On a recent Thursday afternoon, a small group of elementary school-aged boys sat on the floor and arched their arms over their heads. Then they sat across from a partner and pulled each other’s hands to stretch their calf muscles.
That might not raise any eyebrows on a soccer or football field. But in a dance studio, it’s anything but typical.
Dressed in black pants and white T-shirts, the boys are part of a boys-only dance class at Dance Center Evanston—one of a growing number of segregated dance classes being offered at dance schools in the Chicago area that are trying to change the age-old stigma against male dancers by offering classes where boys can be free to move to music without having to stand out in a sea of girls.
Dance Center Evanston has run a boys-only dance class for the last four years. This fall, the studio added a second boys’ class that focuses on strength training and stretching.
Their teacher, Christopher Perricelli, 27, shows the boys how to do manly push-ups and sit-ups as well as gracefully point their toes and stand correctly in first position.
Because Perricelli is teaching only boys, he says he tries to tailor the class to their interests.
“Boys especially like to compete. So I say ‘Who can jump higher? Who can jump over this rock?’ ” Perricelli says.
Perricelli even lets the kids make music requests.
“They like Maroon 5… they like Justin Timberlake and Usher,” Perricelli says. “They like anything that’s… now on the radio.”
Nathaniel Bernstein, 8, of Evanston, looks thrilled as he skips across the room in time to the music. Nathaniel has taken tap and pre-ballet before, but this is his first all-boys class.
“He’s taken dance at his own instigation,” says Nathaniel’s mother, Deborah Bernstein. “He’s been in classes with all girls. It would be nice to see him dance with all boys.”
Other schools are also offering special classes for boys as a way of enticing them to discover dance.
The Giordano Dance Center in Evanston offers a boys-only class, as does the Dance Gallery in Chicago, which has a class that’s a combination of tap and jazz and emphasizes coordination and physical stamina, according to the school’s Web site. The McNulty School of Irish Dance offers boys-only classes in both Libertyville and Naperville.
Bea Rashid, owner of Dance Center Evanston, says boys-only classes help combat the “cootie factor,” when boys who haven’t reached puberty are squeamish about being around girls.
Some classes designed for boys also try to appeal to them by relaxing the dress codes and letting the boys practice in shorts, T-shirts and even sneakers.
Despite the extra effort, not all of the dance studios offering gender-specific classes are seeing a huge influx of boys.
The Beverly Arts Center in Chicago held a 10-week boys-only class during the summer called “Boys Basic Sports Movement,” but the class wasn’t offered again in the fall because of lack of interest, says Summer Rich, the center’s dance program coordinator.
Joseph Mills, assistant professor of theater and director of the dance program at Northwestern University, attributes the lack of boys in dance classes to the way studios market themselves to parents.
The father of two daughters, ages 6 and 10, Mills says as soon as his children were old enough to walk, dance studios were already sending out fliers emphasizing the gender stereotypes of dance rather than its artistic qualities.
“It wasn’t about the joy of movement and expression,” he says. “It was all about how to be a pretty little girl and dress up.”
Mills says this studio marketing scheme hurts girls, too, because it fosters a passion for dance in girls. But as the girls get older, parents force many of them to drop out of the dance when they don’t think dancing is a suitable career.
“It’s kind of a mixed message,” Mills says.
Because boys don’t take dance at a young age, most men who become professional dancers start very late, often not until high school or later, and they tend to find jobs easily because there is little competition.
Like many boys, Luke McCollum, 19, says he envied his two sisters who had been taking dance classes for years, but he was afraid his father would frown upon it when he wanted to take dance.
“I knew if I brought it up to my parents, especially my dad, he would say ‘Let’s do something else,’ ” McCollum says.
Finally, McCollum, convinced his parents to let him pursue his interest, and now, after only about a year of lessons, he’s training to be a professional at the Salt Creek Ballet in suburban Westmont.
McCollum says he hopes in the future, other boys who have an interest in dance won’t be afraid to pursue it.
“I think parents should just let their sons be exposed to it,” he says.
Dance instructor Perricelli says his parents steered him into football, baseball, tennis and golf as a kid while his sister studied dance. It wasn’t until he got to the State University of New York at Buffalo that Perricelli discovered his love of dancing.
“There was nothing that gave me that physical jolt like dance,” says Perricelli, who went on to dance professionally on Broadway and with the Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago company.
Perricelli says he’s very glad, as a teacher, to be able to introduce dance to a new generation of boys.
“It helps for them to see a boy like me,” Perricelli says. “They see a possibility for themselves.”
Lauren Heist in a student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She wrote this for the Medill News Service.