Male ballet dancers take small steps to shake off uptight prejudices

JAY BEVAN announced that he wanted to be a ballet dancer at the age of four. His mother was horrified. 'She said it was poofy, and sent me to judo instead.' Only when he was 18, after completing his exams early, was he able, finally, to join a Saturday dance class.

'I was learning with pensioners and 10-year-old girls. It didn't bother me, because finally I was learning to dance ballet.'

His mother's reaction is typical, even today. Ballet has an image problem. Despite the adulation heaped on great male dancers such as Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, it is still seen as a female art form. Young male dancers have to fight prejudice and sniggering asides about 'men in tights'. Even the audiences are predominantly female, and many boys rule it out as a career.

Now the English National Ballet is spending pounds 25,000 to attract young men who might not otherwise consider dance.

For the past year, members of the touring company, which has its headquarters in London, have been staging workshops at schools, colleges, football clubs, and youth groups.

'To many people ballet is an alien, elitist world, something airy and floaty. It is hard to escape this men in tights thing,' admits Ginny Brown, senior dance officer for the education unit.

'Some of the boys had to be literally forced by their teachers to attend. But we gave them some easy exercises and they became quite enthusiastic.'

More than 600 boys have been involved in the project, sponsored by J Sainsbury, and three performance groups have been set up in London, Southampton and Manchester.

The London section includes teenagers and men in their early twenties - among them Jay, now 21 and a first-year student at Urdang Academy of Ballet and Performing Arts, Covent Garden.

All the group proclaim the advantages of all-male dance. 'I tried ballet classes when I was 13 and hated it. I was the only boy. The girls laughed at me, it was really intimidating and I gave it up,' says fellow dancer Simon Flowerdew, 24.

'Learning here with other men, there is the camaraderie and a different kind of energy.' On 26 May, the three dance groups will perform together in London at the ENB.

(Photograph omitted)