The scenario is far too familiar: I’m at a dinner party, out with my friends, or on a date and a male friend, boyfriend, or a husband of a friend, knowing that I’m a dancer will, at some point in the conversation admit they’ve always wanted to learn to dance but have felt trapped inside their “rhythmless” white bodies due to prevailing American culture. I have found myself in an interesting role of coach to some of these men and have, in many instances, found real ways to help them overcome their fear of dancing and experience joy on the dance floor instead of dread. I’m happy I can help them but have been thinking lately of ways I could address this interesting relationship of American men to dancing at an earlier point in their lives. I’m the mom of a boy who loves to dance. Boys, often athletic and full of energy, are natural dancers so why not begin where it’s easiest? Rather than helping men “overcome” their fear of moving, why don’t I put some energy towards creating a space in our culture for boys to dance like they want to? But where is this space? Does it even exist?
I was having a conversation with another mom the other day. I noticed that her son was very dramatic in his expressions and full of energy.
“He is really expressive. Have you ever thought of putting him into a theatre camp or class?” I inquired.
“Well, I agree,” she said, “we tried putting him in a camp at (local dance studio) but found that it was just really geared towards girls. He wasn’t particularly happy there.”
“That is so disappointing,” I said and then it hit me: Someone really needs to put together a program for dance and theatre that is geared towards boys. Something the caters to their learning styles and interests in movement and expression. *
I have a son who dances. I can tell you how I have raised him in order to make it seem as though his dancing is all my doing – and certainly I can take some credit: we’ve been dancing around the living room since he was a toddler; I play all kinds of different music that he might enjoy; I have sent him to martial arts since he was three years old which has trained his coordination and body awareness fantastically, but I waited until he was eight years old to enroll him in formal ballet training; he has been to more dance performances in his nine years of age than many adults; and yet, I will admit to the fact that I don’t believe I have taught him to dance, but rather enabled him to dance. Made the space for it, normalized it, made it part of his culture.
When my son was in Kindergarden, I came and taught creative dance to his class once a week. The students, a mixture of girls and boys, were introduced to different types of dance from around the world, different music, and encouraged to explore the different textures, similarities and feelings that arose through the dances and encouraged to experiment with movement of their own as well. As I have continued to teach workshops with kids and adults over the years, I have become increasingly impressed with the fact that all humans, and that includes boys, are natural dancers. And also that you can teach them a particular style and try to impart them with a new language vocabulary, but people’s bodies have an overriding desire to express themselves idomatically – that is, creative ideas arise from learning dance. Alas, when I taught my son’s class, it only lasted one year, but I am happy to note at school events ever since, that it is my son’s classmates who are the first to hit the dance floor, and that it is the boys especially who are most likely to dance. Being the mother of a dancer and having these teaching experiences over the years has led me to a couple conclusions:
Boys are often natural and enthusiastic dancers when they are given the space, context, and the social “permission” to express themselves through movement. Create a culture where other boys are dancing and they will rise to the occasion, often surprisingly being more likely to dance than girls. Also, having boys dancing in a class with girls adds a different dynamic to the dancing for the girls. Unfortunately, dance classes that are exclusively all girls can often be centered around appearing pretty, light, delicate. Add boys to a class and the athleticism often increases, the movement opens up to include more emphasis and a fiercer quality. I often make the analogy of baseball to dance. Since boys are very little they are encouraged to “hit the ball out of the park,” so to speak. In learning sports, they learn to push themselves to their physical limit. So when you get them in a dance class, asking them to really “go for it” is an easier step for them to take. Girls who aren’t involved in sports may not have experienced being pushed to the edge of their physical limit and so the journey is a little longer to get there. They aren’t as comfortable at first when asked to do it. They are sometimes worried they will look ugly, silly, too macho. But put boys and girls together from a young age and the girls start to associate these other qualities with dance. They recognize it. They know what it looks like and they are more likely to be able access it themselves giving them confidence and a wider range of expression.
When I work with men who are interested in freeing up their range of expressive movement, the first thing I start with is the knowledge that they CAN dance. My job is staying clear that dance is their birthright and providing them with the space to experience this for themselves. But I hope to be part of something that catches the male species earlier in his dilemma. What about a school named something like, “Renaissance Boys” where a fuller picture of masculinity was presented? Where the dance classes included hip-hop, martial arts, as well as ballet. What would it look like to have a dance studio where instead of boys being “fit” into a girls curriculumm, the curriculumm was geared towards boys? Instead of choreography created for girls and changes made for the one boy in class as an afterthought, what about movement which is more well-rounded for everyone? What if instead of pink walls and pictures of tutus, there was a weight/fitness room, larger boys’ dressing rooms, and pictures of athletic male dancers on the walls added to the mix. When I started telling my son Aleister about the idea, I asked him how it would feel to go to dance class and instead of there being all girls and only two boys, there would be almost all boys and a few girls there. I asked him how he would feel if he could imagine some of his soccer buddies there, dancing all to their favorite hip-hop music. His eyes got wide when I mentioned the weight room and dressing room (at his current dance school – which he still does love by the way – he has to change in the bathroom – there is no boys’ changing room). I asked him how all of this would feel. He looked at me in awe, “Amazing, mom,” he said eyes wide, “Amazing.”
There is a an excellent article on DanceAdvantage that I found when researching boys’ dance schools: Encouraging Boys to Dance
*I also wanted to mention that Danceversity Summer Camp , which my son and other boys have enjoyed for years, is an excellent resource for boys wanting to dance due to its many different styles of dance and often large percentage of male instructors. For a number of years they tried having a “Boys Week” where boys were strongly encouraged to attend and at which, they would have styles of dance which boys might be more likely to enjoy. I believe this wasn’t as well attended as they would have liked, so they discontinued it, but I still think there would be a market for this, it just might entail more time to grow the student base.