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No-nonsense: Choosing ballet schools for boys

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Q. How do you choose a ballet school for your son?
A. With extreme caution.

I've been prompted to jot down a few thoughts about choosing ballet schools by seeing an advert for 'accredited' dance studios.

While the idea of listing schools which have a Code of Professional Conduct, staff with certain 'valid' qualifications &c. is a very positive idea, I think it is misguided to assume that any school on such a list would automatically be right for your son.

Here, then, is just a scattering of thoughts which parents might want to think about when choosing a school. (NB This post is mainly based on my extensive experience as a boy - not a parent. I hope it's useful.)

- To qualify as a dance teacher one does not have to have performed in a professional capacity. While it is often said that the best practitioners do not necessarily make the best teachers in most fields, dance is essentially a performing art. If you want to take dance seriously you might, therefore, like to think about a teacher who has been there, done that. Any teacher should be prepared to show you their CV with pleasure!

- Some forms of accreditation for dance schools/teachers cost an awful lot of money and smaller schools may not want the financial burden. It is worth remembering, therefore, that a really excellent school may not appear on some of the official-looking lists.

- Some dance schools have an attitude that most children dance simply because they enjoy it and want to have fun (with no further ambitions). Sometimes these studios focus on having an entertaining time in class and place secondary emphasis on technique. This is one valid school of thought. Another school of thought is that learning proper technique is, in itself, the most rewarding and fun approach to dancing. Boys in particular may respond best to this second approach to ballet because it is more structured. As boys see their technique develop, they also watch their strength and control increase - and their confidence as dancers grows.

My own experience in a school which did not focus on quality technique was enormously frustrating. While the girls seemed happy to come to class and play at ballerinas, I did not feel I was making any progress. This sense of stagnation and failure to grapple with the real stuff of ballet is one of the factors which, sadly, led to me giving up - like so many boys - around the age of 13.

- Male teachers are one great way of resolving this problem because they are inevitably more aware of what it feels like to be a young male dancer - they also make excellent role models. One reason I continued modern beyond ballet, for example, was because I had a male teacher who stimulated me in a completely different way (not limited to, but as simple as, starting every class with press-ups. He made me feel like a young man and not a child interested in playing prance-around.) However, a male teacher is not at all essential, especially for younger boys. A studio with a male ballet teacher might be worth further investigation, though.

- All boys classes are an even better idea, whoever teaches them. Boys not only thrive in a male environment where ballet is seen as masculine and everyone is dealing with the same issues (from tights to dance belts to completing that second tour en l'air) but male technique is definitely different to female technique and this is what boys should learn. Again, however, this is less important for younger boys and popular syllabuses (notably the RAD syllabus which is followed worldwide) feature different exercises and enchaînements for boys from the start. Learning to partner is certainly a major part of male technique so banishing girls completely is not a good idea (for other reasons, too...)

All-boys classes are, regrettably, quite rare (but they are on the increase). If no boys' class is offered at a studio that does not mean it won't suit your son. Many dance companies offer regular boys' workshops as part of their outreach programmes and these can provide just the impetus needed. We hope to list some of these on the site in the near future.

- It may seem too obvious to mention but every teacher has their own style and every pupil responds in a different way. It is definitely worth trying to arrange a trial lesson to see whether your son is likely to gel with a specific teacher. Boys often won't speak out if things aren't going quite right so it's best to try and nail it from the beginning.

- In a similar vein, you might like to try and observe a class to gauge what the school's approach really is (some people will say anything on the phone). Even better, try and see a school show. It can be revealing to see how boys are handled: Do they just have to fit in with the girls (sadly seen too often)? Or are they given their own boys' solos/dances? Do the boys have their own proper costumes? Or just a token nod to being on stage? Are there lots of boys who seem serious and happy? Or only younger ones who are tagging along with big sister for Mum's convenience?

- And here's a final disconcerting thought: it is perfectly feasible that a school might exist with a boys' technique class taught by a male teacher in a nice studio with lots of pupils that simply isn't very good. So this is why I advise caution - and asking your son (and other parents) for lots of feedback. If your son isn't finding every ballet lesson he goes to tough - i.e. mentally stimulating, physically challenging and stamina testing - he may well not be at the right school.



There is, certainly, a lot to consider. But getting it right may really be the difference between your son loving ballet - and finding it mediocre and dropping out. I have often heard of boys having a 'wobble' in dance only to move schools and discover their passion once again.

I am sure there are lots of parents with thoughts to contribute on this topic. Please leave a comment or email info [at] boyswhodance.com - we would love to include your contributions.

5 comments:

  1. When I looked for a dance studio for my son, another thing I looked for was a welcoming environment for boys:

    Does the dress code specify the male uniform right along with the female uniform, or does the uniform not even mention boys?

    Does the website have any pictures of male dancers, or is every picture a female dancer or a pink pointe shoe?

    Does the studio appear somewhat gender-neutral in its decor or are the walls painted pink and all the pictures appear to come from the bedroom of an 8 year old girl?

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  2. We went through 6 studios looking for the perfect fit for my son. 2 were great (a company-affiliated school and a small RAD school), 1 was okay, and 3 were just plain awful. The awful studios all had one thing in common-- they seemed to view my son as a commodity for their girls rather than a valid dancer in his own right.

    Here's how it would usually play out-- we arrived and they gushed all over my young son. He's so handsome, talented, etc. He gets put in a class that is too old/advanced for him because those girls need a boy partner. They choreograph a piece for the recital/competition and my son is the center of attention with all the girls dancing around him. He's almost like a prop to them-- they need a boy to make their dance look better.

    Now, three things start happening-- First, my son is getting a big head because everyone is treating him like a prince. Second, some of the girls start getting jealous of all the attention he's getting and they begin to act mean towards him. Third (and most importantly), his technique is suffering because he is in the wrong level of class and the teacher really isn't giving him many corrections because she doesn't want to discourage him and in truth, she really doesn't think of him a dancer in his own right-- just a tool to improve the look of her girl dancers.

    This happened in *three* different studios! I didn't really understand what was happening and why these studios just weren't working out until we went to a "good" studio and saw the difference. At the good dance studios, my son is *not* given any extra attention or praise simply because he's male. He is simply treated like any other dancer. What a huge difference it makes!

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  3. Thanks for sharing your comments.

    I couldn't agree more with you, Laura - I was almost tempted to introduce a name and shame feature for ballet schools with studios/websites guaranteed to put off boys. A sad thing is, some ballet teachers don't actually want boys - they prefer to stay in their comfort zone with class upon class of girls...

    As for Anonymous, what an interesting insight. I am sure it was done without any malicious intent - but a good thing you were keeping an eye on things and able to identify the situation and make the necessary adjustments. I hope things continue to go well.

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  4. Just to let you all know that in january 2014 a new boys only ballet school is opening in london. Male and female teachers and a focus on a male dancers training. They are following the RAD ballet syllabus but also running regular workshops with proffesional male dancers. WWW.BoysBalletLondon.com

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  5. There's also many ballet "schools" in france who only have 1 locker/changing room for girls, and when I go there, I must change in the bathroom outside because it's weird to change in the middle of girls........
    ANd the teacher is so used to have girls only that during all class she will say "girls" or "misses" only to talk to us, and completely avoid that i'm there. At the beginning I got mad, but then i understood it was simply a habit.
    It never occurs to them that maybe a boy wants to pick up ballet??
    Unfortunately i can't change the school as it's the only available in my town, but i hate feeling invisible and having to learn the girls technique almost all the time, except when once in a blue moon she decides to teach us ALL some boys jumps...

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