Benjamin Alexander performs routine barre exercises in his afternoon class in a large bright studio within Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS).
The set syllabus is taught by a male instructor, and Alexander, 16, is also surrounded by nine other boys — something that’s now completely normal.
In Alexander’s Grade 12 class, there are 16 boys and 11 girls, marking the first time in the institution’s illustrious 60-year history that female ballet dancers are outnumbered.
The ratio surprises even Alexander, who said he used to feel like he was keeping a secret as a dancer growing up in Chatham-Kent, Ont.
“At school, everyone was going to hockey practice and baseball practice, and I was there with my dance shoes and dance bag going off to dance class. It was hard,” he told CBC Toronto.
“Definitely, there was a feeling of solitude.”
Alexander says he was first inspired to dance by his older sister, and initially took up tap dancing. But then a Christmas performance role at his local dance studio caught his attention.
“I wanted nothing more than to be a baby reindeer so I said, ‘I’m going to start ballet classes,’ and I never looked back since.”
The senior student is part of the school’s professional ballet program, which requires students to audition. He says he’s a lot more confident now, especially being surrounded by so many like-minded students in his program.
“I look around at my class and see this group of amazing men who are all following this dream to become ballet dancers, and it’s inspired me to work harder and even more passionately toward my dream.”
He says while there are still some stigmas that linger for male ballet dancers in 2019, he’s seen some changes in his time at the school.
“People don’t generally understand how much passion, perseverance and determination it takes to become a male ballet dancer,” he said.
“I think that’s shifted now. I think people realize we work extremely hard to become the top of our field.”
After he graduates, Alexander hopes to join a professional dance company, and has his eye on the Dutch National Ballet Academy of Amsterdam. But really he says he just hopes to keep doing what he loves “and getting applause for it.”
Many of his sentiments are echoed by his 17-year-old classmate Andrew Larose, originally from London, Ont.
Larose was intrigued by dance after seeing Michael Jackson perform, but also amazed by Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s grace and strength.
“Even at a young age — 12 years old — I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life for as long as possible,” Larose said.
The teen recalls growing up and being the only boy in his class and coming to the NBS and entering “a whole new world.”
“It’s a dream come true seeing 16 boys and 11 girls in my graduating class. It’s amazing.”
He says he’s excited to see what the future holds for men in ballet.
“It’s great that now more people are opening up to this and realizing men dance.”
‘Change takes time’
Mavis Staines has filled the role of artistic director and CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School for the last three decades and has been witnessing this milestone class grow together for the last six years.
“The ratio of men to women and making sure that there are as many male dancers as female dancers who have a chance to pursue their dream has been a passion of mine and my colleagues for a long time,” Staines says.
The CEO explains that the school has been implementing community programs, including partnering with public schools, in order to expose kids to dance at a young age.
There was talk at one point of offering the classes to boys for free to encourage enrolment.
“But as a woman, I couldn’t stand the idea of offering classes to boys for free, and that young women didn’t have the same opportunity. I thought that’s not how I’m going to do it.”
While she says she believes that their community programs did help even out the numbers, there’s also been an authentic shift in people’s perceptions about ballet through shows and social media.
She also credits the popularity of the film and musical Billy Elliot, the story of an 11-year-old ballet dancer, as another push toward acceptance.
“I think for a long time in North America, especially in Canada, parents, especially fathers, couldn’t imagine their sons dancing,” she said.
“Genuine systemic change takes time.”
Staines said it’s “deeply exciting” that the graduating class starting this month aligns with the school’s 60th anniversary.
Raymond Smith is a teacher at Canada’s National Ballet School and is currently teaching the boys class of 2020.
“It’s so inspiring to work with these young men because they’re passionate about ballet, and they want to learn, and they want to get ahead and they want to dance professionally,” he said.
Smith danced at the school in the 70’s and spent 20 years with the National Ballet of Canada, 15 of those years as a principal dancer.
“I think it’s more acceptable now,” he said.
“I think in my day I was lucky I wasn’t teased because I played sports with the same people who would’ve teased me.”
Smith says in the future, he’d love to eventually see a ballet performance choreographed for a group of male dancers. He has taught this group for two years and is an awe of how much stronger they’ve become.
“They’re more dynamic, more artistic. They’re not afraid to show who they are.”
For Alexander, he hopes that boys breaking ballet stereotypes continues to inspire new talent and end negative perceptions.
I just hope that little boys are no longer afraid — that they no longer have this predetermined thought that ballet is not for them.– Benjamin Alexander, dance student
“I just hope that little boys are no longer afraid — that they no longer have this predetermined thought that ballet is not for them,” he said.
“I hope if any boy wants to move and dance, they are free and able to do that.”