When Graham Johns ’14 tried to explain his passion for dance to his younger cousin, he was met only with a look for confusion and a question—why would he prefer ballet to a more “traditional” sport such as football or baseball?
Stories like Johns’ are not uncommon. In his Brace Fellow Presentation, “Breaking Negative Stereotypes of the Western Male Dancer: Reclaiming the Masculine Nature of Ballet as a Sport,” on Monday night, Johns explained that male ballet dancers often face criticism and censure from friends and family. He drew upon both personal experience and extensive research from historic dance texts and old films.
“I have been doing ballet for the past six years of my life, and [prejudice] towards male ballet dancers is something that I have come in contact with a few too many times,” said Johns. “[These are] things that I don’t think are fair or warranted.”
Johns noted the lack of male interest in dance and how the sport is often frowned upon in the United States. While young girls are often enrolled in dance classes to learn poise and grace as a woman, young boys are often held back by fear of becoming an outcast or of being viewed as feminine or homosexual, he said.
Johns argued against this practice, asserting that male ballet dancers should be viewed with no more femininity than a painter, an architect or a filmmaker because it is no different than any other art from. By the same token, he believed that ballet is as strenuous as a contact sport, and should be treated with respect and recognition as such.
“Even here at Phillips Academy we assume to be on the forefront of innovation, but dancers aren’t treated the same way as varsity athletes,” he said. Johns pointed out that dance is not considered a varsity lettering sport and is barred from providing representatives to the Student Athletic Council.
“The demands on the dancer’s body and other athletes are exactly the same in that both require muscles to be trained and for exceptional skill to be used in the acquisition of strength, stamina and speed. The difference comes in the visual expression of these qualities because the dancer’s body has to always appear aesthetically pleasing,” said Johns.
Johns cited Europe as one of the frontrunners in the treatment of male ballet dancers. Children there, both boys and girls, are encouraged to take dance lessons to build strength and agility, as well as character, balance, performance and endurance.
“In Europe, people are proud of their dance students. Kids practice on the streets, on beaches, anywhere without embarrassment. In America, dance is feminized and isolated. Not because of the nature of dance but rather because it is not a form where traditionally American men have exhibited their power or virility,” said Johns.
“This is not something that is inherent,” said Johns. “Stigmas against male dancers did not always exist, and now they are outdated and unfounded and no longer apply.”