Breaking Stereotypes

Why Is There Still a Stigma Surrounding Boys Who Dance?

Although TV shows positively portray male dancers, the stigma hasn't been fully erased. Here, Cole Mills partners Hannahlei Cabanilla on "So You Think You Can Dance." Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy Fox

What is it about men in tights that makes people react so irrationally?

Especially here in the U.S., men are ridiculed and demeaned for choosing to dance, particularly in ballet. Boys are bullied, called f****t and labeled as "homo," hostile charges that impale the soul.

I remember quite clearly classmates and even my own family members calling me a sissy for studying ballet back in the 1960s and '70s. What terrified me was that they might discover I was gay when I wasn't even sure what to call my sexual orientation. I just wanted to dance.

You'd think things would have gotten much better, but many boys still face these issues.

That's a puzzle to me because there is now so much more exposure to dance in the media: "Dancing with the Stars," "So You Think You Can Dance," "World of Dance," not to mention all the videos that suck you into the YouTube vortex. Don't we see the fierce dedication, hard work and athleticism that goes into creating a male dancer? Is that really only a dream for women?

Unfortunately, that much media exposure does not seem to enlighten those who disdain male dancers. A lack of understanding about dance continues to drive the homophobic reactions of bullies and bigots. Maybe this is because arts education programs that formerly provided students with exposure to the performing arts have been slashed or decreased in some areas. Little that doesn't represent machismo and monetization is considered valid.

Data compiled by Doug Risner, a professor of dance at Wayne State University in Detroit, shows that only 32 percent of male dancers have fathers who support their desire to dance. Typically, American dads only want their sons to be athletic on the sports field. Adding music and ballet technique—or tap dancing, contemporary movement, ballroom or jazz steps—to physicality somehow makes that pursuit unforgivably girlish.

Much of this poisonous attitude springs from misogyny—currently permeating American politics and society—and the notion that the worst thing a man can do is to emulate what is perceived as exclusively female behavior.

Additionally, a fear of anything different from the cultural norm adds a xenophobic taint to public opinion. It probably doesn't help that ballet vocabulary is French (too froufrou) or that it's considered a Russian art form (too subversive—maybe even Communist!).

The performing arts in the U.S. have often been stamped suspiciously as "the other." For starters, look at the investigation of accomplished artists by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The verdict: Artists=abnormal, deviant, perverse.

Still, I have hope that consciousness is changing. Millennials and Gen Z show far more tolerance towards flexible gender definitions. According to a study by The Intelligence Group, a consumer research institution, more than two-thirds of those interviewed between the ages of 14 to 34 say that gender doesn't determine behavior or life aspirations as it once did.

I am also heartened to see better boys' programs in ballet schools nationwide that allow for boys to train with other boys so they won't feel so isolated in their ambitions. These opportunities also give young men a chance to discuss bullying and teasing and to discover ways to defuse verbal and physical assaults.

Smothering creative impulses can kill the spirit. I was lucky to survive the abuse and ignorance that derailed other young men. I don't want to see that happen to anyone else.

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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