Last week’s comments by ABC’s Lara Spencer mocking Prince George for enjoying ballet class rightly provoked a great deal of outrage. For me, they brought up all those memories of having to explain throughout my life why I, a boy, did ballet.
Over the years it became a lot easier to answer that question and most of the time now when people I meet ask me, with the same puzzlement, how I came to become a choreographer, they will be satisfied with the answer: “I began to dance and then went to ballet school because I loved it.”
Eventually things have gotten easier, but the struggle I felt hiding my sexuality while also defending my passion for ballet led to a lot of self-hatred and anxiety as a young gay man. Last year I made a ballet called “Embrace” in which for the first time I challenged myself to address these experiences directly in my work.
Growing up, I heard many comments like the one Spencer made, implying that boys who did ballet are less male – and that this is a bad thing. They not only made me defend ballet’s “manliness” but also inadvertently made me feel the need to apologise for being gay.
The fact that I was actually a gay kid trying not to feel lesser made the struggle to shrug off comments like these that much harder. Loving ballet was one more reason to feel that who I was was wrong, that the things I cared about and the things that made me feel free and alive actually meant I was worthy of ridicule.
Whenever these sort of controversies arise there is always a noble chorus of voices defending the fact that ballet is indeed “masculine”, that male dancers are strong, jump high, embody the very athleticism and courage we praise in athletics and other sports.
The dance community united in a beautiful way to reject the prejudice inferred by the comments made, but the way in which so many chose to voice their concern perhaps belies a deeper prejudice.
It is certainly true that ballet can make men look strong and commanding and thus portray traditionally “masculine” traits, but it can also allow men to be soft, fluid, romantic and free. In other words, it shows men to be generally more human than some may want us to accept.
Ballet, like almost everything, is itself firmly rooted in a heteronormative tradition. In part because of the physical differences between the male and female body, classical dance often reflects a traditional understanding of the relationship between men and women. While it is absolutely right to fight back against the sort of homophobia that colours comments like Spencer’s, it is important not to allow that reaction to itself propagate the sort of gender stereotypes that cause so much harm to boys and girls alike.
It is not enough to constantly defend that ballet dancers are as “manly” as anyone else. This argument misses a far more pressing point. We should all be aware of how we perceive one another based on outdated, unhelpful and very harmful ideals around gender.
Spencer’s comments highlight the pervasive menace of a deep misogyny that infects every section of our society. As a gay man, I am sensitive to the overlap with homophobia, how jokes about boys doing ballet or “throwing like girls” land with all the more pain when you know they also mean to ridicule you for being queer.
Spencer and those giggling beside her were suggesting ballet is just for girls and no boy would ever enjoy doing something that would make them look like a girl.
On the playground people used the word “gay" when someone did something they saw as feminine. That insult, though deeply harmful and distressing to children struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, is not about who we love.
It’s really about whether we exhibit behaviours that are weak, laughable, silly… “female”. Boys who love ballet, or any other activities that we have learned to associated with women, are ripe for ridicule. The fact that they turn out to be straight or gay is beside the point. The humiliation is being compared to a girl. What could be worse? Boys, girls, all of us are taught the simple truth that to be a girl is to be inferior. The fact that straight men dance, that dancers are athletes, is not really the point.
Instead of trying to persuade people that ballet dancers are strong, powerful and masculine, assuming that this makes the art form seem less inferior or frivolous, let’s highlight ballet’s ability to celebrate all it is to be human.
Ballet isn’t about being “feminine” or “masculine”, whatever these words now mean. It isn’t about being gay or straight. It is about all these things and more. It is, in fact, about reflecting the world around us in all its complexity and beauty.
We must all realise that shaming a man, or indeed a six-year-old boy, for doing something that girls or women like to do as well shows just how big a problem we face in challenging misogyny and other related forms of prejudice.
Those boys, princes or not, who refuse to be cowered by people ridiculing them for dancing, for being “girls” or “gay” or any other embodiment of “other”, are paving the way for everyone coming after them to not only change the face of ballet but, like all art, change the society it’s built for.
George Williamson is a British choreographer working in classical and contemporary ballet
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