Rebecca Curtis, Head of Dance

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is currently touring the UK. When it premiered in 1996, the piece broke with the tradition of what a classical corps-de-ballet looked and felt like; with Bourne replacing all of the female dancers to create a “menacing male ensemble… turn[ing] tradition upside down and [taking] the dance world by storm.”

The Swans. Photo by Johan Persson.

It got me thinking about why, just over 20 years since that premiere and with the likes of Diversity, Flawless, Lucas McFarlane, the stars and professional dancers in Strictly Come Dancing and even little Prince George making headlines and featuring on national stage and television, that there still seems to be a perception that dance isn’t appropriate or valuable for boys.

Some of the world’s most famous choreographers are male and very few dance companies nowadays are single-sex, so where is the stereotyping coming from?

As a dance educator, I am vehement in the notion that dance is for all and allows us to develop skills we simply do not use elsewhere. Dance is not just about learning routines; it’s about exploring movement and using it to understand other concepts, subjects and emotions. Boys and girls benefit from exploring movement from an early age to help develop confidence, creativity and the ability to problem-solve. Dance is a discipline. It requires a lot of concentration, physical strength and the determination to keep working at something – not until you get it right, rather until you can’t get it wrong. Dancing increases neural pathways in the brain, allowing us to think, reason, recall and understand more efficiently. Gone are the days of images of pink, fluffy tutus. Dance can be gritty, raw and is up there when it comes to the levels of fitness of any high profile sport. Dance is human, it allows us to share our innermost thoughts, communicate with others both physically and intellectually. Are these types of skills and attributes ones that should only be afforded to girls, or that we can all benefit from?

It is clear that the world we are living in now requires us to become more resilient to change, to have creative skills, the ability to problem solve and work as a team. We also need to future-proof ourselves against losing jobs to robots, by continuing to push creativity. A dance lesson gives you all of these skills from the minute you walk through the door. You are expected to process information and produce a physical outcome, almost instantaneously. Lateral and logical thinking skills are so important for many subjects and careers, and I think it is fantastic that dance can develop those skills from a very young age in a fun, safe environment. A recent study by BACC For The Future also identifies a real shortfall in hands on practical skills and adaptability in trainee surgeons. It would seem that the medical profession is placing a greater value on arts-based subjects, to indicate that students can better cope with the pressures of surgery and have the dexterity to carry out intricate and detailed work.

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster”. Photograph by Julie Shelton.

What do the New Zealand Rugby Team, Premiership Football teams and GB Divers all have in common? Aside from the fact they are all competing in their respective sports at the highest level, they all have dance form part of their training regime.

So, what makes dancers fantastic athletes? GB Diver Craig Turbyfied makes a case for how Ballet has improved his training. Let’s take a look at the benefits he lists:

  • Flexibility – Having a wide range of motion in your joints is beneficial not only to help prevent injuries, but to also enhance your body control, balance and rhythm. Tom Daley’s coach “openly credits his graceful performance in competitions in part to flexibility that he learned from ballet training. She believes this training has helped him achieve a higher level” in his performance.
  • Speed and Agility – “Ballet strengthens the legs, knees and ankles and makes use of rapid leg movements, all of which promote power and speed in running. The sheer variety of turns and other complex movements in ballet practice trains agility and the body’s ability to recover speed quickly.”
  • Strength – “Picture a ballet dancer and you might not immediately think of strength and power, but ballet actually requires significant strength, stamina and power output. Ballet also creates muscular strength without adding significant amounts of bulk to the body; this is especially important for [those] who need strong legs but don’t want muscular bulk that could hinder their performance.”
  • Balance – “Ballet also requires good balance, as many of the techniques used in ballet involve jumps, turns and poses that would put a person without training off balance.” Having good balance allows you to move more efficiently and support your body weight effectively whilst moving.
  • Mental Focus – “Ballet requires a lot of focus, since most movements in ballet must be made with precision while appearing graceful and effortless. This focus is also a major [benefit for any competitive sport as] Ballet training can also reduce the effects of performance anxiety, allowing [competitors to do] their best even if they get nervous in front of crowds.”
  • Endurance – “Ballet and other forms of dance are considered to be aerobic because the muscles used during dance sessions and training require a large amount of oxygen in order to perform; this results in an increased workload for the lungs and heart as they attempt to provide this oxygen. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and circulatory system, making it easier for the body to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles during periods of intense muscular work.”

It’s important to realise that boys and dance is more than just being the next Billy Elliot – as great and valid as that is – it’s also about finding ways of using the body to its fullest potential physically and enhancing skills that can be transferred not just to sports, but many other areas of interest.

We recently held our first Boys’ Day of Dance at Ipswich High School and invited Shaun Dillon – a practitioner who runs the Boys United Company at DanceEast – to work with our male pupils. Shaun put the boys through their paces with a physical warm-up and introduced them to some combinations of movement before getting them to help him choreograph a dance phrase based on their favourite sports. It was great to see the teamwork ethos being developed between the different year groups, as well as the confidence of all the participants grow as the day progressed. We hope to run this event again in the future along with other big dance projects.

I am really proud that we give all of our pupils the opportunity to experience dance. We are a progressive school and one which celebrates challenging stereotypes with the help of our bold, ambitious and creative pupils.  Who knows, maybe sometime soon we’ll have a our own boys’ company and our very own Swan gracing the stage?