When US TV presenter Lara Spencer recently laughed at a story about Britain’s Prince George loving his ballet lessons, she set off an international storm of outrage, forcing the reporter to apologise for her insensitivity.
Her remarks led to hundreds of dancers holding a ballet session outside the New York studios, and the hashtag #boysdancetoo trending across social media.
Ballet isn’t gender-specific; films like Billy Elliot helped to inspire boys worldwide to bump up their muscles with ballet, and even professional footballers can be found taking classes to help with their flexibility. In fact, around 40 per cent of recent admissions to the Australian Ballet School were male.
But here in Hong Kong, most people still think of frilly pink tutus and dainty satin pointe shoes when they think of classical ballet, not about the athletic and spectacular leaps and twists audiences expect to see “Prince Charming” do on stage.
Of course, men are important in all forms of dance. When it comes to classical ballet, whether it’s the epic fights in The Nutcracker or the romantic white pas de deux of Swan Lake, boys are crucial. Yet, at a time when we claim to have moved past stereotypes and society’s gender norms, Hong Kong’s ballet boys are rare. So why is it that there are so few young men are learning ballet here?
Hong Kong ballet schools report the percentage of boys taking part in children’s ballet classes ranges from three to eight per cent, with class sizes of around five to 10.
Schools of more than 470 girls have as few as 17 boys go through the same training. And that assumes there are any boys at all on a school’s register, as it isn’t uncommon for a ballet school to have only girls.
Kaitlyn Shi, a 17-year-old who does ballet for fun, says “I haven’t had any ballet classmates who are boys, and other grades have, at most, one boy in the class.”
Often, this is because they are discouraged by the lack of social acceptance. “Because it’s a ‘girl thing’, parents and friends assume it’s not a ‘real sport’,” explains Sarah Bellis, a 16-year-old dancer. “Maybe they think they’ll get laughed at or bullied because they do ballet,” she adds.
Current statistics show Sarah is quite right about bullying. A study by Professor Doug Risner of Wayne State University, in the US, found 96 per cent of boys who dance experienced bullying or harassment, verbally or even sometimes physically. The study further revealed only 32 per cent of boys were supported by their fathers in their choice of hobby.
“In a society of stereotypes, people think men are supposed to look masculine, to play football or rugby. Most don’t realise how much effort and technique ballet requires,” says Sarah.
And this isn’t just a problem for boys. Sarah says girls, too, are feeling the effects of not having a male dance partner. “Ballet performances are full of partner work. Without enough guys, partner work cannot occur,” she says. Kaitlyn adds that a lack of boys in ballet reinforces stereotypes that only girls can dance; making it even harder for boys who want to learn.
Jean M. Wong, a leading figure in Hong Kong’s ballet world, has been fighting this trend at her own schools. “Currently there are 54 male students learning ballet in our school, and their ages range from four years old to late teens,” she says. Speaking proudly about the achievements of past students, she says there have been three outstanding male students.
“Lam Chun-wing started ballet in our school at the age of seven and was accepted by the Paris Opera Ballet School in France. He joined the Paris Opera Ballet as an 18-year-old,” she explains. Her former pupils Chan Sheung-yin and Jordan Chan have also won many prestigious scholarships and awards.
So what can be done? What needs to change before ballet boys are welcomed in Hong Kong with open arms?
Perhaps one problem lies in social media, where algorithms simply don’t target men and boys in their dance posts and advertisements. “Advertising on social media can be directed to both boys and girls instead of just girls,” Kaitlyn suggests. “Integrating the idea that it’s OK for boys to dance into social media might make it easier to be accept by their peers.”
Teenage dancer Jodie Leung suggests we need to stop telling them it’s a girlie type of dance. “Ballet is hard, and it is actually really beautiful. If guys do it, they will grow physically and mentally, and girls can finally have partners to dance with!” says Jodie.