JENKINTOWN, PA - Strength and stamina... alignment and elevation. At the ballet bar, dancers need it all.
"Every step you have to do multiple stuff like keep your arms a certain way, shoulders back, knees straight, feet pointed; you have to think about everything while you’re doing it," says 14 year old Aiden Daily, "Big jumps and a bunch of turns in the air and it just looks really cool."
Here at Metropolitan Ballet Academy and Company in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, boys learn all of those skills, tuition free.
"Something that I like more is all the rhythm with all the music, and it’s more of bringing everything together that makes it really enjoyable for me" explains 17 year old, James Griffen, "rather than just the jumps or the acting. It’s all together."
For 14 year old John Apise, "It really opened me up to a whole lot because I ended up meeting a lot of new friends and it’s a good experience."
Every season, dozens of boys slip on their shoes and pull on their tights to train in the academy’s boy’s scholarship program. Since its inception and after first hitting play, Metropolitan Ballet Company has taught more than 300 young men.
"I’ve really been told time and time again from people all across the country that they’re really copying what we’re doing. Like that we’ve really started something where we really have boys coming to dance," Founder and Artistic Director of Metropolitan Ballet, Lisa Collins Vidnovic tells PBS39 News Tonight Reporter, K.C. Lopez, "I do think that one of the secret sauce is I always choreograph things the boys really like to do. They loved being knights in shining armor, they loved being gypsies, they loved being parts where they could tear across the stage and like do something really athletic and cool and I think that’s what they needed. I wanted to have a place where everyone danced. Where it seemed like the natural, normal thing that happened around here. And 20 years later, it does."
But for dancers like, Daniel Mayo, filling a boy’s ballet shoes hasn’t always been easy.
"I started dancing when I was five, I grew up in South Carolina and being a boy in dance there was generally kind of frowned upon," Mayo explains, " There’s a stigma about it and a lot of the other boys growing up in school would think that’s something just for girls or maybe if you dance you’re kind of sissy or something like that."
Now recent comments made by Good Morning America Host, Lara Spencer, ignited criticism on the air and online; after the GMA host mocked royal, Prince George's interest in ballet. But the dancers here at Metropolitan say, that kind of commentary actually sparked something positive.
"It has brought a spotlight on the fact that lots of people dance; boys and girls," Vidnovic explains, "and that lots of people like to dance and that people all over the world dance. So from that perspective, I think it ended up being, oddly, a positive thing."
Spencer did issue an apology. But the hurt remained. Because once words escape...
"We’ve all heard it for years of our lives, we’ve all heard it," says Micah Sell, "You can say whatever your want, you can say it’s for girls but until you really do it and like live the part, you don’t know. Just because we wear tight clothing and dance in a class full of girls...I mean, that doesn’t mean it’s for girls. That’s not the worst thing in the world."
Or a commitment is questioned...
"There’s so much more of a commitment to ballet that you need to have than to any of the other sports," says James, "This is five, six days a week, for four, five hours a day, when most of the other sports I played were one or two practices a week."
...it’s hard to forget:
"When I grew up I was the only boy at the studios that I trained at," Mayo recalls, "There’s always those hurdles that you have to kind of jump over as a boy in dance and kind of defend yourself as to why you’re doing it, which isn’t fair and shouldn’t be the case in this day and age. But a lot of those ideas still persist, unfortunately."
But 17 year old Micah says, whether you’re a boy or girl, there’s nothing as fulfilling as hitting the stage...
"Ballet really lets you express yourself," he says, "There’s no words in ballet, it’s all movement so I really enjoy being able to express myself through the movement and a lot of the ballets that I prefer doing have a lot of acting. So I really enjoy acting ballets."
Even the tiniest dancers and the most seasoned professionals would agree; working past the nerves takes grit.
"I forget the combinations a lot and that’s like really embarrassing," says 13 year old Dennis Lyons, "and getting yelled at is like oh my god that’s embarrassing."
But once the music starts, everything else is just background noise...
"There’s a part of it that you fall into that makes the rest of the world kind of just go away too," explains Vidnovic, "So there’s a beauty in that sort of bubble."
From being the only boy in beginners ballet, to Julliard, Daniel Mayo is back in class. This time at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy, as a head faculty member.
"To be able to learn dance and focus on the rigors of dance along with a lot of other boys who have similar interests is really special," he says, "and it's something that they should value and not take for granted.
And so nowadays Mayo teaches his male dancers to keep their heads up; on and off the dance floor.
"Ballet is something that is not easy," Mayo explains, "You have to put a lot of time and repetition into it in order to get better and to really improve to a high level. So, the boys learn a lot of perseverance, they learn a lot of dedication and patience with working towards something. You don’t get a lot of instant gratification with ballet which in the long run is a wonderful thing and will really teach them how to--how to be well rounded, hard working adults and young people going forward."
"Like how your parents say I was your age and I did this and I did that so I know what you’re going through," says Aiden, "So it’s kind of like that with the male teachers. He knows what to do and he’s been through it all so yeah… it helps."
"It’s hard but you have to be able to be disciplined and hear everything, accept everything," explains Micah, "It’s just hard work and you do what you love. If you love football, do it. If you love ballet, do it, who cares. Just pursue your passions. It’s not that hard, just go for it."
Self-esteem, sticking with it and silencing the background noise; here at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy and Company, these young men, learn it all.