Boys + Dance
27 April 2018
Taking the right steps by Chris Marlow
Do you recall the story of Billy Elliot, a working-class boy from a North East of England mining village who defied convention by preferring ballet to boxing? It's a fictional tale, set in the mid 1980s, but it set me wondering – what's life like today for boys who choose to dance, and what can we do, as a profession, to encourage more boys to follow in their footsteps?
And so, I've spent the last couple of years researching the experiences of 26 males, aged 8 to 18, who are learning to dance in private sector dance schools across the North of England. I observed them in their dance schools and with their family and friends; I also spoke with their parents, teachers and with some dance policymakers. What, then, did I find?
If we want more males in our schools then we need to make this explicit and visible in our promotional materials
First and foremost, I learnt that cultural attitudes towards males who dance are complex, since different dance genres often provoke differing responses. For instance, Hip-Hop or Street are often thought of as 'cool' and 'masculine' genres for boys to do, whereas 'uncool' dance genres, such as Ballet or Latin-American, can often lead to a 'homosexual presumption' according to my participants, some of whom reported being marginalised by their school peers as 'gays', 'geeks', 'loners' or 'losers'. Unlike boys who opted for 'cool' dance styles, these 'uncool' boys were more Iikely to be bullied or stigmatised for partaking of a hobby still deemed by many as 'feminine'. As one boy, Ewan, aged 14, a ballet, tap and jazz dancer, told me: "Everyone thinks I'm gay 'cos I dance. I'm not gay, and it wouldn't matter if I was, but that's not the point 'cos my sexuality is irrelevant. I just love dancing ... what's wrong with that?"
This was a disappointing finding, especially in an era of supposed 'inclusive masculinity' and a 'declining significance of homophobia' according to sociologists Eric Anderson (2009) and Mark McCormack (2012), but it chimes with another related finding – that some heterosexual boys, fearful of being thought 'feminine' or 'gay', danced in secret, telling only close family and trusted friends they were attending dance school. Of the 26 boys interviewed, 14 began to dance in 'secret' (short-lived since word soon got out) but this desire for secrecy wasn't confined to heterosexual boys either. The fear of repercussions, ranging from mild 'banter' to physical assault was a constant theme in their narratives. As teachers, therefore, we should be mindful of these concerns, respecting pupil confidentiality by, for example, seeking permission before we publish names or images on our websites or in the local press. And of course, this applies equally to our female pupils too. How we safeguard our pupils from bullying is another pressing issue, especially since many boys reported 'suffering in silence', but better communication between dance teachers, pupils, parents and day schools is surely part of the solution.
Clear information can help to dispel myths
Of course, attracting boys into our dance schools isn't easy, but could we do more? Yes, according to Marc, age 10, who recalled: "My mum had to call the school to check if they accepted boys since we could only see pictures of girls on the website and there was no mention of boys at all". If we want more males in our schools then we need to make this explicit and visible in our promotional materials; images of girls in pink leotards are not helpful in recruiting boys, so let's consider how best to handle enquiries from boys or their parents and make our schools 'boy friendly' and inclusive. A quick trawl of dance school websites found a frequent lack of key information on uniform requirements, costs, changing facilities etc. Clear information can help dispel myths too; boys don't need ballet tights for their first lesson, do they? Males in dance schools can feel isolated and marginalised, so why not consider a 'buddy' system for new boys (and girls) in your school to help them settle in? After all, it's not just about recruiting boys, it's also about retaining them.
Before starting the research, I wondered if boys wanted male teachers as role models, but found, perhaps surprisingly, that this wasn't especially important to most boys. Gavin, aged 9, told me: "It would be nice to have a male teacher but I'd also want female teachers as well", while Sam, aged 13, added, "I just want a good teacher. I'm not fussed if it's male or female. I just want someone who can teach me well". Unsurprisingly though, some boys reported that their teachers, most of whom were female, were often inexperienced in teaching boys, especially in the theatrical branches. For instance, Lucas, aged 13, recounted that: "I was the first male student in my school to reach the upper grades in ballet and so on. I remember my teacher had to buy new syllabuses for me, and then swot up on the male work. At that time, I started having private lessons because it was difficult for her to teach me in a mixed class with the girls."
Gender sensitivity, from us as teachers, is essential if we are to welcome more boys into our schools
While boys reported being very happy in their dance schools, they were, nonetheless, sensitive to the language used by their teachers in class. Jordan, aged 16, spoke of his frustration when his teacher required, "floaty arms now, please", commenting, "I don't do floaty arms, and I don't really know what they are anyway". Another boy, Aden, aged 9, the sole male pupil in his school, reported that his teacher had taken "a long time" to stop prefacing her instructions with, "Now, girls ... ". Overall then, the message from these boys was loud and clear – gender sensitivity, from us as teachers, is essential if we are to welcome more boys into our schools. Otherwise, where will we find the next Billy Elliot?
Chris Marlow is an experienced dance teacher, adjudicator and examiner. Formerly the Director of Quality Assurance at UKA Dance, Chris is now undertaking a PhD on dance and masculinity at Lancaster University. He can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have your own story to share on this subject, please email the Editor at: email@example.com