When it comes to breaking stereotypes about boys and ballet, sometimes it’s best to get it straight from the source: boys that love to dance.
Kylan Wagner and Cayden Malo-Hillier, for instance.
Both 12 years old, they are among the male students at the prestigious Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. The two young men are poised to become the next generation of this country’s top ballet dancers. They love what they do, and they think more boys should give it a try.
“We have so much fun,” Wagner told Active for Life. “It’s unbelievable, how amazing it is. You’re not even thinking about anything else.”
You’re just dancing, the friends say. You’re learning discipline, getting stronger, and having a good time. “Ballet is really good for your body. It gives you better posture. It helps your balance and it helps all the muscles in your body get stronger,” says Malo-Hillier. “It creates healthy competition, too. I like beating my own records.”
Only a couple of years ago, Malo-Hillier was taking hip-hop classes at home in Kitchener, Ont., but wanted to compete. “We needed to do other styles of dance for the competition, so I tried ballet and I liked it,” he says.
When his mom told him about auditions for Canada’s National Ballet School, he tried out and was accepted. He hasn’t looked back.
“I like being on stage and acting, and I like beating my own personal records when I dance. And I like the music.”
Wagner grew up in Eatonia, Sask., before making the move to Toronto for ballet. He was your typical hockey-playing prairie kid, but he also loved music, being on stage, and competition. His mom operates a dance studio, so he’s been around the sport since he was three years old.
“I really loved playing hockey, but I love ballet, too,” he says.
Their hard work and dedication is paying off. This past December, both Malo-Hillier and Wagner were part of the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker, an experience that only solidified their desire to dance, they say.
“It was really interesting,” says Malo-Hillier. “I found out about a lot of stuff that happens backstage that you don’t normally see when you are just watching.”
More than 170 students are enrolled in the school’s professional ballet program, which includes Grades 6 through 12, plus a post-secondary group.
A typical school day starts at 8:15 a.m. and includes a full academic schedule, plus dance classes. Each day wraps up around 6:30 p.m., when they return to their residence for dinner, an hour or so of homework, some relaxation time, and bed.
You won’t catch many of these kids spending hours and hours playing video games in their spare time, however.
“A lot of times, we’re not even thinking about electronics,” says Malo-Hillier. “We’re too busy playing floor hockey and stuff. A group of us, we go to the rec room and we play different games. Sometimes we throw around a football.”
What makes a typical male ballet dancer? Good flexibility, musicality, coordination, and good proportions, notes Laurel Toto, the head of the National Ballet School’s junior school.
A love of sport is also something many have in common, she says, noting that many students also have backgrounds in gymnastics, skating, hockey, soccer, basketball, track and field, and swimming.
And these days, just like the rest of the world, many male dancers are taller than in previous generations. Male dancers’ heights may vary from about five-foot-eight-inches (1.7 m) to about six-foot-four-inches (1.9 metres).
While not every boy who is interested in ballet will attend Canada’s National Ballet School, they can still learn from their experiences studying ballet, wherever they are.
“A lot of times, the stereotype is that ballet is for girls. It’s too easy, boys think,” Toto says. “But what boys find is that it’s very physical. Ballet is really hard.”
For many boys, that challenge — the effort required, the discipline to do it well — turns out to be what they love best about ballet.
“When you look at ballet, it seems effortless, but when you actually start doing it, you realize how much physicality is required,” Toto says. “It’s a real challenge, and they like that.”