Boys Dance

The story of the Shore Boys Summer School

BY JOSEF BROWN.

Kickstarted by the off-the-cuff unexamined ramblings of a US morning show journalist, a landslide of talk and interest in boys/men dancing was generated in 2019, leading to the formation of the popular hashtag #boysdancetoo.

And while I’m personally not a fan of adding the word, “too” at the end of the hashtag, as it leads me to think that it’s an afterthought or optional add-on and I’d simply prefer the more succinct, #malesdance, I do appreciate that #boysdancetoo has a more poetic ring and has resonated strongly in the public imagination. And so, with all this talk of boys and men dancing throughout the year it was particularly wonderful to be invited to join the teaching faculty of the Shore Boys Summer School over the new year’s period.

Founded in 2007 this boy’s only summer school attracts young men, ages 11 through to 18, from all over Australia and New Zealand to train together in all-male classes over 6 days engaging with diverse styles; Classical Ballet, Contemporary, Jazz and Character.

The Summer School’s continued popularity is in part due to the well-equipped facilities, coupled with Habour-side views generously offered by Shore School and the high calibre of teachers the event attracts. And this year was no exception boasting – to name, but a few – former Principal of American Ballet Theatre and Associate Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, Danilo Radojevic, Principal Artists with The Australian Ballet, Adam Bull and Chengwu Guo, former dancer with The Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet and numerous roles in Musical Theatre and the Lido in Paris, Jason Duff, and arguably Australia’s leading exponent of Character dance, Wanda Wojtulewicz-Levine.

To understand the motivation for the Summer School, what it aims to achieve and the impact it’s had during its now 13 years of service, I interviewed the following three men;

ROBERT FOX Co-founder of the Shore Summer School

DANILO RADOJEVICCurrent Artistic Director of Shore Summer School

ADAM BULLLeading Tutor, and current Principal of the Australian Ballet

FROM L – R ROBERT FOX, DANILO RADOJEVIC, ADAM BULL

“I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.”

~ George Balanchine


ROBERT (FOUNDER) –

Why did you found the Shore Boys Summer School; what need did you identify was missing and that you wanted this experience to fulfil?

Having run a music dept in a boy’s school for 25 years, there was nothing unusual about boys singing in choirs, playing instruments, or even dancing (boys were doing “movement” in the Prep School as early as the 1980s). When we started hiring our new venue in the early nineties it was mainly dance schools, and I could not believe how few boys there were. There were some exceptions, such as Alegria Studios, who had a few full-time boys, and it was in a conversation with the Alegria directors Hilary Kaplan and Archie McKenzie, that we agreed that what was needed was some sort of summer/winter camp where these boys would have the opportunity to come together as a critical mass, thereby deriving some affirmation for what they are doing, providing opportunities for interaction, life-long friendships etc – and of course the special tuition that male dancers need, but rarely get in their studios because the lessons are pitched to the girls.

I suggested to Hilary and Archie that if Shore could be persuaded to provide the facilities would Alegria provide the artistic direction. Long story short, we had our first summer school in 2007 with 28 boys from around the country and we peaked in 2017 with Li Cunxin as one of our tutors and an enrolment of 94 boys!

The Summer School was founded in 2007; how has the experience evolved over time and what have you learnt along the way?

It has evolved by way of increasing numbers, the addition of a junior class, the appointment of an Artistic Director, expansion to international participants and the introduction of scholarships. What I have learnt is that almost all of these boys are bullied, there is still a desperate need for this sort of activity where boys can at least for one week be in a safe and accepting environment, and that there are actually a large numbers of boys out there who do ballet, and increasing.

In your view, why is it important that boys have the opportunity to come together to dance?

It’s all about affirmation. Girls come together to dance every day or every week. This is not what boys experience. From a purely practical point of view, boys are taught completely differently, and that’s not going to happen when 95% of the studio are girls. Boys need the same camaraderie that is such an integral part of team sports, and they need the reassurance that comes from knowing that there are many other boys who share their passion.

How, if at all, has boys dancing changed in the perceptions of those you work with at Shore School and/or in the general public’s understanding since 2007?

As it takes place when everyone is away on holidays, the summer school is a little bit under the radar as far as the Shore community are concerned. However, it’s important to acknowledge that in providing these facilities without charge, Shore is making an emphatic statement about its position in relation to the legitimacy of boys wanting to dance. 

The general public is slowly coming onside, thanks to phenomena such as Billy Elliot, and thanks ironically to the recent Good Morning America (GMA) incident. There seems to be a much greater of acceptance of male dancers in non-western parts of the world such as Russia and South America, where Carlos Acosta, for example, is a national hero.

What more needs to be done to raise awareness of the benefits of dance for boys?

Somehow it needs to become mainstream. I think it is happening slowly. The GMA incident actually helped inadvertently in this. Billy Elliot has helped. I would love to see a male dance spectacular touring around Australia.

The dance schools have a role to play. They can perhaps be encouraged to attract more boys by looking at their marketing, having posters of male as well as female dancers on their walls, by making sure males as well as females are featured in their advertising etc. Somehow we have to change the perception that dance schools are only for girls.

After 13 years, what is the legacy so far of the Shore Boys Summer School? That is; what effect do you think it’s had on the boys who’ve participated?

It’s changed their lives. They walk (or stagger!) away with a renewed passion and commitment to continue on despite the challenges. They have made some life-long friends, their parents are elated and relieved that their sons have found happiness and acceptance by doing what they love. Some of the comments on our website’s Wall of Fame perhaps say it all:

“The Shore Boys Summer School changed my life. Coming from a small-town ballet studio with two female teachers, it was the first time I was able to be taught by leading males in the ballet world and be surrounded by other male dancers who had been through the same things as me. It gave me a entirely new outlook on ballet, and what ballet could do for me. At Shore I decided I wanted to be a dancer, and it was when I realised I could. I’m forever grateful to Shore Boys Summer School for that.”

“To get the opportunity to take ballet class with all males, taught by male teachers is extremely rare!”

“The boys summer school is such a great experience for any boy who loves to dance. You can connect and meet so many new people that share this same passion; dance! So much to learn from each other and from the many prestigious teachers through various classes and fun activities too. If you can, DO IT! You won’t regret it, nothing should stop you.”

http://www.boyssummerschool.com.au/walloffame.html

CHENGWU GUO, PRINCIPAL ARTIST WITH THE AUSTRALIAN BALLET TAKING CLASS.

DANILO (2019 ARTISTIC DIRECTOR) –

What was your first reaction upon being asked to be the Artistic Director of the Shore Boys Summer School?

I had heard and read so much about the great success the Boys Summer School has had over the last 13 years, so naturally I was very flattered and honoured to be asked to direct the 2019 Summer School.

What did you try and bring to it this year that was new and/or different?

In addition to the standard ballet, jazz, contemporary & repertoire classes I also wanted to offer either Pas de Deux or Character classes. I chose Character as it was the first time Character lessons were offered and it plays such an important part in the training & development of a classical ballet dancer.

I also wanted to bring the best dance tutors available. The program runs for 6 days and by the end the boys are physically and mentally exhausted. It’s quite an intense period with tutors passing on a huge amount of information.

How, if at all, have attitudes changed towards boys/men dancing since you were a young man growing up in Australia?

I definitely think there’s more acceptance now for boys wanting to learn dance/ballet. TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars”, “So You Think You Can Dance” and musicals like “Billy Elliot” have definitely helped make dance for males a little more mainstream these days.

However, there are still challenges that young boys have to go through if they want to make dance/ballet a career.

Could you elaborate on what those “challenges” are?

The challenges at school, especially if you go to an all-boys school like I did. For one, there was lots of bullying in my time and I’m certain there is lots of bullying still going on today. Secondly, while other kids go play football after school you pretty much will be the only one going off to your dance lessons. These are big decisions for a young boy to make. There’s so much peer pressure and it can really play with your head. You really have to love it and have lots of support from your family, friends and the dance school needs to be positive, fun and happy place to be.

What more would you like to see happen for more boys to feel comfortable to engage with dance, either recreationally or professionally and what do you think is holding us back from that happening? 

Many academic schools now offer dance classes and do end of year school dance concerts. This is great for boys as it brings dance to them. To learn dance with your school mates makes it fun & I believe will help give a better understanding on why some boys choose to do dance/ballet. It gives these boys confidence as well. I also think bringing dance/ballet to small communities and towns outside of the big cities is important. These areas are starving to see live ballet. More funding from state governments is needed to help support regional touring for companies.

In your view, why is the Shore Boys Summer School important, and what is your vision for the school moving forward?

The Summer School is hugely important in bringing boys from all over Australia & overseas together for an intensive week of ballet and dance. Some boys in their local academy are only in classes of two or three boys, or sometimes they are the only ones in their class. The Boys Summer School pools together, on average, over 50 boys each year, all interested to learn more about dance from some of the most high-profile dance tutors in Australia. The atmosphere is a positive one and a great opportunity for the boys to make new friends and share stories about their training, ambitions and perhaps challenges they may have about wanting to be a dancer. The Summer School helps keep them motivated, builds confidence and re-assures them to keep dancing.

I’d like to see in the future that character classes continue to be offered and also Pas de Deux classes. Pas de deux skills are essential and hugely important for a male dancer, as most of a male dancer’s career will be behind a girl partnering.

Of course, to generate more publicity would be helpful to spread the word. I’d also love to see the last day of the Summer School Display promoted & perhaps live streamed. How wonderful would it be for the academies that the boys’ come from to be able to watch it live in their hometown! And why not streamed to other dance schools? That would be cool.

FROM L – R; JOSEF BROWN, ADAM BULL, CHENGWU GUO, DANILO RADOJEVIC, WANDA WOJTULEWICZ-LEVINE, CAMERON HOLMES, JEREMY GATES & JASON DUFF.

ADAM (LEADING TUTOR) –

What specifically motivated you to want to be a tutor at the Shore Boys Summer School?

I had previously taught at the SBSS approximately 10 years ago and only had fond memories of that experience. It is a completely unique program for the students as well as the tutors. For me it’s really important to foster the talent, drive and passion for young men to dance and the summer school really does this so well.

From your own experience, how important is it for boys to have the opportunity to get together, experience dance together and simply engage with one another? What are the benefits?

Growing up I never really had many other boys in my dance classes. It wasn’t until I was accepted into The Australian Ballet School that I trained purely in an all-male class. This was a time of immense growth, focus and most of all personal and emotional development. The feeling of inclusiveness and comradeship with which the SBSS provides is completely unique. You can see the boys really come out of their shell and thrive in the environment of the summer school. They form bonds and friendships which last well after the school. 

How, if at all, have attitudes changed towards boys/men dancing since you were a young man growing up and dancing in Australia?

I do believe we now live in a time of less prejudice and more acceptance of differences. But I’m sure kids still get challenged for doing something ‘different’. But taking part in the SBSS they know they are not alone in their pursuit and passion for dance. It would only strengthen I’m sure their love for the art form. Observing the boys before and after classes all they wanted to do was dance. In the environment of the summer school all their guards and walls were down, and they could truly be comfortable in doing exactly what they wanted to do which was DANCE.   

In what ways, if at all, is the experience of teaching a room full of young boys/men different to teaching a typical student ballet class?

The energy in the studio is completely different with an all-male class. I find they are more open and not afraid to ask questions or even challenge the teacher in a good way. You do at times have to monitor their level of enthusiasm, as boys do egg each other on, but I think it’s all in good fun. 

What more do you think could be done to motivate young boys to dance, and what is it that holds young boys back from dancing both recreationally and considering it as a career?

I think what is hard for young men is keeping them dancing once they’ve started. With such initiatives such as the SBSS it really does foster and strengthen their desire to dance. Bringing in professional and former-professional dancers as tutors for the school shows them the possibilities of what a career in dance could be like and hopefully this inspires them to continue. 

It would be wonderful to have more all male dance programs such as the SBBS. A brilliant initiative which I was happy to be part of. 

“There is nothing so necessary for men as dancing.”

~ Moliere

For more information please go to: http://boyssummerschool.com.au

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