Why is there still a stigma surrounding boys and ballet? Your husbands and sons may go pale at the thought of wearing tights, says Alice Rose, but if ballet school is good enough for Rio Ferdinand, it’s good enough for them.
At the breakfast table, one morning.
Me: “Boys, what do you think about having ballet lessons?”
Boy One (aged 6): “Eurgh, no – ballet is for girls.”
Boy Two (aged 4): “No way – I’m not wearing pink tights and a tutu.”
Boy Three (aged 2): “Me wear tutu!”
I hate to admit it, but gender stereotyping is alive and kicking in our house. You won’t see a shred of pink, sparkly, fluffy frilliness, but you will find heaps of muddy wellies, assorted weaponry, a fine collection of camouflage boiler suits – and a fizzing cauldron of testosterone. It’s not all bad. When they’re not whacking each other over the head, my boys hug, bake and have lots of girl-friends. But anything pink is disdainfully labelled ‘girlish’ and regarded with deepest suspicion. So it’s no great surprise that they’re not leaping with joy at the thought of ballet lessons.
I blame their father. My beloved husband grew up on army bases and was educated at all-boys schools from the age of seven, so his definition of masculinity is, to put it politely, fairly narrow.
In his world, men don’t wear jewellery (no question of him wearing a wedding ring), don’t show emotion (although he has been known to get severe hayfever during Masterchef), and as for being in touch with his feminine side, he would deny that he even has one.
When our eldest son asked if he could join netball club at school, my husband bought him Spurs shin pads. He’s not a complete stranger to ballet: accompanying an elderly cousin (a former ballerina), he has snored through three of the Royal Ballet’s finest productions. As for the thought of his own boys doing it? He’s firmly of the ‘No son of mine…’ persuasion.
Yes, he’s an extreme example. But every father of boys I’ve quizzed has said something along the lines of ‘If they really wanted to do ballet, I’d let them, but I’d hope they grew out of it pretty quickly.’
But hang on, guys, we’re missing a trick here. Forget the tights, look at the positives. The physical benefits of ballet for boys are obvious: discipline, co-ordination, posture, concentration… There are psychological and emotional benefits too: ‘It’s a great antidote to all that alpha-male nonsense,’ says a mother I know. And of course, the tights-and-tutus image is just plain wrong – there are plenty of strong male role models in the ballet world if you look for them. Take Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake for a start, with its aggressive, menacing male swan ensemble.
Look at Carlos Acosta’s agility and athleticism. Think of Sergei Polunin, ballet’s brilliant bad boy who co-owned a tattoo parlour and walked out on the Royal Ballet, now trying his luck in Hollywood (OK, maybe not such a good role model, that one). And then there are footballers: Ryan Giggs worked with a ballet teacher on a stretching and muscle-strengthening exercise programme to sort out his hamstring problems – he does yoga, too.
Rio Ferdinand says that his childhood ballet lessons gave him balance and a sense of timing – he took four classes a week for four years, and won a scholarship to the Central School of Ballet when he was 11.
Mrs Sally Hobbs, head of co-ed prep Orchard House School in west London, believes that more boys should be encouraged to take up ballet. “It is very beneficial for boys, particularly those who take part in team sports,” she says. “It helps to develop and improve numerous skills such as muscular strength, balance, speed and agility along with flexibility and mental focus.” At Orchard House, they teach Dalcroze eurhythmics – rhythmical movements to music – to all pupils as part of the early years curriculum. “I feel very strongly that children are growing up in an atmosphere of anxiety and tension – their lives are frenetic,” Mrs Hobbs says:
“A love of music is a wonderful gift, yet so many parents will only want to hear what their child got in a maths test and not that he or she was in raptures during a quiet listening time in assembly. Ballet calms down the performer and the spectator.”
Susannah Woodgate’s son started ballet lessons at the age of four, inspired by the example of his (female) cousins. “He has totally loved it from the word go,” Susannah says “He loves music and rhythm and is very athletic in his build – he’s really made for it. Until recently, he’s insisted on wearing what his mother calls ‘the whole pink number – yes, tights, tutu and shoes, head to toe pink!”
He was teased a bit, and has now opted for the more traditional black leggings. Does he mind being outnumbered by girls? “It makes him feel a bit special being in the minority,” says his mother. “I’m sure he secretly enjoys that.” And what does his father think? “I don’t think he feels negatively about it, since my son is still young. He might start to question it if he is still doing it in five or 15 years’ time!”
Caroline Anderson wanted her son Jake to have the same ‘delightful, creative experience’ of ballet lessons as his older sister, and says the classes at Vanessa Donkin’s Ballet School in Notting Hill ‘fired his imagination.’ Now aged 10, he’s now a Junior Associate at the Royal Ballet School, “the discipline and concentration required really help him focus – great for school work – and physically, the training is fantastic for fitness.” Says Caroline.
At the Ballet School, he was the only boy in his class, but didn’t mind; at the Royal Ballet School, ‘there are lots of boys so it is perfectly normal.’ And the million-dollar question: what does his father think? “My husband is the world’s worst dancer,” Caroline says. “He is very impressed. I don’t think he would particularly want him to be a dancer as it is a tough and uncertain life, but it is a tremendous experience Jake is having and long may it last.”
Having heard all this, I’m encouraging my boys (big and small) to look beyond the tights and focus on the positives of learning ballet. After that conversation, we went to watch a production of Cats, where all four boys (husband included) were transfixed by the (male) Rum Tum Tugger, rocking the stage in a skin-tight, black PVC catsuit. “Would you like to learn to dance like the Rum Tum Tugger?” I asked at breakfast the next morning. Vigorous nods all round.
Ballet classes may not be on our family curriculum, but some other form of dance lessons just might. Watch this space.Alice Rose is the Tatler Schools Guide Editor at Large. She has three boys, aged 2, 4, and 6. Her perfect winter Sunday involves rain, Wales, spaniels, crumpets and duvet. All or any of the above.
Does your boy do ballet? If so, did they choose it or did you face resistance? Should boys be encouraged to dance? Let us know what you think in the comments below.