The oth­er air force

Dance needs boys like boys need dance

We know what boys do for dance, but what does dance do for boys? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)
We know what boys do for dance, but what does dance do for boys? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

When I started researching this essay, I thought I’d be writing about how dance needs boys. It does, of course. Most beginner ballet classes are lucky to have one boy in them, and the cultural pushback can be daunting for that small, brave cadre who learn the five basic positions. But as I spoke to the dancers, I realized how important dance is — especially today — for boys.

Academic treatises have been written on the subject, and dancer Jackson Gormley’s father Scott made a documentary, Danseur, about his son’s career. I spoke with Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Ángel Corella, who describes his own unfortunate experience as a boy and dancer in rural Spain: “Kids, after school, when they found out I was doing ballet, they used to follow me home, throw rocks at me, or beat me up.”

In spite of the struggle, some boys persevere — but not enough of them. Dance really does need boys. We sigh over ballerinas, but male dancers, such as Nijinsky, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, and — dare I say it — our own Ángel Corella, have also astonished their audiences for over a century.

As partners, danseurs showcase ballerinas; as soloists, they bring a dynamic power; as members of the corps, they reflect our lives back to us in all their variety.

Physicality and order

To understand why boys need dance, it helps to know why boys do dance. At the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Summer Intensive program, I asked principal dancer and instructor Sterling Baca, student Dustin, and Corella why they chose dance when they were boys, and why they stayed with it.

In a turnaround of the stereotypical story, Baca said ballet was his father’s idea after seeing a performance of The Nutcracker. “He said that that I played sports in a graceful manner like that, so he thought I could do it. As soon as I started, it kind of clicked two things for me — the athleticism of it, the physicality of it, and the performance aspect of it. I can express myself emotionally. And so I kind of immediately fell in love with it.”

Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Sterling Baca, shown here with a School of Pennsylvania Ballet Summer Intensive student, loves the discipline's rigor. (Photo courtesy of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.)
Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Sterling Baca, shown here with a School of Pennsylvania Ballet Summer Intensive student, loves the discipline's rigor. (Photo courtesy of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.)

When I asked Baca what he liked best about dancing, his answer surprised me. “I like all of it,” he said. “I am a very habitual person, so I like routine. I love getting up and going to class every day. I like the physical aspect. Every day something can improve; there is always something more. I love partnering; I love that this company has grown real camaraderie. And when you go out onstage, that is a great thing.”

I expected a dancer to love performing and figured the routine, the hard, physical work, would be the price you had to pay for the onstage payoff. But I was wrong.

Dustin had similar reasons for choosing ballet: “I had a lot of energy, and my grandma told me, ‘This kid should take dance lessons.' And I started doing hip-hop, and I didn’t really like it because it was so unstructured. I saw a ballet and I thought, ‘This is nice,’ because it has structure and it makes sense.”

Ballet is hard, physical work that gives structure and meaning to movement. Baca says boys should have ballet in schools: “It not only keeps you in shape and healthy, but it teaches you about music, it teaches you about discipline, it will help you in school, it will help you with other sports, it will help you in theater, it will help you in life. And then, it is also fun. It is fun to dance.”

All of that is true, and all of it makes sense. But it wasn’t viscerally convincing.

Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Sterling Baca, shown here with a School of Pennsylvania Ballet Summer Intensive student, loves the discipline's rigor. (Photo courtesy of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.)
Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Sterling Baca, shown here with a School of Pennsylvania Ballet Summer Intensive student, loves the discipline's rigor. (Photo courtesy of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.)

About ecstasy

I hoped Corella would offer commonsense answers to help me understand the uncommon ones. But it wasn't about common sense. Ballet takes discipline and hard work, so why would boys want to do it? For himself, Corella said he couldn’t explain; he could only give examples of what he loved.

“I love to feel the music in my body, I love taking off and flying in the air, I love the feeling of just rotating my body and flying, I love the feeling of freedom… I love expressing [myself] and connecting with human beings in a very direct way. With dancing, it is impossible to fake it because you are dancing with your body, with your whole being.”

Leaping, flying, spinning; it made me want to dance just listening to him talk. Corella said that as a dancer, when you really let go, you become a force of nature. “It is like your brain connects with your soul and with your body, and it is like everything is in harmony… It is such an incredible feeling like the whole audience becomes one person; you are immersed. But it takes a lot of courage, and it is not easy.”

Now I get it. Ballet takes structure and discipline and hard physical effort, pumps it through music, and out comes ecstatic movement — jumps, leaps, spins. Dancers fly across the stage. Dancers fly.

Our boys need that — the structure and the discipline, and the way dance challenges their bodies. They need the tensile strength and grace of movement. Most of all, they need the contained ecstasy of a well-trained body in motion; they need to fly.

But we are a Puritan society still. We are good at turning boys into smoldering fuses, but not so good at letting them explode across a stage like their hearts are on fire.

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