“I screwed up,” said ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer, speaking about mocking statements she made last week about Britain’s 6-year-old Prince George — eldest child of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge — and his plans to take ballet at school. That segment was slammed on social media and quickly went viral.
Last Friday, Spencer posted an apology on Instagram. In her on-air apology on Monday, Spencer went further, saying her comments were “insensitive and stupid, and I am deeply sorry.”
“I have learned about the bravery it takes for a young man to pursue a career in dance,” she said, introducing three male dancers who joined her in the studio: Robbie Fairchild, the former New York City Ballet principal and Broadway star who’s featured in the upcoming film version of “Cats”; Travis Wall of “So You Think You Can Dance”; and Joffrey Ballet’s Fabrice Calmels. Fairchild described his experience as a young boy exposed to the kind of derision Spencer had voiced last week — in his case, people pointing and laughing at him while he was in ballet class with girls.
“The lesson is that words hurt,” said a somber-looking Spencer, “and it was not my intention but it was insensitive.”
An apology on the show was widely expected, yet several male dancers said in interviews over the weekend that the damage has already been done, and the GMA host’s remorse isn’t likely to undo it.
“I would like to believe that Lara Spencer didn’t mean to do harm, but she did great harm,” said Peter Stark, a former New York City Ballet dancer and associate director of the Boston Ballet II who faced ridicule as a child, even from a math teacher. “She gave permission for individuals to laugh at boys doing ballet.”
It’s admirable that the future king of England gets to study ballet as part of his schooling, and that should be valued, said former New York City Ballet principal Philip Neal in an interview with The Washington Post. As a victim of bullying who found life-changing solace in the dance studio, he was disturbed by Spencer’s attack on arts education.
“It’s ridiculing the curriculum as well as making fun of boys who dance,” Neal said.
Indeed, in her report last week, Spencer lent credence on national TV to two toxic fallacies: that ballet is unmanly and that any boy who likes it deserves to be shamed. Her views were contagious; they were validated by the laughter of co-anchor George Stephanopoulos and the studio audience.
It’s strange enough that she took swipes at a child and at the much-loved world of ballet. (She never took her own kids to “The Nutcracker”?) The worst part was that threaded through her comments and her mocking tone was the idea that a boy who likes ballet is a joke in itself.
She delivered the news of Prince George’s fondness for ballet with sarcasm and blithe dismissiveness, ending her report by saying: “Prince William says George ab-so-lutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William: We’ll see how long that lasts.” She flashed a conspiratorial grin, while Stephanopoulos burst out laughing. One wonders: Did he also laugh at the serious ballet student and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel when they served in the Clinton White House together?
On Twitter, Rosie O’Donnell was among many to call out the intimidation factor of Spencer’s report: “It’s like bullying on national TV,” wrote the actress and comedian.
“It brought up old unpleasant memories of being mocked and laughed at for being a boy who danced,” wrote Derek Hough, the Emmy-winning champion of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and NBC “World of Dance” judge, on Instagram.
Douglas Risner, a dance professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University who studies the stigmatizing of adolescent boys who dance, said in an interview Sunday that his inbox flooded with emails after Spencer’s report, and like those writers, he also found her segment appalling. She “underscored harmful stereotypes and signaled that harassment and bullying of boys who dance is acceptable. And she projected all of that on a defenseless child,” he said. “She implicated the father, too, implying that he’ll change his mind about this once harassment starts.”
The disparagement of boys who study ballet is no laughing matter: In a 2014 study of adolescent boys who dance in the United States, Risner found that 93 percent of his respondents experienced teasing and name-calling, and nearly 70 percent suffered verbal or physical abuse. Teen boys who dance “are at least seven times more likely than the general adolescent population to be bullied,” Risner said.
“If this behavior concerned any other activity than dance,” he said, “it would be considered a public health crisis by the Centers for Disease Control.”
Boys face a complex web when they take up dancing, with its perceived connection to femininity. Many face assumptions about their sexuality, and their behavior is constantly policed — by other boys and adults, by society and eventually by “Good Morning America,” where it was presumed okay to lampoon an activity that doesn’t fit the gender norm.
For Rafael Bejarano, a dancer in the Washington Ballet’s studio company, seeing Spencer’s clip posted throughout his Instagram feed was excruciating. “It brought back so many bad memories from my childhood, so many issues I’ve overcome,” the 20-year-old said in an interview.
Bejarano grew up in Mexico, the descendant of four generations of bullfighters, including his father, famed matador Edgar Bejarano. “I didn’t follow the dynasty, so I was attacked physically” by other kids, he says. One day, when he was 12, he was dismissed from school early for a dance performance. As he rushed down the stairs, another boy grabbed his backpack and threw it to the floor.
“He said, ‘What’re you gonna do, grab a pointe shoe and hit me with it?’ ” Bejarano recalled. “And then he said, ‘You’re just a homosexual, trying to be the center of attention.’ ” Other kids punched Bejarano in the stomach until he was able to flee.
That was just one of many incidents, he said, but he didn’t have it as bad as his younger brother, who also dances. At one point bullies smashed his brother’s head into the stairs; he required surgery and false teeth.
Despite these terrors, Bejarano says, “It was the best decision of my life to keep on dancing and stay strong.” He says he wishes Spencer had bothered to educate herself about ballet.
“Honestly, ballet class keeps teaching me every single day how to be a better human,” he said. “How to connect to people in a better way.”
In his 2017 memoir, “A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back,” American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg writes about the constant bullying he experienced growing up — including a harrowing incident where a group of boys cornered him and poured a bottle of perfume on his head.
“That marked me for life,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “I have battled with a masculinity complex, both personally and professionally, all my life. It goes exactly to Lara’s comments, ‘We’ll see how long that lasts.’ Meaning that a boy doing ballet will realize it’s only for girls and it won’t be a masculine thing to do. That’s exactly what I struggled with, and still struggle with. We’re expected as men to be a certain way.”
“Middle school specifically was a grotesque time for me,” said ABT principal James Whiteside, who grew up in Connecticut. “I sensed that I was different, via my very obvious homosexuality. There was a lot of name calling, a lot of shaming, mild violence, a shove here and there, though never a full beatdown.” He attributes escaping worse bullying to being tall.
Bullies can home in on the subtlest cues: Washington Ballet apprentice Gilles Delellio, from Belgium, said he was teased just for watching ballet videos on his phone, and for listening to classical music instead of rap or R&B.
Risner said bullying and the kind of belittling that Spencer expressed last week end up excluding men from the field. He estimates that 75 percent of male dance students will quit before their 16th birthday.
Wendy Whelan, assistant director of New York City Ballet, said she’d welcome Spencer to the company’s upcoming performances, and hopes the outrage the GMA host sparked will spur her to learn more about the art form.
“I think our culture is lacking some understanding about the power of art,” said Whelan. Casual and open criticism like Spencer’s “speaks to who we are becoming as a culture, and that’s a bit terrifying.”
If there’s a silver lining in this sequence of events, it’s the pulling-together of the dance community. The inclusiveness of the dance world — the same quality that makes dance class a refuge for so many boys who face harassment outside it — shines in full force in the wake of last week’s GMA episode. In their own posts and in comment after comment on Spencer’s Instagram feed, dancers have trumpeted their support for their art and for one another.
“It shows how united we are,” Hallberg said. Dancers have “come together as a unified force, and have shown how beautiful a community it is.”