We’ve all enjoyed a bit of a boogie before: at a wedding, a school concert, a deb ball, a party, on the dance floor at Barrells, in the shower, in front of the television, at the Wiggles concert or even in the bedroom or shop when we think nobody is watching. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I even felt like a little jig as I glanced over at Justin Timberlake’s catchy music video ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’ on Rage this morning.
Dance is both a natural and enjoyable form of movement and has been ingrained in our history for thousands of years through rituals, as an act of expression, entertainment, enjoyment and socialisation. It is a unique language of its own that unites people from all corners of the globe and sometimes we simply ‘can’t stop that feeling.’
So when did we decide that ‘our’ boys shouldn’t dance?
Growing up in a small town as recently as two or three decades ago meant one of several things- you played netball if you were a girl and you played football if you were a boy. You might play tennis and cricket in summer, or dance (only girls), but you would generally follow that scripted childhood plot if you sought genuine, risk-free friendships. And if you were one of the daring few who chose to deviate from the familiar path of your peers and follow your own passions (however ‘gay’ they may be), you risked ridicule and isolation.
We now live in the 21st century where girls are slowly gaining praise for stepping away from their traditional female roles and stereotypes, yet we seem to be lagging when it comes to our male counterparts. The negative stigma attached to male dance – a sport that has spanned thousands more years than our supposedly more ‘masculine’ codes of football – is still alive. And light-hearted comments such as, ‘oh my boy will not do dance’ or ‘only boys that are gay dance,’ still saturate western culture, particularly in regional areas.
However, thanks to the evolution of hip hop in the 90’s, a multitude of reality tv shows that promote dancing for boys more favourably and a new era of young male role models who have the courage to take a leap outside the norm, days of the ‘all female’ dance studio are gradually dissipating.
Fortunately, societal views are gradually changing and 20 such male students from Richardson Dance Studio in Swan Hill are paving the way for a new generation of male dancers in the Mallee.
Hallelujah. Who doesn’t love a guy who can bust a move on the dance floor?
Since the dance studio was formed in Swan Hill 45 years ago by Raylene Richardson, co-director Kaiti Walters says ‘it’s the most boys we’ve ever had. It has really changed our school. It’s great. They bring something different to dance.’ With three senior male dancers – Jesse, Bailey and Jock – and Dom (a talented dancer, mentor and previous teacher from Richardson Dance Studio who is now studying dance in Melbourne full-time), Kaiti claims boy’s enrolments have steadily grown with the influence of such inspiring role models in the studio.
Seventeen-year-old Jesse Kiel, who has been dancing at the studio for almost ten years now, has played a significant role in this transformation. A popular kid with a care-free attitude, who also happens to be a talented football player in the area, Jesse’s presence in the studio has certainly been potent among other aspiring male dancers and gradually they have witnessed the ripple effect. ‘I don’t think even he realised how much influence he had,’ Kaiti explains.
A music lover at heart, Jesse says it was his older sister that gave him the idea. ‘I used to go and watch concerts when I was young and thought it looked fun so thought I’d give it a go.’ A regular occurrence according to Kaiti. And something wedged, because ten years later – and with little negativity from his peers – he is still giving it a go. ‘It’s actually pretty hard. I still struggle with some of it. But from when I started it’s a lot easier.’
Even Bailey Kruger, one of Jesse’s Primary School friends who has now been dancing for six years, claims it was Jesse’s influence that coaxed him through the door. However, Bailey – who is also a keen footballer – found the transition into dance during his late Primary School years a little more challenging in the beginning. But he rode out the waves. ‘For the first two years that I did it, one or two kids found it was a weak spot, but after a while it was the same old stuff and it doesn’t bother me as much now.’
For Bailey, dance has also been a way to express himself. ‘Music is a big part of expressing the way I feel. You don’t have to learn another language for it, you can go anywhere. India or China. Anywhere. It is an international language.’ With approximately 1 million people suffering depression in Australia every year, we should be relieved that Bailey followed his heart and rode that wave of stigma all the way to his ‘happy place,’ despite opposing force.
Equally as passionate, and not without his fair share of criticism, Jock Mackenzie – the 17-year-old from Manangatang with a black belt in Karate – tells of his deeper connection with dance. ‘An entire story can be told without even opening your mouth. That and being able to feel every soul in the audience while performing on stage…Not only can you feel their presence, you feel their reaction, from the second you walk on stage, to the second you walk off. And if you nail it, there is no experience like it. It feels as though you could take on the world.’
Wow. Where do we sign up?
With a large group of boys enrolled in the Grade 4-5 group at the studio this year, the next couple of years will determine their dancing futures. ‘It’s at about grade six or year 7 that they usually drop out. When the bullying sometimes starts,’ says Kaiti. ‘But it’s often the personality of the kid- to either rise above it or crumble underneath.’ However, there is safety in numbers. And with numbers in this group already doubling from last year, these boys may just be the next generation of male dancers we need to rise above the prejudice sometimes surrounding male dance in regional areas.
However, parental support appears to be the most significant dancing motivator according to Kaiti. ‘All of our male dancers have the most supportive parents.’ Grade four student Otto Conlan – a recent Crew competitor – is certainly no exception. Also a keen motocross rider – a sport on the opposite end of the spectrum– Otto opted to do dance as his first choice and his parents couldn’t be more pleased. ‘You want your kids to be diverse, to dabble at different things,’ says Otto’s mum Hollie. ‘You see them out there and they just love it. The boys in his group are so talented.’
And it seems that small-minded comments such as ‘boys don’t dance’ – a light-hearted comment that many of us have made before in good humour – is where the stigma begins. ‘We don’t make a big deal of it, because it isn’t a big deal,’ says Hollie. She also claims that Richardson Dance Studio has had a big part to play in this new trend. ‘Kaiti is a great role model- there is no segregation of boys in dance, it’s all inclusive. They always dance in mixed classes and she has always been so supportive.’
Evidently, many close friendships have formed through the studio. Coming from a much smaller town, Jock has enjoyed meeting a new group of mates. ‘I’m super thankful for being part of such an incredibly supportive studio. Richardson Dance Studio has allowed me to meet heaps of new people, make awesome friends, and they give their students loads of opportunities to further their passion.’ Jock even had the opportunity to perform a duet in several Eisteddfods with fellow dancer Nikita Philips, winning a first place.
While enjoyment is the most common reason for the boys (from age 3 to 17) at Richardson Dance Studio to engage in dance, it seems that dance has many other benefits too. Not for the faint-hearted, dance is a physically demanding sport with a diverse range of movements that provide increased flexibility, coordination and core strength. All traits that Bailey and Jesse claim help their footy tremendously. ‘We get sore from footy training Tuesday and then we stretch at dance Wednesday night.’
There’s a whole host of male celebrities who have also embraced dance. Just look at Arnold Schwarzenegger. He took ballet classes to perfect his posing in his bodybuilding days. Then there’s the Collingwood Football Club. In the past, they have taken up dancing to increase their core strength, balance and flexibility – a change that has seen significant improvement out on the field mind you.
Jesse, Bailey and Jock – the three senior dancers at the studio – rode the pre-teen waves and have come out the other side with maturation and open-mindedness beyond their years, but how can we get our younger dancers to the other side?
Bailey says it is all about trying new experiences. ‘It’s just a new experience, and that’s what you need to try and get out of life, experiences. Don’t feel scared of doing it. Just give it a chance.’ Similarly, Jock says, ‘you get a lot of negative comments and vibes off other lads the same age. But in one way it’s handy, it shows who your real mates are… I know I’m doing what I love and that is all that matters.’ And who says dance isn’t for real men? Sounds like real men to me.
Nevertheless, Jesse’s friends have noticed an additional benefit to their friend’s dancing. ‘A lot of my mates, they joke about it, but they say “at least you’re dancing with girls.”’ Jesse has also partnered girls for three deb balls. And he didn’t get those handy skills on the footy field.
The future of male dancers rides on our shoulders. Our boys should be encouraged to follow their dreams and passions, regardless of how ‘different’ they are. How do we grow as a person if we aren’t given the freedom to develop? Thanks to dance studios like Richardson Dance Studio and the countless supportive parents who water their child’s thirst for life, these boys are going to flourish in the real world doing what they love.
And finally, a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. ‘The worst thing I can be is the same as everybody else…What is the point in being on this Earth if you are going to be like everyone else?’