I’ll never forget the reaction when I posted on Facebook a few years ago that I took ballet classes and even performed on stage.
There were a few people who knew me, and it didn’t make a difference with them. But I spent most of my career in journalism in the ultimate “normal guy” profession — sports writing. Nevermind that I’m still the sports fanatic I always was, nuts about college football, the NFL and Major League Baseball and still like playing golf, enjoyed sandlot football or even softball (even though I’m not the most athletically talented person in the world).
I’ve got quite a few “oh my god, can’t believe you do that, run for the hills” reactions. Some of the friends who regularly responded to my status’ didn’t as much anymore after I revealed that I dance. And it’s not just my former sports writer peers.
Why does it seem to scare the daylights out of people that maybe a normal guy would like to dance?
There are quite a few reasons why very few boys or men dare to set foot in a ballet class, or modern or jazz class. Hip-hop, well that’s a little cooler and a little more acceptable.
There are the dreaded stereotypes. If you are male and you like ballet, you must be gay. It’s sissy, it’s powdered wigs and tights, it’s little girls twirling in tutus and tiaras.
I do find a certain irony in the first stereotype. The first time I walked into a ballet class was also the year I played high school football.
Be on a team with 85 guys, share a lockerroom and open showers with them and no one questions your sexual orientation, but take a class where you are the only boy in a class with girls wearing leotards, and suddenly, you’re gay. Go figure.
I’ve actually found this stereotype not to be true. The one male teacher I have, the handful of guys I’m in class with on a regular basis aren’t gay. I know a couple of dancers who are, but so what? They don’t exactly fit the sissy stereotype either.
The tights stereotype, I think in this day is a bit overrated. Yeah, in some traditional ballet performances, you’ll see the guy in the “tights,” but the majority of the roles I’ve seen, you have your share of regular costumes. I’ve been in the Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Firebird, Dracula and will be in Billy the Kid in a few weeks and have only had to wear them under costumes.
As for class, I’ve never thought of it as that big a deal, especially with football players, wrestlers and track athletes wearing Under Armour and other clothes that in my opinion are pretty much tights, but called by a manlier name.
As for it being a sissy activity? I think the “Miss Susie School of Dance” studios have had a lot to do with that stereotype being alive and well. They cater to the “isn’t that little girl cute twirling around in her tutu and tiara” crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I know that’s what appeals to young girls and even some women who are drawn to that side of ballet, but is it a wonder that parents with a 5-year-old boy would run as far as they can from that activity?
But the truth is, ballet is anything but a sissy activity. I think the vast majority of people would be shocked if they were to observe a class beyond the beginner level about how athletic it is.
I’ve seen guys soar higher in leaps and double tours than any basketball player trying to dunk, and that includes Michael Jordan. Try catching a leaping girl and putting her on your shoulder and make it look effortless. And any dancer doing multiple pirouettes, male or female, is no sissy.
Sure, there are girls wearing tutus and tiaras. But usually the ones who do end up doing 32 fouettes during a combination. That is not an easy thing to do.
It takes a lot of stamina and strength to go from exercise to exercise, or combination in a 90-minute class, or multiple classes in a day, or to perform two or three major roles in a performance. People do not realize how athletic ballet really is. It is as much of an athletic activity as football or basketball, sometimes moreso. I covered hundreds of high school, college and pro athletes, and some of the athletes I’ve ever seen are dancers.
It’s the part of ballet I wished others could see.
But stereotypes are hard to look past. And cultural attitudes are hard to break.