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The Evolution of Men in Ballet

With a history dating back more than four hundred years, ballet has progressed from Renaissance court pageantry to royal entertainment to full-fledged performing art. It is often misunderstood as a form of dance meant for girls and women only, but nothing could be further from the truth! To understand why, let’s take a brief look back into how ballet got its start and how men continued to be involved today.

“Dance masters” in 15th and 16th Century Italy and France were the originators of ballet, and King Louis XIV of France is commonly known as the royal influencer who put ballet as we know it on the map. This influence rippled world-wide as ballet caught on in other parts of Europe and eventually expanded worldwide. Ballets were created, music was scored, and dance positions were codified: all predominantly by men.

Fast forward past the French Revolution though and women began to advance in ballet too. The focus in Western Europe began to shift away from male dancers and to the romantic ballerina, but ballet’s momentum in Russia had just begun, relatively speaking. It flourished there with the impact of those such as Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, both well-known for working together and collaborating with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The evolution of men in dance didn’t stop there: Sergei Diaghilev established the Ballet Russes; Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed controversy; and eventually, George Balanchine arrived in the U.S. with big ideas for neoclassical ballet.

From there, ballet’s influence in Europe and the U.S. continued to grow, giving rise to male stars such as Vaslav Nureyev, Robert Joffrey, Anthony Dowell, Arthur Mitchell, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Today in America we see the achievements of men in ballet in every facet, from the artistic direction of Peter Boal to the choreography of Alonzo King to the performances of David Hallberg.

Despite this influence, male ballet students in America are typically well out-numbered by their female counterparts. Sports often reign as the activity of choice for boys and fathers are sometimes seen as reluctant to place their sons in ballet. But as history confirms, ballet is indeed for boys and men … and as we look at the ballet around us now, one can see that strength, focus, and athleticism required is impressive. (A quick YouTube or Instagram search can prove this point in mere seconds!)

As we continue moving through the 21st Century, it is an exciting time for boys to be entering the world of ballet: a low male-to-female ratio means opportunities abound. From private coaching and scholarships to performances and personal growth, the benefits boys stand to gain go far beyond class time! Boys in ballet don’t have to be a rarity; history tells us this much.

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