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Ballet programs look for more boys to step up to the barre

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2 minute read

Stacy Nick | NPR

A beautiful ballerina and a handsome prince are at the heart of the world’s most famous ballets. Sleeping Beauty. Swan Lake. The Nutcracker, of course.

And at training grounds for future dancers, plenty of girls hope to someday wear the prima ballerina’s tutu.

But it’s become a challenge to find the boys who will one day form the other half of the pas de deux.

‘Cooties And Stuff’

Canyon Concert Ballet in Fort Collins, Colo., is a sea of pink tutus and giggling little girls with their hair pulled into tight buns atop their heads.

There’s a single boy: Eight-year-old Finn Miller Vaughan, who danced in his first Nutcracker when he was 3 years old.

He says it can be kind of fun to be the only boy, but …

“Sometimes there’s a downside, ’cause the girls kind of tease you sometimes,” he says. “They say I have cooties and stuff, but I know that isn’t true.”

He also knows that the stigmas often attached to boys who take ballet aren’t true either.

“Usually they think of girls only taking ballet, like wearing dresses and stuff,” he says. “They always think that it’s weird and it’s not that cool.”

Canyon’s artistic director Daniel Simmons heard that a lot.

“I was from Texas — Southern Texas. Nobody dances in Texas,” he says. “Because in Southern Texas, you either were on the football team and you got to do everything or if you didn’t play football, you didn’t do anything.”

Sweetening The Deal For Male Dancers

Simmons has spent almost 60 years dancing. Looking back, he says he was lucky. Once he walked through the door of his first ballet studio, everyone made it easier.

“They gave me my shoes, they gave me my tights. They gave me everything I needed. I never bought anything,” he says. “And university is the same way.

“Some of the boys go through four years of college not paying a cent,” he says.

Every program needs more boys, says Valerie Madonia, director of the Colorado Ballet Academy — whether it’s the famed Joffrey ballet school in New York, or a hometown dance studio.

“Programs fight to get boys to come to their programs and offer them incredible financial packages, just to come to their summer workshops,” Madonia says.

“They might get full tuition. In many places, they get housing. Sometimes they even provide transportation, a stipend, a living expense.”

The programs know you can’t have a Nutcracker without a Nutcracker prince.

Tougher Than Sports

Even the Colorado Ballet Academy’s intensive class this summer has fewer than a dozen boys participating — and 165 girls.

“The teachers have to be very creative, using one partner for maybe 7 girls,” Madonia says.

They also try to make the boys feel a little more boyish.

Before the plies, there’s a boys-only class that begins with push-ups, says ballet master John Gardner.

“You’re going to find out in your training in ballet — if you’ve done sports before — that ballet’s a lot more difficult,” he says.

That’s something 15-year-old Patrick Koenigs, who plays soccer and does ballet, can relate to. He says he’s loved to dance since he was a little boy.

“My sister took dance classes when she was little and after class she would always come home and kind of teach me the moves,” he says. “I would always get excited for her to come home and kind of teach me what she had learned … I think that’s when I kind of fell in love with dance.”

Playing Catch-Up

Koenigs stands out in the class — he’s almost 6 feet tall, with a shock of red hair. But he only decided to commit to ballet three years ago. To make up for lost time, he’s training six days a week over the summer.

“Most girls start around like, 6 or 7, whereas most boys start at around 11,” Koenigs says. “And so it’s always hard because you have to do this catch-up.”

Not for Finn Miller Vaughan. He’s sure his opportunities are limitless.

“I’m hoping that I’ll get big parts as a boy when I’m older,” he says. “There’s a lot of girls who take ballet. But the boys, there’s only like 5 or 6, so all of them get a part.

“So that’s an advantage of being a boy,” he says.

But first, male dancers have to get past the teasing and walk through the ballet school door.

— This story originally published on Weekend Edition Saturday in Arts & Life on NPR with audio.


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