Young men finding way to the ballet spotlight |

Young men finding way to the ballet spotlight

John Seelmeyer
Alex Biber, a principal dancer with Sierra Nevada Ballet, practices split jumps. Biber starting ballet training at age 14.
Courtesy Sierra Nevada Ballet |

Not all that long ago, Rosine Bena says, she was so pressed to find enough dancing boys that she simply planned every year to substitute girls in some boys’ roles when her Sierra Nevada Ballet staged its annual holiday production.

But when “Peanutcracker — The Story in a Nut Shell” has been taking the stage in Reno and Carson City this holiday season, plenty of boys are available to fill roles in the 45-minute show.

And Bena says they’re not just any boys: The skill of male ballet dancers in northern Nevada is on the rise as boys increasingly fill classes at dance studios, compete for roles and open their wallets at dance-oriented retailers.

Boys and young men account these days for about a quarter of the enrollment at Sierra Nevada Ballet Academy, the Carson City school associated with Sierra Nevada Ballet. Less than a decade ago, Bena says, it was rare for any boys at all to sign up for classes.

“Boys are becoming more aware that this is an attractive art form,” she says.

And the number is likely to get a further boost with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in early February.

Jonathon Levy, a ballet master and longtime teacher who only recently left Reno to launch a dance program in Nebraska, says the both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games historically have created at least a small surge of interest among boys in ballet classes.

But larger social forces are at work, ballet teachers say.

Most important: Boys and young men increasingly see ballet as an athletic pursuit, one that requires the same dedication and focus on fitness as traditional sports.

That got a boost in recent years when boys — and, perhaps more important, their skeptical fathers — saw video of football stars in ballet studios.

Steve McLendon, a 6-4, 320-pound nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, has called his weekly ballet classes the most difficult athletic endeavor he’s undertaken.

The popularity of street hip-hop dance also has spilled over into ballet academies.

Bena says boys are drawn though the doors of dance studios from their interest in hip-hop, see the possibilities and athletic demands of other styles of dance and expand their horizons.

At Heart & Sole Dance Academy in Reno, owner and artistic director Jenny Buck says she’s teaching boys as young as 4 years old whose parents have enrolled them in hip-hop classes.

“I really make it a point to advertise for boys,” she says.

While they’re taking classes in hip-hop at Heart & Sole, boys are likely to see Seth Parker, the school’s director of ballet. Parker has served as a role model to boys who see that’s acceptable to pursue ballet.

The trend has begun building momentum on its own as boys no longer feel alone in the dance studio.

Male dancers such as Alexander Biber, a principal with Sierra Nevada Ballet and a dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, serve as shining lights to draw other boys into ballet.

Biber started ballet classes at age 14, completed the trainee and apprentice programs at Sierra Nevada Ballet, and climbed the ranks to become a powerful, athletic principal dancer.

But boys’ entrance into the world of dance through hip-hop provides a surprisingly small help to retailers such as Judy’s Dance Shoppe, the retailer at Reno Town Mall that’s been selling ballet shoes, apparel and accessories for 35 years.

Although the store keeps a good stock of men’s shoes and apparel in its back room, the retail showroom is overwhelmingly dominated by leggings, tutus and other dance fashion for women.

Owner Donna Fuller explains: Young girls typically are drawn into dance studios for ballet classes. Those classes require some basic apparel — shoes, tights — and mothers often are thrilled to spend a little extra to create a ballet princess.

The hip-hop styles that draw young men into dance, on the other hand, don’t require any special clothing. A pair of Van’s and some jeans work just fine.

And so far, at least, fathers aren’t heading down to Judy’s Dance Shoppe with their sons in tow to get them outfitted in dance apparel.

But Shauna Glunt, comminity liason at Judy’s, laughs that the shop’s female staff rushes to serve good-looking, athletically fit male dancers when they come by.

“They’re so sweet,” she says. “They are really sweet.”