Archive for Saturday, December 9, 2006

It’s a man’s whirl

Despite social stigma, more Lawrence boys turning to dance

December 9, 2006

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Kansas University graduate Beau Hancock now performs with several professional companies in New York.

Kansas University graduate Beau Hancock now performs with several professional companies in New York.

There's a scene in "Billy Elliot," the 2000 British film about a lad who skips out on boxing practice to take ballet lessons, when Billy's grandma tries to defend him to his father.

Grandma: I used to go to ballet.

Billy: See?

Dad: All right for your Nana, for girls. No, not for lads, Billy. Lads do football ... or boxing ... or wrestling. Not friggin' ballet.

Anyone who's seen the movie knows that Billy persists, and eventually becomes a gifted professional dancer. But his road isn't easy. Despite Billy's hardships, however, Lawrence 10-year-old Alyosha Mitchell says the movie inspired him to continue in ballet class.

"He does this big leap at the end, and his dad wants him to be a boxer," Mitchell says. "I kind of liked that. I was already taking ballet before that, and my dad just said it would help me stay in shape."

Mitchell is one of a growing number of young men taking dance instruction at the Lawrence Arts Center, where a boys-only class started up last year.

"We just wanted to give them a place to work on dance from a male point-of-view and not feel like they were the only boy in an all-girl class," says Candi Baker, director of dance at the center.

Jun Kuribayashi, a Kansas University graduate, now dances with Pilobolus in New York.

Jun Kuribayashi, a Kansas University graduate, now dances with Pilobolus in New York.

Enrollment in the males-only class has risen from two during the first session to eight this session, Baker says. And at least 20 boys have dancing roles in the center's holiday production, "The Snow Queen."

"We kept letting the guys know it would help them get the acting roles if they learned to be dancers, that actors needed to learn to be a triple threat: dancing, acting, singing," says Averill, LAC drama director and one of two teachers of the boys dance class. "I think we've been most successful at convincing the guys that it's hard, it takes skill and you've been victorious if you've achieved something by dancing.

"As that's happened, we've started to break down some of the stereotypes."

Dance deterrents

Beau Hancock lived in fear of those stereotypes as a boy growing up in the small southwest Kansas town of Hugoton. He was afraid of being teased. Afraid of being dubbed a sissy or called gay.

"For years I denied that I danced," says Hancock, who studied dance at Kansas University and now performs professionally in several New York companies. "When I had to leave sports practice early to drive to dance class, which was in a nearby town, I would lie about where I was going, even though all my friends knew. I was embarrassed, and especially in elementary and middle school, I was teased."

That's a common reason young men steer clear of the art form, Baker says.

"I know that from talking to various moms," she reveals. "(In our class), we make sure that they get to do a lot of masculine type movements. Men are wonderful jumpers and leapers.

Alyosha Mitchell talks about being teased for taking ballet classes.

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Alyosha Mitchell talks about his dislike of wearing tights in dance class.

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"That's the kind of thing that we want to have as part of this class, as well as learning the basics of how to use the body correctly in a dance environment and how to move with ease."

Fringe benefits

It's unclear why America's social bias against male dancers developed. Throughout European history, ballets were a court event in which only men were allowed to dance. They donned masks and costumes to perform women's roles.

Baker and KU dance director Jerel Hilding suspect the stigma has roots in the country's early, aggressive expansion westward, which formed a rugged picture of the masculine ideal that had nothing to do with tights and pirouettes.

"Now the manly thing to do in the United States is to play sports, not to dance," says Hilding, who performed for 15 years with the Joffrey Ballet in New York.

Incidentally, many top-flight professional athletes - including hulking NFL football players - take ballet to improve their balance and footwork on the field. Hilding, who was a bit of a jock in high school, remembers returning home and playing a pick-up football game with his friends after studying ballet for several years in college.

"Where we were all pretty even before," Hilding says, "they could not keep up with me because I was just so much more agile."

Alyosha has noticed similar results in his running and kickball skills.

"My legs are a lot stronger than some other people's, and dance is most of the reason," he says.

Luring leapers

Alyosha Mitchell, 10, smashes through a frame hed by Lawrence Arts Center drama director Ric Averill during a recent rehearsal for "Snow Queen." Mitchell started taking ballet when he was 5 years old and says it has helped improve his speed and coordination - and hopefully his chance at getting roles in plays.

Alyosha Mitchell, 10, smashes through a frame hed by Lawrence Arts Center drama director Ric Averill during a recent rehearsal for "Snow Queen." Mitchell started taking ballet when he was 5 years old and says it has helped improve his speed and coordination - and hopefully his chance at getting roles in plays.

Hancock, who performed with the arts center's Prairie Wind Dancers and 940 dance company before leaving Lawrence, says the LAC's all-male class takes a step in the right direction toward luring young men to the discipline. Introducing more creative movement exercises into school curriculums, offering after-school workshops and bringing in guest artists also would offer valuable exposure for both genders, he says.

And allowing boys to set limits is also important.

"For instance, if they are adamant about not wanting to wear tights, don't make them wear tights," he says.

Averill says having programs on television like "Dancing with the Stars" - won this season by former Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith - can't hurt dance's reputation, even if it features ballroom rather than ballet, modern or jazz. In fact, Hilding would like to explore the idea of attracting more students to KU's dance program by seducing them with ballroom classes, then convincing them to try other forms, a strategy he says has been successful at Wichita State University.

If all else fails, there's always another temptation.

"I also tell these young guys that dance is just like theater," Averill says. "Both are a great place to be because there's a lot of wonderful, creative women."

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