When Julian first began dancing at the age of 3, we enrolled him in a jazz/tap/ballet combo class offered through the Batavia-IL park (or rec) department. It was okay, but not great. A year or so later, we enrolled him at Moves Dance Studio under the tutelage of Kim Farrah. There he thrived and really began his serious dance training.
The first year he attended classes at Moves, he danced with Kim. The second year, I think, he began taking some classes with Anthony Foster. Anthony was the first male dance teacher Julian had ever had, and he loved him. He especially loved the fact that Anthony had begun as a break dancer, although by this time he was an accomplished dancer in most areas, including ballet.
Julian took both hip hop/break dancing and ballet classes from Anthony. Eventually, I asked Anthony to work with him in private lessons. I already knew that Julian needed that type of male mentor to help him along. Anthony provided just that.
I can still remember the two of them at the bar in their black tights, black ballet shoes and tight white shirts. Anthony towered over Julian; Julian looked up to him with such respect and awe.
Both Anthony and Julian have come a long way since then. Julian is dancing in a pre-professional company and just returned from a summer at American Ballet Theatre’s New York intensive. Anthony is the artistic director for his own pre-professional dance company, Soleunique, as well as the managing director for Moves Dance Studios pre-professional program. A choreographer, dancer and educator, Anthony’s all-encompassing and diverse training background includes authentic tutelage in the forms of classical ballet and classical jazz under direct descendants of George Balanchine and Gus Giordano. Supplemented by break dance and gymnastics in his early years, Anthony quickly made the transition from street to stage and a few notable small-screen appearances, such as on season 1 of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance and in music videos for the artists Echo & Groove Jam. His stage credits include leads in the ballets, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Les Patineurs, and The Last Waltz as well as performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When not at his home base, Anthony travels the U.S. as a guest instructor and choreographer for professional companies, studios, dance conferences and conventions. He has had the honor of teaching on faculty for Columbia College Chicago, The College of DuPage, The Embracing the Dream dance conference, has been traveling the U.S. with The Deux and is now on faculty for Dance Masters of Wisconsin.
That said, I’m so pleased that when I asked Anthony to write a blog post for me, he accepted. (In fact, he wrote two! I’ll be posting the other one later.) I simply asked him to write about boys and dance. Here’s what he had to say:
Boys & Dance
By Anthony Foster
As most gentlemen do, I started serious dance at a later age—in my teens. Fortunately for my teachers and for me, I had a history of competitive gymnastics under my belt. This provided a massive catalyst towards flexibility, though we used different and opposing muscle groups in the two activities. I also had many years of “street” and break dance behind me.
Even with these experiences, I found it a strange thing to move from one facet of dance to another. When anyone (male or female) grows up dancing their own style without knowing a completely different world of dance exists out there—one full of steps, counts, vocabulary, and terminology—and then moves into a structured dance environment, it is a complete shock to the system. You go from knowing it all to knowing absolutely nothing!
Long before competitive dance television shows and when MTV actually showed music videos, my sister and I would sit in front of the T.V. and learn moves from shows like Dance Party USA, MTV’s The Grind, Soul Train, etc. We would constantly go out to teen dance clubs and school dances just to get our groove on. The dance steps we used had no structure or discipline; our dancing was so raw.
Thinking back to my first few dance classes, I have to relate a story about when my sister and I went to see the movie Step Up in the theater. In a scene where Channing Tatum experiences his first real rehearsal, he says, “What the hell is a pique?” My sister and I must’ve been the only dancers in the audience at the time, because all the belly laughter was coming from our seats. I would have to admit that my experience in those first classes wasn’t much different from his.
Catching up to the much-younger and more-experienced females in every class was a challenge I took very seriously. Never did I find it embarrassing. The dance studio was my “safe place” at a time when things in my youthful household were falling apart at the seams, making it easier to focus my attention on training.
As I learned about dance in general, I also discovered a few things about boys and dance. For males in the world of dance, it’s different than for women. Everything about what we do in dance is different—from the way we stand, offer an arm and even walk across the room. There is nothing feminine about what boys or men do in dance.
Unfortunately, in some cases, boys are products of an environment saturated with females, and the boys have little or no access to positive male role models as instructors. As a result, some boys have a tendency to mimic the girls they see in class and often learn to have a strong, feminine presence in the studio or on stage. This is not the boys’ fault, as they are simply following the direction of their instructors. Many male teachers have been discussing for years why male teachers are expected not only to make a male dancer look like a strong male but also (even more so) to ensure that female dancers are trained accordingly. Yet, most female teachers look at a boy and say, “Just do it like a boy.”
Similar to sports, dance is athletic and demanding. Many of you probably have seen the tee shirts that state, “If dance were easy, they’d call it football.” Dancers, male and female, are some of the hardest-working individuals on the planet (right beside gymnasts). This art form involves more than running fast, catching a ball and hitting the guy who has the ball as hard as you can. It requires knowledge of your body, of your muscle groups and of how to move your body to get successful results.
Additionally, dance sees no gender, and we thank Mr. George Balanchine for deciding men are more than props for women in ballet.
It’s a fact that boys in dance are ridiculed, picked on and looked at as “sissies.” I’ve been in my fair share of arguments and have come pretty damn close to fist fights over such labels. In the end, I can laugh all the way to the bank when the guys who were making fun of me in high school are still punching their timecards at the warehouse while I get to work with great-looking, young females everyday! (Thanks, Mom!) I know this is not exactly every male dancers’ cup of tea, but hey…
Let me also mention, that there is a misconception that all males that dance are homosexual. What, ballet makes a boy gay? If that is the case, you can forget everything you might know about the soft and pretty. Male dancers, in this day and age, are surprisingly strong! Most can jump higher than an Olympic high-jumper, kick their legs harder than the worlds’ best soccer player, and lift weight comparable to body builders (in some cases).
My tips for boys,whether you’re just thinking about getting into dance, have recently begun or have been a veteran for years, are as follows:
- Stick with it. You are the change we will see in this industry.
- Trust your body, and take risks.
- It’s an strange world to enter, but the rewards last forever.
- Do some research on the following strong, male dancers: Desmond Richardson, Rasta Thomas, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Nick Lazzarini, Danny Tidwell, Keith Clifton, Barry Youngblood, Gregg Russell, and Gregory Hines.
- Boys, you are loved and supported in this industry.
- Do not skip any steps and sign up for the proper level of class. If you’re 15 years old and in ballet class with nine year old girls, so be it! Your time will come. Be patient and good things will follow.
- Even if you are starting late, like I did, you can become a great male dancer. Male dancers have the ability to catch up with their female counterparts quickly. But don’t forget you can’t succeed in the world of dance with less technique than the women have obtained during all their years of training. You’ll have to work really hard to obtain that level of technical proficiency.