09/20/2019 11:42 EDT | Updated 09/20/2019 15:59 EDT

Canada's National Ballet School Makes History With Mostly Male Grad Class

This will be the first time in the school's 60-year history.

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Girls outnumber boys by 20 to 1 in most ballet classes.

Men dance … obviously. Still, even today, ballet is commonly stereotyped as a feminine activity “for girls,” and those few boys in most ballet classrooms tend to be outnumbered by about 20 to 1This year, though, for the first time in its 60-year history, Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) is seeing a shift: there will be more boys than girls in its graduating class.

“I think for a long time in North America, especially in Canada, parents, especially fathers, couldn’t imagine their sons dancing,” Mavis Staines, the NBS artistic director and CEO, told CBC Toronto

For a long time, Staines tried to correct this disparity, using community programs and other outreach efforts that might get young boys to consider ballet. 

At one point, Staines told CBC Toronto, there was so much frustration that the school entertained the idea of extending free classes that might encourage boys to enroll: “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.”

Staines’s concern about opportunity isn’t unfounded. Even though there are statistically less of them who practice it, men still hold most of the top jobs in the classical dance world, both on the artistic and executive sides, and continue to make more money in the field than women do.

Watch: Behind the #boysdancetoo hashtag. Story continues below.

Male ballet dancers are often bullied and ridiculed

Though men in the ballet world do tend to fare better, economically, than women do, that doesn’t mean there aren’t social forces that discourage them from entering the field at all.

There is still a prevailing stigma and stereotype, rooted in homophobia, that plagues many male ballet dancers, who are often teased, bullied, and ostracized for their passion.

Sometimes this ridicule happens publicly. In late August, the host of “Good Morning America,” Lara Spencer, barely concealed her laughter when she learned that Prince William’s six-year-old son would be taking ballet lessons. 

“I have news for you, Prince William,” Spencer said, grinning. “We’ll see how long that lasts.” 

Though she later offered an apology on Instagram, Spencer’s attitude on national television is precisely the sort of reaction that discourages many young boys from pursuing interests in ballet — or that makes their lives frequently miserable. 

In his 2017 memoir, A Body of Work, ballet phenom David Hallberg described being called a “faggot” and a “girl” when he started out his career. 

There was even one occasion at school, he wrote, when a group of boys emptied a whole bottle of drugstore perfume on him: “Every last drop. In seconds. On my shoulders. My face. My hands. My arms. My clothes … Mission accomplished. I officially smelled like a girl.”

Sadly, this sort of experience isn’t that out of the ordinary. A Wayne State University study from 2009 found that 93 per cent of surveyed male ballet dancers experienced “teasing and name calling,” while another 68 per cent had faced “verbal or physical harassment.”

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David Hallberg is known as one of the world's eminent ballet dancers, but his early years consisted of bullying and ostracizing.

The stigma may be lifting ... slowly

“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,” Benjamin Alexander, a 16-year-old graduating student from Chatham-Kent, Ont., told CBC Toronto. “Definitely, there was a feeling of solitude.”

That feeling of solitude might be lifting, albeit slowly. Back in 2013, the NBS had the highest percentage of boys in its entry-level Grade 6 class (65 per cent) than it ever had before. 

If you search #balletboys or #boysdancetoo on Instagram, you’ll find tons of videos and images that rail against the stereotype. And earlier this year, there was a whole musical about Billy Elliot, an 11-year-old boy who pursues his passion for ballet in the face of parental and peer disapproval.

“I just hope that little boys are no longer afraid — that they no longer have this predetermined thought that ballet is not for them,” Alexander told CBC Toronto.

“I hope if any boy wants to move and dance, they are free and able to do that.”