Teach-Learn Connection: Men at Work

May 27, 2009

Balanchine said “Ballet is woman,” but that opinion hasn’t deterred men from pursuing their passion for dance training. Dance programs at the preprofessional and university levels have ramped up their curricula in response to current expectations for greater male prowess. Male students are hungry for training that meets their needs, so what are some new solutions for their development?  


At schools across the country, men are benefiting from their own separate technique classes, as teachers tailor these courses to the current generation of students. In all-male settings, men can focus on technical skills that often get overlooked in co-ed classes, like beats, turns, double tour en l’air, or advanced steps like revoltades and barrel turns. “Just throwing in an entrechat six combination or à la seconde turns at the end of a class without really teaching them is not development,” says Ethan Stiefel, American Ballet Theatre star and dean of the school of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “That’s just sink or swim. They need more nurturing than that.”


At UNCSA, boys from around age 14 attend four men’s technique classes per week. Stiefel leads a men’s ballet class nicknamed the Stiefel Squadron and has also instituted a class called Men’s Training Camp. “This is not simply getting better through repetition in the studio, which is the traditional method,” says Stiefel. “We can focus on a male variation, or we can go outside and do obstacle courses, run stairs, or play flag football.” Stiefel’s experience recovering from multiple knee surgeries introduced him to plyometrics, a regimen used by professional athletes. This approach uses rapid muscle contraction to improve speed, strength, and motor response through exercises like quickly jumping on and off a box. Stiefel has observed that a free-style environment encourages an open, creative dialogue among the men.


Peter Boal, director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and the PNB School, has also experimented with unconventional teaching methods. In co-ed classes, he’s noticed differing areas of focus between young men and women. “During a 45-minute barre, the boys seem to wander off a bit, while the girls are more focused,” he says. “But when you get to larger, more full-bodied physical movement, the boys are amazing and their attention is fully there.” In all-male classes, teachers can structure the lesson differently to engage men’s attention from start to finish. “One time we brought a mini trampoline into the studio to work on entrechats,” Boal says. “The boys were so excited, it was as if had we had turned on the TV.”


At the University of Minnesota, theatre arts and dance chair Carl Flink started a popular men’s modern dance class, which welcomed all levels. “It was aligned with the Montessori model,” says Flink, “where people at different stages of training have things to share with each other. A trained dancer has a lot of technical information, whereas the new male dancer is often a reminder of the physical mover—the raw animal.” In a typical class, athletic floor work, like push-ups, segued into improvisations based on walking and running, lifting each other, and jumping through space. Flink thinks that the attitude of giving men permission to be men produced a buzz around campus. The class (now on hiatus as the department restructures its curriculum) started with five male students in 2001 and more than tripled that by 2007.


Over time, male dancers have gained more technical breadth, and current training methods need to reflect that. When Boal was younger, he remembers, men weren’t required to extend their legs more than about 90 degrees. “Now men are expected to have as much flexibility as women and lift their legs as high,” he says. “The whole concept of stretching is essential for male dancers, and we push for that as teachers.” With the advent of pyrotechnical feats that male dancers toss off in bushels these days, Stiefel emphasizes doing those gymnastic elements without straining. “People get very caught up in numbers,” he says, “but clean never goes out of style.”


Strength training, including guided weight training to augment pas de deux work, is now part of the regimen at many schools, including UNCSA and SAB. At the San Francisco Ballet School, Jorge Esquivel requires boys to do 32 push-ups in his daily men’s class—an even coda-style number. Flink organized similiar athletic activities. For two years he took his students to a boxing gym directed by a female boxer, who would lead them in a workout with punching pads. “You could see the impact on them through a task-driven physicality,” Flink says.


To create a men’s class, you need enough bodies in a classroom, and attracting boys to a dance program requires some creative thinking. PNB’s DanceChance recruits and provides free tuition for students from 27 schools, in which a high percentage of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, in the greater Seattle area. More than a third of the 96 boys currently in the PNB school came from the Dance-Chance program. The boys, says Boal, seem to stick with it more than the girls. “Once boys cross that threshold of saying ‘I am a boy and I am a ballet dancer,’ they have nothing to lose,” he says. “They fall in love with it.” At the University of Minnesota, students can earn either a BFA or BA in dance. Many BAs choose to double major, an option that can attract men who have found their way to dance but are wrestling with career choices. And Stiefel at UNCSA hopes his star power will bring more talented men into the program.


When it comes to encouraging men to to commit to a career in dance, or advance their training, one word comes to mind: Bravissimo.


Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to
Dance Magazine.


Photo: Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB