Breaking ballet stereotypes

Breaking ballet stereotypes

(Originally published September 2019)

In August, a comment from Good Morning America’s Lara Spencer set off an online debate and caused a massive “dance-off” protest in front of their studios in New York City.   The comment was in response to a story about Prince George (son of Prince William of Wales) taking ballet classes as part of his curriculum, where, the protesters said, she seemed to laugh and dismiss males in ballet.

“Oh, he looks so happy about the ballet class,” Spencer said on the show. “Prince William said Prince George absolutely loves ballet … I have news for you, Prince William, we’ll see how long that lasts.”

Spencer later apologized, but over 300 dancers still took to Times Square the day of her apology, including dancers and choreographers from TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance”.

In Lake Charles, Stacy Mitchell, mother of four, began to receive texts from friends about the show.  Since two of her children were in ballet, her friends wanted to know what she thought about the episode.

“I hadn’t seen the show, so I had to go back and watch it. It didn’t surprise me.”

Four years ago, when one of Mitchell’s daughters began taking ballet classes, she’d also encouraged her oldest son, Avery – then eight – to try it.  With his tall, thin build and disciplined attitude, she thought it was something he would enjoy.

“At first, he wasn’t sure.  He thought it’d be weird, you know, a bunch of girls.  I said,’ just try it for a year, if you hate it you never have to go back’.”

Within three months, he had quit both basketball and baseball, adding extra dance classes, and Tae Kwon Do.

“He was completely hooked and now dances four days a week for 2 to 4 hours a day.  He’s all in.”

At age twelve, Avery Mitchell is now in his fourth year of ballet training at Lake Charles Dance Academy, taking intensive courses during the summer and competing earlier this year at the Youth America Grand Prix in Houston.  He continues the Tae Kwon Do classes because they tend to use a lot of the same skills – flexibility, rhythm and discipline.

The day of Lara Spencer’s comment, Mitchell asked her son what she thought about it.

“That’s not very surprising, but that’s cool that people are talking about it.”

“Boys in the arts – and in the south even more so – not as much support,” Mitchell said. “But I think that’s changing.

“When you mention ballet, people think of little girls in tutus.  That in itself can be discouraging to boys.  It’s not normalized, which is crazy to me because it’s so athletic.”

Ballet and dance in general have been around for centuries, but have seen a surge in popularity due to shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars”, and  more men are involved than ever.  Anyone who’s seen a ballet has seen their work – the Romeo to the Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”, the Mouse King to the Clara in “The Nutcracker”.  Yet, instead of merely being an on-stage partner to the ballerinas, men are increasingly making it out on their own.

For years, many athletes have been talking ballet as part of their training, and, according to a 2013 ESPN article profiling cross-training techniques used by NFL players, the moves required in ballet strengthen the lower body, particularly ankles and feet, making athletes less prone to injury on the field.  Such training has even spilled over to Hollywood, where actors such as Hugh Jackman, aka “Wolverine” in the X-Men/Marvel universe, who began his career as a dancer, returned to those roots with live singing and dance performances, including his movie “The Greatest Showman”.

The protest outside of Good Morning America’s studios showed that “boys dance too”, and the hashtags #boysdancetoo and #mendancetoo trended over Twitter and Instagram following Lara Spencer’s comments.

Mitchell said, “There’s a lot of more conventional sports people that took dance – Michael Jordan took dance.   It’s very beneficial if you want to take a different path of athletics.  I wish more parents would consider it, it makes them more athletic for other sports.”

“It’s just physically challenging and it’s fun,” Avery said.  “I do want to make a career out of it.”

Avery sees himself staying in, and excelling at, ballet.  As a result of his training at Lake Charles Dance Academy, he’s also developed an ear for music, taking up the piano.

“ It’s so strange when I tell people my son is a ballet dancer,” his mom said.  “95% of the time people say  ‘What does your husband think about it?’.  And it’s so funny because when he played basketball no one asked what my husband thought.”  Avery’s father, Keith, attends all of his recitals and shows, not thinking of it as anything else than another sport.

“When I say my daughter dances, no one asks why,”   Mitchell said.

“It’s really important to us that we are able to find their thing, find what they really love.  And I think it’s really good to have other adults in their lives that they learn to listen to and respect and don’t want to disappoint.”

Colleen Cannon Benoit is the founder and director of Lake Charles Dance Academy and a lifelong ballet dancer. She has seen an increase in boys’ attendance since founding the school nine years ago.  She has five male dancers ranging from 1st grade to high school; the oldest dancer, James, has been receiving full scholarships to professional schools for summer training.

“As a male dancer, your opportunities are greatly increased because there aren’t the numbers in dance as there are women,” Benoit noted. “Your  potential to earn scholarships and be accepted to prestigious schools is way greater.”

Benoit credits the increase in her male students due to her focus on highlighting her male students.

“In ‘The Nutcracker’, there are a lot of opportunities for a male to have a role.  Our Spring show highlights men again. We make a big deal out of our guys.”

Benoit says that each male student has a unique story.  Student James,  much like Avery, got into ballet after his sister picked it up.  He’s an avid archer and also competes in that. Another student, Andrew,  tried all the sports his large family could provide before starting ballet at age 13-14.

“I think the guys find out that it’s not so easy; that it’s way harder than it looks. It’s a challenge for them, and they are given the opportunity to shine.”

Benoit’s belief is that the discipline required of dance will help a student as they grow, no matter the career path the student chooses.  Children learn teamwork, develop creative thinking skills, and the ability to push themselves to higher achievements.

When her dancers reach certain levels, she encourages them to apply for scholarships for intensive summer courses outside of Lake Charles.  Dancers audition in either Houston or New Orleans, and if accepted, must apply for scholarships to attend, as the classes can be up to $1,000 per week.

“The males in general, will get a scholarship.  I had two dancers attend programs with the Oklahoma City Ballet this year.”

After high school graduation, some of her former dancers received scholarships at the University of Oklahoma and SMU for their dance programs.

“My kids continue to move past the studio,” Benoit said.  “I’m there to show them the options. You can go to a university setting and possibly have a full ride depending upon the school, or you can audition for a professional career.

“Men, particularly if you’re very good, you have a great potential. It’s really up to them and up to their parents.  As a dancer you don’t make a whole lot depending on where you go, you got to really love it.”

In August, Jeff Lyons, who is with the San Francisco Ballet School, one of the top three prestigious ballet schools in the country and a Lake Charles native, taught a summer class at Lake Charles Dance Academy.

“Back then, (in Lyons’ time), it was even harder for men.  I would say it’s a great time for men now because society is more accepting of differences.  It’s perfect timing for a guy to jump in and try it.”

Certain colleges do have ballet programs but they are north of Louisiana. Overall, she said 15-20 professional ballet schools have accepted her students for their summer training programs, including the American Ballet in New York City and the Boston Ballet, something that’s prestigious in ballet.

To be a young man interested in the Arts, there are many opportunities available.  A simple call to the studio, and Benoit can get a student in to see their skill level.

“It’s hard for boys (to be in ballet)in general but even harder for boys in the South,” Benoit said.  “I’m really super proud that these guys don’t let it bother them.”

Her oldest student, James, attended the American Grand Prix competition with Avery, and they are competing again this year in Houston. “ It’s a great experience for them to put themselves under that pressure. And to be able to handle it.  And to be able to practice that, is worth every bit of it.”

Mitchell has told her son Avery that if ballet or dance is what he wants to do as a career, she will support him, but even if not, ballet is still giving him skills that will take him further in life.

“You can’t just skip to the head of the line (in ballet), you have to master each step.  And that’s a good lesson to learn, how to kind of be bad at something until you’re good at it.

“I’ve found that talking to people, kids seem to be a lot more receptive to it than adults are. Seems to be a generational thing.  Something was mentioned about him doing ballet and all of these older kids were like, ‘This was cool, you don’t hear too many people doing that’.  Which was touching to me.”

Avery doesn’t think being a male ballet dancer is that big of a deal.  Much in the way, the GMA comments didn’t seem to faze him, he just thinks any talk about the art is good.

“At the studio, we need more boys,” he said. “Most of the stuff for boys is free or really cheap.”

If there were one thing he could let other boys know?

“I would say, yes, definitely, if another kid wants to try.  They need to try it.”

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