.
Unless you go to a pre-pro school (which I didn’t know existed back in those days) there is still some anxiety about invading which for some is female-only space.
To my luck, my very first teacher, a ballerina in her 20s, was extremely happy to have a boy dancer invade their space … and gave an enthusiastic speech to the probably equally in shock girls in the class about the importance of men in ballet.
The girls, to their credit, didn’t seem to have too much a problem with a boy in their midst. A couple of them were high school classmates who are still good friends to this day.
Those first few classes, I wore shorts, t-shirts, sweats and socks to class. No big deal.
The more classes I took, the more Madame Sherrie encouraged me to get actual shoes and even encouraged me to think about wearing more appropriate dancer attire.
I guess that is where step four of the courage ladder comes in. And it’s one I think boys and men still fight to some degree (fortunately when you’re an adult male dancing recreationally there really isn’t a dress code, but if you’re serious, it can be voluntarily an issue).
The Internet didn’t exist back in those days. You couldn’t order anything online. And I tried to keep as much of what I wore, or what we did in ballet as much a secret as possible from friends and family, so ordering through the mail wasn’t something I was really considering because of the fact I had two older, bigger brothers who liked to pick on me about anything, much less anything ballet.
The nearest real dancewear store was in a bigger city about 30 miles away. And as a new driver, I wasn’t really allowed to travel out of town.
There was a shoe store the girls in class used. So I summoned the courage to go their. To my luck, they had black shoes. They also had tights … which I learned when I got home weren’t boys tights (I didn’t know there was a difference when I got home).
I went back to the store and explained my dilemma to the ladies who worked there. And one of them talked me into buying a leotard. They were out of black.
So I ended up buying a maroon one.
Why I didn’t just wear shorts or sweat pants with the shoes … I don’t know.
I just wanted to feel more like a dancer.
That first class in dancer attire included the maroon leotard, those not so opaque black tights, a t-shirt and the athletic supporter I wore for football (which actually functioned reasonably well as a dance belt).
Step five on the courage ladder is actually wearing your clothes to class.
Madame Sherrie understood my dilemma. She told me which store to go to if I ever journeyed over to the large town, and what to buy.
But she told me what I wore was fine for her class. And none of the girls ever said anything, or snickered, as far as I know.
I wore a t-shirt over the leotard for most of the year, but finally became comfortable dancing without it. And I wasn’t cool enough to come up with the idea of wearing the leotard under tights like I know some guys do.
I am somewhat embarrassed to share what I wore that first year, but I want people to understand the courage it takes for a boy to take dance, especially in a small town, how awkward it can be to walk into a class where you’re the only boy … and to struggle with finding the right things to wear to class (much less be comfortable wearing it), and the challenges of taking ballet in a small town where the arts may not be appreciated.
There are other steps of courage involved, and as an adult who is still dancing, I still experience some of it today.
One of the hardest steps for me was letting people know I danced. I hid it as much as I could for years (and my classmates kept my secret as long as I wanted them to).
The adult in me laughs now at the awkwardness of that first year.
But I did my first pirouettes and my first tour jetes wearing that maroon leotard.
I experienced partnering wearing that maroon leotard.
And I fell completely in love with ballet in class wearing that maroon leotard.