To All the Boys Who Dance

You might have heard of #BoysDanceToo, a movement in 2019 that started after Good Morning America host, Laura Spencer, made an insensitive remark on Prince George’s ballet lessons (she clearly hasn’t seen Billy Elliot or Mao’s Last Dancer). The ballet world was quick to respond, with ballet companies — San Francisco Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre coming to his defence. 300 dancers even took part in a ballet class at Times Square in support of the movement. 

Singapore is no stranger to ballet, thanks to the influential Goh Choo San. Ballet dancer and choreographer extraordinaire, he co-founded the Singapore Ballet Academy and was Singapore’s ballet treasure. Goh held his position as resident choreographer and artistic director of the Washington Ballet from 1976 until his passing in 1987. Throughout his lifetime, his choreography was hailed and performed by leading ballet companies including the American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, and The Joffrey Ballet.

Why then, is ballet still highly regarded as a female-centric dance genre, particularly in Singapore? In the local context, the stigma of boys taking ballet still exists. Parents are supportive of their daughters while they discourage their sons from taking up ballet lessons. Boys face bullying in schools — verbal taunts — should their classmates find out they dance ballet. In some classes, a lone boy takes his place at the barre. Perhaps, the lack of boys in ballet traces its roots from the stereotypes labelled by Singapore society. A regular, all-girl ballet class dominates the local ballet scene, with few dance schools offering boys only ballet classes. 

To understand the demographic of boys in ballet, I checked in with 3 dance schools. AQ DANCE ACADEMY has 0 boys enrolled, 1 boy (age 10) is enrolled in Amy’s School of Dance and The Ballet School has 8 boys (ages 5 to 14) enrolled. The ratio of boys to girls in each class would be an estimated 1:6. While the enrollment of boys in ballet differs in each school, the meek number of boys compared to the majority (girls) emphasises that ballet in Singapore is still a female-dominated dance genre. The lack of exposure to boys dancing ballet further affects the view of a boy in ballet in Singapore. It is not common. It is not encouraged.

Parents are wary of sending their sons for ballet lessons, fearing that their family members or friends would question their choices: “Why would you send him for ballet?”, “What if he can’t handle the army in the future?”, “What if he starts acting like a girl?” Ballet is seen as feminine, and a boy’s masculinity will be doubted should he dance ballet. 

Boys in tights are mocked and laughed at. These taunts don’t come with being a footballer, engineer or electrician, which are viewed as more masculine careers by society.  There is a huge misconception surrounding ballet — that it is extremely feminine, and hence emasculates boys who dance ballet. Fluidity and gentleness are widely associated with ballet, therefore creating misconceptions that boys will develop effeminate manners should they practice the art form. On the contrary, ballet requires stamina, and boys are challenged to do physically taxing leaps and turns, all pushing their bodies to their limits. 

A lack of boys in ballet would prove detrimental to the genre overall. How would a pas-de-deux (a dance duet) be executed if a male partner is missing? Of course, this does not apply to all ballets, however, the most famous pieces; Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Don Quixote require a male and female dance lead. Without male dancers, the art form ceases to exist. Modern takes on ballet, such as Matthew Bourne’s critically acclaimed Swan Lake, have shattered boundaries and stereotypes, paving the way for male ballet dancers internationally. Consisting of an all-male cast, Bourne’s Swan Lake has traditionally female parts of the ballet danced by men. The musculature of a swan is beautifully rendered in the ballet, proving that the physical training in ballet commands strength, discipline, grit, and athleticism. It is not gender-specific. With jaw-dropping, gravity-defying leaps, an insane amount of turns, and challenging lifts, boys put the b in ballet.

Gabrielle the gender gap in ballet Singapore Dance Theatre Romeo and Juliet 2020, Photography by Bernie Ng

Stereotyping and biases have got to change. I urge you to view ballet videos on YouTube, or, for those into film, watch Billy Elliot. An increased understanding of the demands of this dance genre might do the trick. As a generation known for inducing change and tackling societal norms, breaking the misconceptions about ballet could be our first step. Dance is a physically taxing activity, and ballet is no different. Ballet is gender-neutral. 

It takes a strong mentality to continue something one is passionate about, all whilst facing verbal and sometimes even physical abuse. Despite the pressure of society, some boys pursue their passion, refusing to conform. To these boys, the ballet world has got your back. These headstrong boys go head to head with gender stereotypes and societal expectations, challenging what it means to be a boy in ballet.