Live drumming signals the start of a new exercise in Edmond Kilpatrick’s boys-only dance class.
The group of 13 six- and seven-year-old boys wear uniforms of black stretch pants and white shirts, and anxiously wait for instructions. Kilpatrick, a former Ballet BC principal dancer, calls out, “pliez,” and 13 pairs of knees immediately bend.
This program at Arts Umbrella, a well-known arts centre in Vancouver, is one of a rising number of classes catering to boys in the city. Five years ago there were few boys in dance classes – now there’s a waiting list.
“In the beginning … we really had to hustle to get the word out there so the boys would come in,” said Kilpatrick, who has been teaching for more than 20 years and started his boys-only program a decade ago.
Popular reality television shows, such as So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew and Battle of the Blades, which show men dancing and figure skating, are part of the push.
These competitive shows bring male dancers into the mainstream and provide role models for boys interested in dance. Battle of the Blades shows Canada’s ultimate male role model, the hockey player, in the less traditionally masculine sport of figure skating.
Listen interview with Theo Duff-Grant discussing life as a male dancer:
Michelle Hersey, owner of D’Hercy Dance Co., a company that provides kids dance classes at community centres around Vancouver, said the shows are helping parents to accept their sons’ interest in dance.
More parents are open to enrolling their boys in dance classes – but usually only at the younger ages, Kilpatrick added.
“I think there are more and more parents who are enlightened,” he said. “It’s safe for the kids, in terms of sexuality because none of that’s come in yet – but I think it’s also safe for the parents.”
Just for boys
Kilpatrick said the dance studio environment is also changing from girls-only colours and themes. Kilpatrick wanted to create a neutral space where boys could dance and have a male dancer as a role model, so he started his boys-only program.
“It dawned on me right away that a lot of these places where I was teaching were these pink studios with pictures of babies in tutus everywhere,” he said.
“What they [boys] needed was a neutral environment, not necessarily an environment with blue walls and pictures of trucks on the walls, just a very neutral environment where they could be in a room with seven to 10 other boys just like themselves.”
Kilpatrick’s boys-only classes are held in a converted church in East Vancouver. The dance studio has high ceilings, one mirrored wall, and a large black rubber-matted area for dancing.
Plain language is used to describe movement. Instead of “fly like a butterfly,” it is “circle the room.” “Hop like a bunny” becomes “sauté,” the French word for jump, which is used in ballet.
Michelle Hersey has also adapted her teaching style since more boys have joined her classes in the last two years. She said she includes more “boy-oriented” imagery such as bears, machines and dinosaurs instead of fairies, mermaids and butterflies.
A tougher, more masculine style
Although more boys are joining dance classes, there is still a division in the styles of dance they sign up for, with hip hop more popular than ballet.
“Hip hop [is] something that is modeled on television by men and young boys that is popular and cool and has social links to dominance and aggression, which are safe images for males to portray,” Hersey said.
Kilpatrick said boys will take hip hop even if they’re more interested in classical styles such as ballet or contemporary dance because hip hop is considered a tougher, more masculine style.
So You Think You Can and Battle of the Blades help to break down cultural stereotypes about masculinity, which say dance and figure skating are too “girly” for men and boys.
But only a certain kind of masculinity is shown on these programs, said Mary Louise Adams, a sports sociologist at Queen’s University, and the most popular men are usually hip hop dancers. She added shows such as Battle of the Blades strengthen the idea that heterosexual masculinity is the norm.
On Battle of the Blades, a hockey player is paired with a female figure skater and they compete in ice dancing challenges. The hockey player is doing a “girly” sport, but the audience understands it is temporary and he will go back to being a hockey player when the show is over.
But some boys aren’t afraid to do ballet.
At 13, Theo Duff-Grant is a rising star at Vancouver-based Goh Ballet and said he plans to dance for life. He hopes to one day have a career at the Royal Ballet in London. Duff-Grant said boys should just go ahead and take classes if they’re interested in dance.
“I’d say just do what you want and don’t care what they think.”