I had been ballroom dancing for two years, and I wanted to improve my form and look more dancer-like. Since I am fan of ballet, I knew that its rigor and discipline would help me become stronger and more focused. So I registered for an adult beginner class at the Princeton Ballet School (PBS). While waiting to take my first class, I happened to notice a classroom with several boys in white T-shirts and leggings. They were jumping around and looking just as boys do when they play — except these boys were practicing ballet.
I immediately recalled a conversation that I had several years ago with my now 18-year-old son when I suggested that he try a dance class. “No way!” he responded, “Everyone will think I am gay.”
I have always felt baffled by this reaction. After all, Russia and other countries have traditionally embraced its male dancers. And when I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov jump and turn on stage, he seemed the epitome of virility and masculinity. So why do so many people in the United States view ballet so differently? Or do they? Having seen a whole ballet class filled with boys made me wonder if things are different now. Or are these young males just less concerned with the stigma that may be associated with dancing?
With ballet part of the holiday season — as the production American Repertory Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” takes the stage at McCarter Theater this weekend — it seemed the perfect time to find out.
Ed Urwin, 24, a dancer with the American Repertory Ballet (ARB) and teacher at PBS, faced this dilemma of being a male in ballet when he started dancing at the age of 13. “I was doing musical theater at the Bucks County Playhouse. My teachers advised me to take ballet because it is the basis for all dance forms,” says Urwin. With the support of his parents, he enrolled in an all-male ballet class at a local dance studio in Doylestown, PA, where he grew up. “Initially, I was hesitant because I didn’t know anything about ballet. I pictured pink tutus and little girls running around. I tried to keep it a secret for a while because I was not sold on the idea of ballet and I did not want to be made fun of,” he said.
But that secret got out when a girl who attended both his dance and regular school spread the word. “This was the beginning of a rough period for me in middle school. Kids would say, ‘he is girly,’” says Urwin, who then bonded more with the dance community. “People might think that ballet is for sissies, but it is not. Male dancers actually spend a great deal of time learning to present women in a chivalrous way,” he adds.
Urwin recalls a pivotal experience. After studying ballet for a year, he attended a performance of the ballet “Giselle” at the Met. “It was when I saw Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca dance together in ‘the white act’ (the second act when the dancers wear white), I knew then that I wanted to become a ballet dancer. The form and the beauty was something that I wanted to achieve. Once I decided that I wanted to become a dancer and do everything I could do to become a dancer, my heart was in it. That is when the teasing stopped,” he says.
Making ballet his life, Urwin took 10 to 12 ballet classes a week and moved his training to Princeton Ballet School, where he was pushed harder and farther than in Doylestown. On weekdays his mother would pick him up at the end of the school day and drive him to Princeton. On weekends he took additional classes.
Urwin says that at Princeton he trained with some outstanding faculty, including Douglas Martin, now ARB artistic director, and Maria Youskevitch, the school’s ballet mistress. He also found kindred spirits. “A lot of the men I was in training with are still with the school, and we work alongside each other in the company,” says Urwin.
Since ARB annually presents “the Nutcracker” during the holiday season, Urwin has had the opportunity to dance several roles. “I remember being so excited when I danced the roles of Fritz and the Rat King for the first time,” he said.
In addition to dancing with ARB for three years, Urwin has also danced with the Louisville Ballet in Kentucky and as a trainee with Ballet Florida. Eventually he hopes to become a ballet master or manage a company. According to Urwin, most ballet dancers retire between the age of 35 and 40 and then advance into other areas. “How long a career you have depends on how your body holds up. If you are a turn, jump, trick person, you might have a shorter career. Some male dancers focus on being partners and have to lift a lot of women. However, men have to be able to do everything and then eventually you carve a niche for yourself.”
Urwin believes his ballet training has helped him in other areas of his life as well. “I have been hired for positions in which the employers hire dancers because they know they are self-motivated, poised, and know how to conduct themselves in an elegant manner.” And in the dance world, it is much easier for men to find work because there are so few male dancers. “If you go to an audition for a major regional company, there might be 150 girls auditioning and 30 guys,” But, he points out, “You still have to be very good.”
What is also good is his life choice. “Being a male dancer is so fulfilling. It is the perfect harmony between being strong and masculine as well as expressive and artistic. It also teaches you how to focus and be more disciplined,” he says.
American Repertory Ballet artistic director and “Nutcracker” choreographer Douglas Martin also has insight to being male in the ballet world. Initially focused on being an athlete, he broke his ankle while playing football in high school at the age of 15. “When I woke up with a pin in my leg I thought, ‘now I can take ballet.’” Though Martin enjoyed playing football and soccer in high school, he realized their limits. “I knew that I couldn’t do that as a career. I was always artistic and I also loved sports. Ballet fulfilled both.”
According to Martin, most great dancers love the physical part of the art and the challenge. “Like a sport, before a performance, every dancer is getting the body ready. Everything is difficult in ballet because it involves every muscle of your body and brain. We have the elements of a cold floor, listening to the music, and having to be prepared as a live artist since the body is transient. But I loved it and I knew when I got into it that I was a lifer,” he says.
Martin grew up in San Jose, California. Since his two sisters took ballet, the transition from playing sports to dance was easy for him. “All my friends were supportive because they knew me as a rough-and-tumble football player,” Martin recalls. “My mom was supportive of my decision to take ballet, and my dad backed me in everything I did, but he still wanted me to play sports.” Though, Martin says, that changed too. “My dad loved the sophistication of the arts, and he got to watch me dance with the Joffrey Ballet.”
After a successful 20-year career as a dancer, Martin followed the natural path of most dancers and retired at the age of 40. “I had reached a point when I had done everything. I performed in all the productions that I wanted to, and I danced with my wife (ARB dancer and choreographer Mary Barton). I was tall, so I was asked to lift a lot of women, and that takes a toll on your neck and your back.” He loved teaching, directing, and rehearsing, so he accepted a position with ARB.
According to Martin, it is much easier to get boys to take ballet now than when he was growing up. PBS offers all-boy classes with an average of 10 boys in a class, though girls still significantly outnumber boys. Out of an average of 800 students, 25 are male and far fewer males continue to study ballet as they get older. At PBS, approximately 10 percent of the girls compared with 3 percent of the boys stay until they are 18.
Martin isn’t too concerned about the stigma associated with male ballet dancers, but he has dealt with situations in which a student may “out” a dancer who prefers to keep it a secret from their friends. “We now operate in an arena in which ballet is more accepted,” he said. “Kids start ballet and find that it is fun and then they get more involved with it.”
Yet Martin finds it hard to convince parents that their son can make a living in ballet. “They want their kids to go to college. We provide them with rigorous training, and if they lose those four years they have lost a crucial time in their development.” Martin encourages his students to apply to college and then when they are accepted, defer admission until a later time. Dancing in a company provides the opportunity to travel around the world and meet cultured people, Martin says.
He seems quite confident in the idea of attracting male dancers. “Any boy who loves athletics as well as the expression of art will love ballet.” One boy who seems to confirm Martin’s belief is eight-year-old Stephane Bronsard, who got the idea to dance and started taking ballet classes when he was five. No stranger to the world of ballet, Stephane has an older sister who had been studying it for some time. Then he was inspired by an ARB production of “The Nutcracker.” “I thought it was so beautiful that I wanted to take (dance classes),” he says.
Stephane attends the French-American School of Princeton and participates in other activities such as soccer, drama, and chess after school; yet ballet and drama are his favorites, and he enjoys getting the exercise that the twice weekly classes provide.
“When Stephane first asked to take ballet we liked that he was motivated,” said his mother, Jennifer Tobin, a medical doctor and associate medical director of Articulate Science. Stephane’s father, Francois Bronsard, a software engineering consultant for Siemens, was not surprised, since he too has always enjoyed dancing.
“When they were small, I would often dance with them to popular music in the evening,” Bronsard said. “When we have parties with extended family at Christmas or New Year’s Eve, dance is always a big part of the evening, and that taste is shared by everyone, old and young, male and female, in the family. I think Stephane was given the message that dance was an appreciated and respected activity for guys and girls alike.”
The boys in Stephane’s school are a harder sell when it comes to ballet. “The girls at school think it is good that I take ballet. But sometimes if I dance at school, the other boys make a face. They think I should only play soccer,” he says.
Yet Stephane say his ballet training has made him a faster and better soccer player. “I like my ballet classes because it is like moving acting, and I like the part where we jump.” What he does not like are the pushups and sit ups, mandatory components of each class.
Last year Stephane had the opportunity to dance a few roles, including that of the youngest family member in ARB’s “The Nutcracker.” This year, he returns as the second oldest child.
About appearing in the annual production that has engaged experienced dancers Urwin and Martin, the young Stephane says, “When I perform in ‘The Nutcracker,’ I feel a little excited and a little scared. But even if I am scared, I remember each step. Each year it gets easier.”
Easier for him and perhaps for other boys in ballet.
American Repertory Ballet’s 49th season of “The Nutcracker,” McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, November 23 and November 24, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 25, 1 p.m. $20-$55. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.
Patriot’s Theater at the Trenton War Memorial Building, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. Saturday, December 8, 1 and 4:30 p.m. $25-$45. www.thewarmemorial.com or 732-249-1254 ext. 12.
State Theater, New Brunswick, with a live orchestra conducted by Princeton University’s Michael Pratt. Friday, December 21, at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, December 22, 1 and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 23, 1 and 4:30 p.m. $32-$57. www.StateTheatreNJ.org or 732-246-7469.
For more information: www.americanrepertoryballet.org or 732-249-1254 ext. 12.