Imagine being at the very top of your field. Your career is thriving, you're living your dream, and all of your hard work has finally paid off. However, there is still snickering in the corner and sly comments being thrown around. This is a scenario a lot of male dancers face, even in 2021. Bullying is present almost everywhere, but arguably, male dancers experience some of the most relentless ridicule from the time they are children right through their training years and even into their professional careers. Our current generation of dancers fights strongly for equality and inclusivity, however, the conversation surrounding bullying and harassment of male dancers continues to press on even now.
Back in 2019, Good Morning America host, Lara Spencer, delivered the news of Prince George’s love for ballet, followed by her own sarcastic and rude comments. “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you Prince Wiliam: We’ll see how long that lasts.” She sarcastically smiled and her co-host, George Stephanopoulos, burst out laughing along with the studio audience. This sparked a nationwide backlash from dancers, celebrities and parents alike. Ultimately, she issued an apology and went on to interview Robbie Fairchild, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Travis Wall, choreographer and runner-up of “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Fabrice Calmels, lead dancer with Joffrey Ballet in order to combat her ignorance and continue her education on the topic.
While this did draw major attention to the discussion, it seems as though many people still find it hard to believe that boys dance too. In data compiled by Doug Risner, a professor of dance at Wayne State University, he found that only 32 percent of male dancers have the support of their fathers in their dancing endeavors. Rather, they rely heavily on the support of their friends at dance and school, their dance teachers and mentors, and the support of their mothers. This is in stark contrast to their female counterparts who rely on both their mothers and fathers for support. The lack of support is due to dance’s continuous challenges regarding masculinity and homophobia in the art form.
Chad Vaught, a current dancer on the national tour of Escape to Margaritaville, is all too familiar with the bullying scenario. “I mostly experienced bullying in the dance community when I was younger. The girls would gang up and poke fun at me. Once, a grown woman laughed in my face when I told her I was a dancer. She didn’t understand because I was a guy and apparently guys are not supposed to dance.” Not only is bullying an issue battled against the outside world, but it happens too frequently within the dance world as well. As a professional, Chad no longer deals with harassment, however, that doesn’t mean the stigma doesn’t exist. “Dance is stigmatized for boys because dance is viewed, mostly by those who aren’t in the dance community, as this dainty, ‘girly’ activity when it’s quite the opposite. Dance is incredibly demanding, athletic, and taxing on the body.” The stigma is alive, but it needs to continue to be fought at every chance we get.
This isn’t only an issue that Americans are struggling with. Luca Abdel-Nour is an acclaimed Egyptian ballet dancer who is being shamed by his own country for his career choice. He is the first Egyptian prizewinner at Prix de Lausanne and has since been touring internationally to show off his work. However, Egyptians continue to mock his accomplishments by commenting on social media that “it is a shame” that he does ballet and other attacks on his masculinity paired with homophobic remarks. In response to the online bullying, Adbel-Nour explains that “there are certainly negative comments. But there are a lot of people who have been supportive. There are those who said I inspire them to do ballet in a not-so-encouraging society.” While he continues to keep a positive outlook, it shouldn’t be his job to defend what he decides to do with his life. Even with loads of success, people are still sometimes unwilling to accept that boys dance too.
Scott Gormley further explored the topic of bullying and harassment of male dancers in his documentary “Danseur”. Scott wanted to make the documentary after seeing the abuse and social isolation his son was facing, as a dancer. The piece interviews acclaimed boys who do ballet as they discuss their hardships they faced to get to where they are along with the ridicule they had to endure. Patrick Frenette, a male ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre, opens the piece saying “I didn’t want to stop dancing, I just wanted the bullying to stop.” This is a sentiment that most male dancers can resonate with. John Lam, a principal with Boston Ballet who has been with the company for 15 years, has parents who have never even seen him dance professionally. Harper Watters, a soloist with Houston Ballet discusses the gender stereotypes in dance along with the perception of others. “There’s a lot of strength, power, determination, artistry that is required for men to be successful ballet dancers. When outsiders think it is weak or it is feminine, that is a lot to handle sometimes.”
Boys in ballet hold an especially key role as well. Without them, the show truly could not go on. The partnering required in ballet is not only a great demonstration of strength, endurance, and physicality, but also necessary in order to execute the impressive work that we see on stage. The men highlight the women and allow them to do things that the audience is not only amazed by, but maybe never thought possible. So the way that society casts judgment on masculinity and the sheer physicality required to be a male dancer is a direct contradiction of what the male dancers are doing and making the audience love.
Ballet Jörgen started a new initiative, “Böys who Dance,” which offers support to young male dancers through mentorships by Ballet Jörgen’s male dancers, town hall discussions, and other resources for schools, libraries, and community centers. Through the mentorship program, boys will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges they may be facing from bullying and other obstacles, to technique questions, and even balancing school work with dance. Additionally, they host town hall discussions for dancers, parents, and schools to address the challenges boys who dance face and hope to work together with the community to provide solutions. This initiative was started to not only help boys combat the stigma they face as male dancers, but also encourage other young boys to stick with dance.
There seems to be an overall lack of education of the art form and the role men hold in it. Bullying is not justified in any career choice, but it is unjust that male dancers have faced ridicule for years, it is known to the public, and we are still in the same vicious cycle. It needs to be broken. Families need to start supporting their sons in dance. As Chad puts it, “I absolutely think that support from families can and WILL help keep boys in dance.” Other dancers need to bring each other up. Colleagues from other professions need to start showing male dancers the respect they deserve. There’s already a lack of boys in dance classes and so much of it can be accredited to the stigma that surrounds it. If those numbers continue to dwindle, we may lose the whole appeal of what draws audiences to theaters: the beautiful stories that men and women tell together on stage.