Helping Boys Make The Leap to Ballet

By Amy C. Hitt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

James Brady, 7, plays soccer, goes to Scout meetings and collects Pokemon cards. Then, before soccer practice on Fridays, he does something most boys don't: He takes dance class.

James, of Arlington, became interested in dance after watching his sister, Shannon, 10, in ballet class. He asked his mother to sign him up, but then kept changing his mind. It wasn't until he attended a special event for boys at Arlington Center for Dance that he finally took the leap. Now he is in a boys' class there once a week.

"He loves it," says James's mother, Rachel. "He especially likes the friends he has made and playing with the other boys."

What got James hooked was Boys' Day, an afternoon of dance-related activities at the 25-year-old Arlington studio. The event, which is free, began last summer as a way to build solidarity among the boys already at the studio, says Jan Bull, the school's administrative director. The focus has expanded to become part of an effort to engage boys and widen interest beyond the school. Twenty-seven boys attended the first Boys' Day and 34 the second. The next Boys' Day is June 30.

Local ballet school directors say it is a challenge to recruit and retain boys in such a female-dominated discipline, and they go to lengths to draw them in. Efforts include establishing all-boys classes for the first few years of training and reaching out to the broader community, especially to public schools. After its "Nutcracker" performances, the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring brings its young dancers back onstage to answers questions from the audience, and the boys talk about their experiences and how their training differs.

Once boys are in the studio, surrounded by a sea of girls, schools say they strive to create a welcoming environment, from putting up posters of male dancers to inviting professional male dancers to guest-teach.

The Conservatory Ballet in Reston encourages early participation for boys, offering a class for 3- to 9-year-olds. "All children love to move; the boys appreciate it just as much as the girls do," says Alexia Redick, the school's marketing director.

One of the boys taking class at the conservatory is Connor Hilleary of Oak Hill. When Connor turned 4 in March, he told his parents that all he wanted for his birthday was dance lessons. Connor's mother, Tanya, says he was inspired by the television show "Dancing With the Stars." He especially liked contestants Emmitt Smith and John Ratzenberger, who was the voice of Mack the truck in Connor's favorite movie, "Cars." When Tanya Hilleary approached the Reston conservatory, the school accepted him right away, even though it was late in the semester.

"The school treats the boys like celebrities," she says. "They need them."

At the Washington School of Ballet in Northwest Washington, a new school director, Kee-Juan Han, is coming onboard in July. He plans to teach all of the boys' classes. Han "wants to invest in and grow our boys' program and provide extra TLC," says Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, which is affiliated with the school and shares its studios.

This fall the school will expand its partnership with Anacostia's Thearc (Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus) to provide free ballet classes, transportation and dance uniforms to the first-grade boys at Septima Clark Public Charter School in Southeast Washington, the only all-boys charter school in the city. Webre, who says the program will "set the foundation for a serious boys' program at Thearc," plans to cast the first-graders as bumblebees in the company's spring production of "Cinderella."

The Washington School of Ballet, Webre says, encourages "a strong sense of fraternity" among its young men. "There is a strong male energy in the school, and the boys look up to the men in the company. . . . They enjoy the athleticism, the camaraderie and the performing."

The Arlington studio tries to offer all that, Bull says, with a variety of activities at Boys' Day, including stage combat, hip-hop, jazz, mime, strength work, martial arts and ballet jumps and turns. Instructors include staff from the school as well as such guest teachers as Connor Walsh, a soloist with the Houston Ballet, and Bobby Sidney, who last year taught the boys capoeira, a form of Brazilian martial arts.

"The boys love the stage combat, of course," Bull says, "and parents are pleased to have their younger boys see older boys dancing."

James Brady plans to be back for Boys' Day next week. And come fall, he is looking forward to auditioning for the school's annual production of "The Nutcracker" -- and rooting for his favorite NFL team, the Buffalo Bills.

ARLINGTON CENTER FOR DANCE BOYS' DAY June 30 from 2:30 to 4:30. Ages 5-18. 3808 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. Register in advance by calling 703-522-2414 or

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