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Ah, the ever elusive male dancer. In the competition dance world, he appears at a young age, perhaps the son of a dance teacher, stealing the hearts of judges and audience members alike. As time moves on, he may continue his training, and become the next Gene Kelly or Nick Lazzarini, or, as is often the case, he moves on to another activity, never knowing what might have been. Today we hear from several unique perspectives on the experience of being a male in the dance world, and what teachers can do to train young men to be confident, stylized, and technically proficient dancers.
Did you grow up with male teachers?
Robb G.: I grew up in the South dancing at private dance studios in Arkansas and Memphis, TN. The only time I was ever exposed to male teachers was during master classes or when my studio director brought them into our studio.
Colin Shea D.: I was lucky enough to grow up with a few male teachers. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time, because it was all I knew, but looking back, I am so grateful I had male teachers. I had some amazing female teachers growing up as well, but the chance to learn from people built like me with (some of) the same strengths and weakness as me was such a valuable experience.
Steven C.: My only experience with male dance teachers was at competitions and conventions. It was always difficult to find male teachers in our local dance studios.
Patch D.: I began dancing once I started college. The head of our dance department was a male dancer himself and we had many guest instructors come in who were male as well.
How did learning from another male affect your dancing?
RG: When learning from a male teacher, I became a sponge. I tried in every way to observe everything about their movements. It was so seldom for me to see another man dance in person, so when it happened I wanted to learn everything I could. There is no equivalent to watching a male dancer dance with strength and grace. It can't be mimicked. I tried to pick up on every nuance that made them look so differently from me.
CSD: Having male teachers at a young age helped me to understand the importance of style, as well as developing my own. I feel like often times style is stripped from boys’ choreography in order to keep it from appearing too feminine. But my male teachers emphasized the importance of style for us young male dancers. They gave us a blueprint of where to work from, and then encouraged us to build upon that structure. It wasn’t about subtracting style, but rather putting a different spin on it.
How can female teachers help their male students if there is no option for a male teacher?
SC: A common mistake made by females when teaching males is the dreaded phrase, "Boys, make it look more masculine.” In my opinion, gender association with movement is not instinct, but is created by humans. Just as young ladies need to learn "feminine" movement qualities, young men need the same guidance. It's like asking an Italian to speak in a British accent. You might know what a British accent sounds like but you need guidance on how to shape the correct vocal placement. Use terms like "strength", "grounded", "elongated", "centered in your core" - these are specific actions that can take the same dance move as your ladies and make it look "masculine".
PD: I feel as though learning from a male teacher is just as beneficial as learning from a female teacher. On the one hand, the male teacher understands how the male body works and moves. Therefore, he is able to provide you with first hand information as to the techniques you should use in order to progress. On the other hand, a female teacher approaches dance [from] a completely different viewpoint. She may have different tips and techniques that work for her that the male teacher may not have even realized. I truly believe a combination of both male and female teachers is the best approach. You get to learn from all sides. If there is no option for a male teacher, I think a female teacher should educate themselves as much as possible as to how the male body grows and develops, especially for young dancers. The kinesiology of dance will vary depending on the student’s gender, rate of growth, muscle development, etc. Therefore, I think it is imperative that female teachers understand the growth process of a male dancer.
RG: The only way I could suggest to female teachers to help instruct their male students is to do your research. There are millions upon millions of videos online (Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, etc.) to learn from some of the best [by seeing them] do what they do. You have to be willing to put in the effort in order to get the results you're looking for. Don't be afraid to ask a male dancer to condition themselves. One huge benefit of having a male dancer is being able to incorporate lifts into choreography when both parties have been trained properly.
CSD: I think the most important thing female teachers can do is their homework/research. I don’t think it’s enough to say, “Well, I don’t choreograph for boys because I don’t know how to.” It is our job as dance professionals to be well versed in all styles. Get out there and talk to male dancers/teachers, take class from men, check out videos of classic male dancers. Basically never settle and keep pushing yourself as an artist.
Boys’ costumes in the catalogues are, to put it kindly, unfortunate. Do you have any suggestions to teachers searching for creative costuming for their male students?
RG: I completely understand the appeal to want your male dancers to match the look of the piece, but ready-made costumes should never be the final answer. Those costume designers hardly ever specialize in a man's physique or fit. As a judge and teacher who is at a competition almost every weekend from January until nationals, I know what I respect in a male dancer's costume. I'm a huge fan of a classic, black slack and fitted top. Those tops could be anything from a tank to a button-up to a fitted tee. As a former competition kid, my studio director would ask costume companies for extra material that matched the girls' costumes. This could be used as a tie, pocket square, etc. to keep a cohesive look among the piece. A pant option could be anything from a skinny jean to a fitted tux pant. You want your male dancers to stand out in a good way, not by catching our attention in an ill-fitting blazer.
PD: My questions/reminders to teachers before they dress their male dancers are: 1) Is this something that you would be proud to wear? 2) Did you put in as much time searching for your boys’ costumes as you did for your girls’?
CSD: Stick with “streetwear” made out of fabrics that allow movement. And just like tights for girls, make sure boys are wearing socks that continue the line. It drives me crazy when I see boys in black pants, black jazz shoes and white or no socks!
SC: The reality is that boys don't want to feel ostracized in a dance because of their gender. They want to feel part of the team. The more inclusive you can make the costumes the less judges have to separate the boy(s) from the girls. Try and find ways to make the costumes gender generic and inclusive.
Boys start to lose interest in dance around the middle school age, with peer pressure and other school activities being the main reasons. How can studio owners and teachers retain male students and maintain their interest?
CSD: This is a tough one, and ultimately, it will come down to the dancer’s choice. I think addressing the issue head on with the dancer maybe a year or two before middle school could help keep them invested. Instill in them the importance of sticking with what they love, and help them understand that many other males before them have had the exact same struggles. If there aren’t male teachers at the studio on a regular basis, consider bringing in a guest male choreographer to offer a boys only workshop, complete with a talkback!
PD: It is super important to keep boys interested in dance during those tough middle school/early high school years. I think that studio owners can help retain male students by trying to form more boys’ groups/classes, thus providing a brotherhood within the studio. I also think that it’s important to remind the male dancer at a young age how being a dancer is just as acceptable and respectable as a being a football player. Both are of equal value. Having conversations like this at this early stage of a male dancer’s career will build his self-confidence and allow him to keep his passion to dance. Also, I think it would be a good idea to check in with the male dancers and see what styles and songs they would like to use for their routines. This will allow them to have a sense of partnership/collaboration within their early careers.
RG: You can never estimate kids' thirst for knowledge until you've given them a taste. The more you challenge them, the more they'll keep begging for education. Directors and choreographers should always be challenging themselves to put out better products than the season before. There should be no exception to challenging your students no matter what gender. If you keep coming up with new choreography that excites them, they'll almost always return wanting more.
Steven, Patch, Colin Shea, and Robb are all current professional dancers, dance teachers, and IDA judges based out of New York City.