The world was shocked after Good Morning America host, Lara Spencer mocked Prince George on the young Prince’s love of his ballet classes. She has since apologised for her flippant comments but not before the dance world came out in protest and support of boys and men who dance with the #boysdancetoo hashtag going viral online.
Sydney Eisteddfod and our tight-knit community was no different as we discussed in horror around the lunch table, these comments and the negative effect that conversations like this have on young men both who are in dance, or who are considering pursuing it.
It has long been an unhealthy stereotype thrust upon men, especially in Australia, that they assume the macho blokey-bloke, footy-loving, don’t-talk-about-your-feelings persona and I’m afraid that unfortunately, dance, and especially ballet, simply did not fit the bill.
If you ask any male dancer, young or old, they will have their own story of struggle regarding their decision to dance. It seems bizarre that in today’s day and age that we would still hear the same stories of bullying, exclusion and ridicule and yet, it seems not much has changed.
Josef Brown, a dancer and actor whose career has spanned over 3 decades says, “It is definitely changing, albeit slowly… I think we’re just beginning to have the conversations and the conscious shift to realign, realising that masculinity too needs to change – expand.”
Josef remembers his own confrontations with bullies, “being ridiculed when I was young by other males at school who thought it was, 'weird', 'funny' or 'gay' (as though that was a put down).”
Josef persevered however, “As I got older, I became more aware of the mould I was breaking by aspiring to be a dancer. I became increasingly aware that there was a very defined idea of what ‘being a man’ meant and aspiring to be a dancer, particularly a classical dancer, did not fit neatly into that mould.”
His decision to ‘break the mould’ however, he attributes to “helping shape and build a better version of me...
Dance,” he says, “gave me a spiritual home. A place and a community where I could explore and discover my most authentic self.”
He goes on to comment that this topic also opens-up the wider concern for the mental health of our young men.
“Males in Australia (can) struggle with their identity and because of this we’re seeing very high suicide rates and mental health issues...I suspect much of this is due to the shifting landscape of male identity which isn’t being given enough focus and attention.”
When Laura Spencer ridiculed Prince George for taking ballet classes, it wasn’t dance she was mocking. I’m sure she loves dance. I’m sure she often enjoys watching males dance: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, John Travolta, Patrick Swayze. She, like many other women and men, have likely swooned in a darkened cinema, or perhaps at a live theatre performance while watching men dance. No, what she was mocking, and in effect reinforcing, was the narrow view of what it means to be a man.”
18-year old’s Sameer Batsh & James Ewens, who won the Open Jazz and Hip Hop Dance Duo event this year, recently represented the #boysdancetoo movement and Sydney Eisteddfod, performing their routine on Channel 10’s Studio 10 morning show.
James and Sameer are both full time students at Angus and Lucinda's Academia de Danse and train in Ballet, Contemporary, Jazz, Musical Theatre and Tap among others. James recounts, “prior to going full time, I too had the mind set of so many young boys in Australia that styles like ballet and contemporary were for girls, even though I had been dancing basically my entire life.” Both boys admit to coping a “lot of stick” over the years for their choice to go into dance. “The arts don't seem to be highly valued in Australia, yet the movement always brings me back no matter what people think.” James says defiantly.
When asked what they would say to other boys who are going through similar situations, Sameer encourages, “if you enjoy it, who cares what other people think. If you like to dance and it is a place that makes you happy and secure, then don't let anyone change that for you, keep training, practising, performing and getting better.”
“It makes you more resilient! I say keep doing what you’re doing and surround yourself with like-minded people that want to see the best for you.”
Sydney Eisteddfod has always taken our role in providing performance opportunities, financial support and most importantly, a supportive community to all young performing artists in their pursuit of a loved past-time or indeed, their career, very seriously.
We are so proud to have always celebrated and championed the talent, strength and promise of our young men.
This year, in 2019 alone, 5 of the 8 Ballet Scholarship Finalists were male.
Austen McDonald, Lincoln Sharp, Jordan Micallef, Charlie Dashwood and the outright winner, Hyo Shimizu. Hyo has used his scholarship funds to continue his ballet studies in Germany. Jordan has also left for overseas study.
Charlie Dashwood, who was awarded The Australian Conservatoire of Ballet Performance Award, said in an earlier interview with Sydney Eisteddfod that he has struggled with bullying in pursuit of his love of dance.
"I come from a family of dancers. It is in my blood. Part of who I am. So when kids started teasing me and making me feel less because I danced I was shocked. I felt ashamed. I stopped sharing it with people at school but the kids still managed to find out somehow and it scared me to go to school everyday."
Charlie and his sister Lily Sophia, are both dedicated and multi-award winning dancers. With his family around him as a constant form of support ,"eventually", Charlie says,...
"my love of dance won, and I realised that the bullies weren’t important in my life, that I could just be who I am and be proud of it."
Other past winners, Joshua Green, the 2018 outright winner has just taken his place also studying in Germany with John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart.
2015 also saw a male winner, Harrison Lee, now in the Royal Ballet Company.
Not to mention of course the thousands of other young men who compete in all of Sydney Eisteddfod’s 300 annual events and enjoy the sense of community and support that comes with being in the Sydney Eisteddfod family.
Sameer, who won - with James, the Jazz duo event this year; applauds the community, the celebration of talent, and encouragement Sydney Eisteddfod provides to boys and girls in dance.
Josef Brown said, when asked his thoughts on the effect organisations like Sydney Eisteddfod have on helping combat social issues or trends like this, “Sydney Eisteddfod is one of, if not the largest and most significant dance event in Australia. For decades it has brought together our dance community to celebrate and shine a spotlight on the best talent in Australia.
But more than that, it has never favoured one gender over another, and has celebrated equally and without bias the achievements of dancers be they male, female, homosexual, straight, Caucasian, Asian, Islander etc. And so, on a sub-textual level, it has helped re-shape the development and direction of our culture more generally.
And so while we can and should applaud the many boys and girls who have enjoyed the spotlight and have gone on to achieve wonderful careers in dance assisted by their moment at the Sydney Eisteddfod, those individual winners are arguably less significant than how...
...Sydney Eisteddfod has continued to bring together our dance community, helped foster our National dance identity and subliminally helped shift our culture, making it more inclusive of difference. “
This conversation, however, is about far more than just dance, it is about changing the idea of what masculinity is and allowing young men to be whoever and do whatever they want with their bodies without fear of ridicule.
The good thing to come out of Lara Spencer’s comments was that this conversation was started, and many voices, including Sydney Eisteddfod's, were raised up in what one would hope to be an inspiration and comfort to so many young and inspiring men.
Josef concludes with a memory. “When I was younger, I used to hear the expression (from the book of the same name) 'Real men don’t eat Quiche'. My response to that was always, real men don’t need to be told what it is to be a real man. That is, real men will embark on a journey of discovery...
...They’ll be personal and collective explorers and they’ll create for themselves what they need to be a real man.”