Hannah-Adjoa Smith
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Raising a Man in a Room Full of Women

How easy is it to be a boy in dance?

Raising a man in a room full of women...

Often I read various sources posting about women getting a seat at the table alongside men, about equal pay, about equality that women still feel they don’t have in the workplace or the world at large.

However, for me this oratory sometimes seems paradoxical as I sit in the dance school waiting room for my son to finish a ballet, modern, tap or jazz class, when I think about his role as a man in a world full of women.

Being a boy in the dance field can be a lonely experience. Often my son and I talk about his experience of being the only, being the other and some of his feedback is well beyond his nine years of age.

He will say to me, “It’s hard sometimes mummy... I don’t always get ready in one changing room with my all female team, sometimes meaning they run the number and get the pre show pep talk and motivation from our female teacher and I’m waiting alone in the hallway.”

He will muse that sometimes his costumes or make up schemes have to be asked for they are not always thought out as part of the whole process.

He will sometimes say that in class any male specific steps or variations for a technical class or exam are always taught second because the girls come first. There is hierarchy in quantity.

There is an implicit fragility in being a male dancer which is juxtaposed with the masculinity they are being asked to portray on stage.

Dance is art, dance is expression and neither of these things, to me, should have a boundary of gender.

Everything for the male is to be bigger, higher and stronger yet it can be a struggle to get there because of the isolation that can be fostered within the studio purely due to gender constructs.

I am from culture where masculinity is patriarchal. The man is the foundation of a family, the provider, at times the rule maker and the enforcer.

Does my “ballerino” fit within his cultural constructs? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no is almost irrelevant as the more important question I ask myself is: Do we want him to fit neatly into the boxes that culture and gender dictates?

My Ghanaian father, never got the opportunity to know my son in his current manifestation as a dancer, he died before he started his classes. Would he have found it easy to see his grandson excel in an art form that many see as predominantly female? I believe he would have struggled and possibly even tried to deter his talent from the opportunity to flourish. Not because my father did not believe in dreams—he dreamt of a life outside of the tribe in Accra in the opportunity that was held in the western world and he chased it—but his culture was so tied into who he was as a man that it would have been hard to wrap his head around his grandson growing into a man in the company of women at the barre and not the testosterone filled football pitch or locker room.

The lessons my son takes from dance are bigger than the technical language of the many genres he learns. For him it is about learning to being part of the team, seeing that a team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, that the lessons to be found in defeat are as valid and important as the lessons to be garnered from triumph and the opportunity for individual growth within the crowd.

And also what lessons are his “world of women” learning from him? Hopefully, my young man is setting an example to them that to be a gentleman is just that—to be gentle, to have empathy, to listen, to be supportive. That to be a great man is often to be seen in the small details of manners, in the stepping back to allow others to shine, to work hard to achieve for both self and the team.

Gender should never be a fortress to imprison the dreamer or an obstacle to the dream. 💕

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