Twice a week at a public middle school in a working-class, largely African-American neighborhood in Pikesville, Md., a group of boys ages 7 to 10 line up to run, one by one, diagonally across a vast floor and then leap--with whatever goofy movement they choose--over a plastic container in the middle of the room. Their instructor, Tim Fox, a burly guy who used to be a professional dancer, doesn't tell the boys that what they are practicing is called a jet. He just tells them to have fun and burn off some energy. As for formal ballet training, he says, "I sort of sneak it in."
The class is one of a slew of new boys-only ballet programs popping up around the country, reeling in participants like Fox's students, who have never heard of Billy Elliot but might have seen some nice moves on Glee or So You Think You Can Dance. In Eugene, Ore., the Oregon Ballet Academy has more than doubled its boys-only rosters in the past five years. Some high-profile professional companies, including New York City's American Ballet Theatre, didn't start offering boys-only classes until a year or two ago, and the response has been striking. A pilot program for boys launched this spring by Calgary's School of Alberta Ballet was expected to sign up 10 boys; 40 ended up enrolling. Meanwhile, a growing number of ballet schools in North America and Europe have started organizing annual Boys' Days, a commitment-free way to check out ballet without being the only kid in the room with a Y chromosome.
Yet despite the uptick in boys' participation--and in the number of males dancing on prime-time TV and in movies like this summer's tween-boys bust-a-move-athon, Battlefield America--it's still hard to get newbies in the door. To recruit boys for the Pikesville class that Baltimore County's Sudbrook Arts Centre started offering last September, Goucher College dance professor Laura Dolid sent a flyer home with all public-school students within a 15-mile radius that described the free course as an athletic experience "helping in sports ... by increasing agility, coordination and strength." The emphasis on muscle got three brothers interested in the class, but their Nigerian father wouldn't let them participate because, Dolid recalls him saying, "Boys don't dance." To help combat macho stereotypes, Fox says he spent the first day of class telling the boys about his own passion for dance, which started because it helped him become a more agile catcher for his school baseball team.
In Fox's class--which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and will be offered again next year--the students do a lot of boy stuff, including push-ups and chin-ups. Several of them cite performing in a local production of The Nutcracker, with its sword fights and guns, as a key motivator. But Alfred Murdock III, 8, who wrestles competitively, says he likes training in ballet because "I can feel stronger in my matches so I don't get knocked over."
As boys get older--Fox also teaches a free class for students ages 11 to 14--their aspirations become more college- and even career-oriented. They talk about getting scholarships, and some, like rising sophomore Tres McMichael, want to perform on Broadway. "Do I get teased? Of course!" he says of his peers' reaction to his ballet training. "But the girls in high school think guy dancers are very cool."