Meet Three Nonbinary Ballet Dancers Performing On Pointe

June 3, 2024

Since the advent of the pointe shoe in the 19th century, dancing on pointe has been the province of the ballerina. Male, trans, and nonbinary dancers interested in performing on pointe had few opportunities; some men performed in the comedic drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, or did slapstick roles like the mother in La Fille mal gardée and Cinderella’s stepsisters.

But the past few years have seen a sea change in ballet, thanks to the persistent advocacy­ of dancers and their allies. Training and performing on pointe are now more widely available to all genders, in both major companies and freelance projects. The result is an expansion­ of the creative possibilities in ballet—and, for nonbinary dancers Maxfield Haynes, Zsilas Michael Hughes, and Leroy Mokgatle, a sense of fulfillment that is as personal as it is artistic.

A Fuller Range of Motion

A growing number of companies worldwide are hiring nonbinary dancers who desire, or prefer, to dance on pointe—and are supporting their authentic identities. When casting roles, the artistic staff at Staatsballett Berlin offers corps dancer Leroy Mokgatle options. “For neoclassical and classical, I would rather perform on pointe, on the feminine side,” says Mokgatle, whose debut as the fairy Coulante in last year’s run of The Sleeping Beauty has racked up more than 8,000 likes on Instagram. “Being nonbinary, we have periods of time when we see ourselves differently,” Mokgatle says. “With all the different repertoire that we have, I feel like I need to tap into different parts of myself.”

a dancer en pointe performing a tight sous sous with both arms up in a large studio
Mokgatle rehearsing William Forsythe’s Blake Works I. Photo by Yan Revazov, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin.

Since joining the Pacific Northwest Ballet corps in 2022, Zsilas Michael Hughes has amassed a repertoire that ranges from Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon to George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. Artistic director Peter Boal supported their interest in performing on pointe early on, and in their first season Hughes made their pointe debut as a Fairy in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Fairy’s lyrical choreography made it the right first role for Hughes, who has been dancing on pointe for less than two years. “The technique wasn’t my biggest concern,” they say. “It was the essence that the fairies possess—an effortless elegance. It’s work getting there.” As their technical skill advanced, Hughes was cast in Snow, Flowers, and the Peacock solo (PNB’s rendition of Coffee) in The Nutcracker, parts that have allowed them to express the feminine aspects of their identity.

Beauty From the Inside Out

All performing artists aim to put their true selves into their work, but ballet’s gendered roles make that more complicated for nonbinary dancers. “We are always cognizant of what hat we put on,” Hughes says. “It’s different than a cisgendered person, because as a nonbinary person you live in a constant state of your character that isn’t often portrayed onstage.”

Working on pointe can transform these artists’ sense of belonging in their art form and, by extension, in their own lives. Hughes and Maxfield Haynes, for example, perform regularly with Ballet22, a pioneering company based in Oakland, California, that presents straight and queer male, trans, and nonbinary dancers on pointe, in their true gender identities. “There’s never been a space for us all to come together and not have our work be a joke,” says Haynes, who was previously the Metropolitan Opera’s first nonbinary ballet soloist in its production of The Magic Flute.

When Hughes showed up for last summer’s Ballet22 rehearsals, “it took a minute to truly allow myself to believe that the people leading the company truly believed in me,” they say. Dancing the Golden Fairy variation from The Sleeping Beauty with the company felt transformative—because of the technical challenge, and because Ballet22 granted them freedom to interpret the role from their own point of view.

Though not all corners of ballet are as welcoming, evolving attitudes toward pointe shoes have already had a meaningful ripple effect. Now that more companies and artists are willing to see Haynes’ pointe work not as comic relief but as a serious, innovative endeavor, “I feel a general softening of my hard edges,” Haynes says. “Being socialized and trained as a male dancer, I was taught to push through. But that softening—tenderness, actually—with myself has been very transformative for my personal process. I’m noticing it in how I show up in relationships, how I show up with my family.”

Mokgatle echoes that sentiment. “I was trapped between my gender and what my spirit wants to do,” they say. Now, “I feel like I can use my body to its actual limits.”

Hughes has discovered a larger purpose through dancing on pointe and, in turn, thriving as an artist. “I’m one of the first dancers to truly know what it feels like to be immersed in themselves,” they say. “There are going to be some really tall, broad, muscular, gorgeous humans that want to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, and they’re going to have the opportunity to do so. This world is going to be so much more beautiful because me and people like me went through the pain—because we heard ‘no,’ but it didn’t stop us.”

New Perspectives on Partnering

Substantial experience dancing on pointe can be a partnering game-changer for dancers typically assigned to male roles: There’s nothing like literally putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. “To be an empathic partner, you need to understand what they’re going through,” says freelance dancer Maxfield Haynes. “It’s an understanding for minute adjustments, how much space you can open up for somebody. I don’t understand anymore how all men are not being trained on pointe.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Zsilas Michael Hughes, who frequently performs supporting roles in pas de deux, has gained a nuanced awareness of balance and alignment from dancing on pointe. “Most partners do not check the connection of head, shoulders, knees, and toes in relation to the pointe shoe—they’re mainly looking at the hips or the head placement,” they say. “I use all of those. Also, I know how to take off some of the pain where a bunion might be on their working side.”

Staatsballett Berlin corps dancer Leroy Mokgatle, on the other hand, rarely serves as the supporting partner and is often partnered on pointe in performance. “I’m trying to learn to trust my partner and rely on their strength, rather than always trying to help as much as possible,” they say. “I don’t want to lose the softer, more feminine side. This is the biggest challenge for me.”

a dancer wearing a green leotard en pointe in a wide second position
Zsilas Michael Hughes. Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, Courtesy Ballet22.

If the Shoe Fits…

In response to the rising popularity of pointe work among male-identifying and nonbinary dancers, pointe shoe makers like Bloch, Freed, Gaynor Minden, and Nikolay are offering a greater range of foot sizes, widths, and customization options than ever before. But the shoe search can still be difficult. “You really have to invest the time in finding what shoe is right for you,” says freelance dancer Maxfield Haynes.

Staatsballett Berlin corps dancer Leroy Mokgatle’s wide feet require a more spacious box, but they also use a shoe crafted of stretch fabric rather than satin. The extra give helps them articulate through their feet in landings—a challenge for dancers who start pointe work in their late teens or 20s, when the foot bones are not as malleable as at age 11 or 12.

Pointe training resources, live classes, and tutorials geared toward male and nonbinary dancers abound online. Haynes recommends the 4Pointe Instagram page, which has released a video with specific guidance for nonbinary and male-identifying dancers on pointe.

For all of these dancers, starting from the beginning as already-accomplished professional dancers took patience. “The level of humility that comes with this is laughable,” says Hughes. “But if you go for it in the most knowledgeable way possible, it’s magical.”