When you picture 'boys dancing', what do you see?
Hip hop or street dancers? 'Celebrity' commercial troupes like Diversity? I'll bet it's not ballerinas (unless you've just gone to see BalletBoyz; fair point). And I'll bet it's not a group of school-age kids performing a contemporary canon on a farm.
Boys Dancing, a West Midlands-based initiative, have planted that precise image in my head. The scene is one of many shot for Manitou the Legacy, a short film documenting the boys' work on site-specific performance Manitou. The organisation is currently a finalist in the running for a National Lottery Award, and deservedly so. Over 2,500 boys have participated in their workshops and performances, many of which are site-specific, broadening their horizons and expectations of dance's limits.
Reflecting on my experience of dance as a young girl, I was lucky enough to be enlisted in ballet classes at the age of two, and loved them. There was just one boy in my class, and I cannot help but wonder... did he continue dancing as he grew up? Moving counties, I switched to commercial dance, followed by modern, and contemporary... but dance has remained a constant in my life. Did he feel the same freedom as I have, to continue what appeared, for him, to be a real passion? Or was he subjected to sexist peer pressure, consequently giving it all up?
The fantastic thing about Boys Dancing is that participants are given the opportunity to mature throughout the experience. The boys' ages range from age 9 to 19. In fact on their website (www.boysdancing.org), Thato, an older participant, explains that 'the most difficult thing was realising I loved dance at the age of 19...', giving a textbook example of why boys should be given the opportunity to start dancing at a younger age. Not only that, but they are encouraged to try different styles too; it is refreshing to read about young Dylan's experiences of being advised to try ballet, to increase his strength.
And 'strength' is the real buzzword here. I know, I know, talking about gender stereotypes in a dance context can be overkill, but hear me out. Some of the participants on the site also talk about how they have discovered dance can be 'masculine'. Is 'masculine' a synonym for 'tough', for 'athletic', for 'physically challenging'?
The 'About' section of the Boys Dancing site discusses carefully how it aims to introduce boys to dance as an expressive and challenging medium - not that dance is for boys too, because it requires great strength. And this indeed is a strength of the manifesto. It is so vital that 'masculine' is not bandied about to encourage boys to dance. After all, I am certain I do not need statistical support to claim that more girls dance than boys - and in doing so offer regular examples of immense athleticism.
Just look at Mafalda Deville, of Jasmin Vardimon Company. When I took a workshop with her three years ago, I had never seen a body so athletic, and so much muscle on such a small frame. Watching JVC's performances is sometimes akin to witnessing bootcamp training, with added elegance. In particular a phrase from Park stands out in my memory, as a troupe of (all-female) dancers throw themselves repeatedly onto their sides, straight from standing onto the hard floor.
Any organisation encouraging boys to dance makes a vital social step forward. Not only does it ameliorate the often bitter attitudes of boys' non-dancing male peers, but dancing boys gain greater respect and admiration for their female counterparts. They begin to realise 'strength' is a value shared by women, too.
Kudos to Boys Dancing. Keep doing what you do. I've got my fingers crossed for you.