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A Scarcity Of Ballet Boys Means Big Breaks For Those Who Dance

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Stacy Nick
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KUNC
Fifteen-year-old Patrick Koenigs practices during an all-boys class at the Colorado Ballet in Denver.

The world's most famous ballets all feature a handsome prince dancing alongside the beautiful ballerinas -  think Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and, of course, The Nutcracker. At the training grounds for future dancers, it's more of a challenge these days to find the boys who will someday play those roles.

"Usually they only think of girls as taking ballet, like wearing dresses and stuff," said 8-year-old Finn Miller Vaughan, the only boy in a sea of pink tutus at Canyon Concert Ballet in Fort Collins. "They always think that… that it's weird and it's not that cool."

But the lack of boys interested in ballet has actually made the art form a very cool and a potentially career-making opportunity for those who do.

That's something Vaughan, who started taking ballet with his sister when he was just a toddler, has already learned, said his mother, Laurie Miller.

"He was able to be, as a boy, in his first Nutcracker at the age of 3," Miller said. "The age requirement for girls is usually 7 or above, so his older sister, Sarah, was very jealous when he was able to be in The Nutcracker before she was."

With almost 60 years in ballet, 70-year-old Daniel Simmons recalls that, for him, the opportunities that ballet afforded came with a lot of struggle as well.

"I was from Texas. Nobody dances in Texas," said Simmons, the most recent artistic director at Canyon Concert Ballet. "You either were on the football team and you got to do everything or if you didn't play football, you didn't do anything."

Simmons said he was lucky, though. Once he walked through the door of that first ballet studio, everyone there made it easier.

"They gave me my shoes, they gave me my tights, they gave me everything I needed," he said. "I never bought anything. And university is the same way. University some of the boys go through four years of college not paying a cent."

Whether they are the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City or the ballet school down the street, every program needs more boys than they have, said Colorado Ballet Academy Director Valerie Madonia. In many ways it's like big-time recruiting for college football.

"Programs fight to get boys to come to their program and offer them incredible financial packages, just to come to their summer workshops," Madonia said. "They might get full tuition, in many places they get housing, sometimes they even provide transportation, a stipend, a living expense."

Why go to such lengths?

Because it's tough to have a Nutcracker with no Nutcracker prince; a grand pas de deux isn't as impressive when it's a pas de one.

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Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
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KUNC
Finn Miller Vaughan practices at the barre during his ballet class at Canyon Concert Ballet in Fort Collins.

Even at the Colorado Ballet. For its summer intensive class, the academy has 165 girls compared to fewer than a dozen boys.

"The teachers have to be very creative, using one partner for maybe 7 girls," Madonia said, which is why they also offer classes that make the boys feel a little less isolated.

Segregating the boys out for one class a day gives them the chance to feel – not quite so alone, said John Gardner, the class ballet master. It also gives them an opportunity to focus on aspects of ballet specific to them, including strength training.

"You're going to find out in your training in ballet – if you've done sports before – that ballet is a lot more difficult," Gardner said.

A former gymnast, Gardner got his start after a coach sent him to take ballet to help with his floor work. Soon, he had left gymnastics for ballet. It's a tale, 15-year-old Patrick Koenigs, who plays soccer and does ballet, can relate to. After years of soccer, he found his way to a world of fancier footwork.

"My sister took dance classes when she was little and after class she would always come home and kind of teach me the moves and so I would always get excited for her to come home and kind of teach me what she'd learned," Koenigs said. "I think that's when I kind of fell in love with dance."

Almost 6 feet tall with a shock of red hair, Patrick stands out in Colorado Ballet's boys-only class. Although not as much as he does in most other classes, where he is typically the only male.

The stereotypes of ballet made him insecure about dancing and even about talking about dancing to others outside of ballet class.

"We had this performance a couple weeks ago and one of my better friends was in the audience," Koenigs said. "He didn't know that I was there and I didn't know that he was there because his sister was performing there with me. So that was kind of awkward the Monday after."

For too long, fear of the stigma kept him from taking dance classes. To make up for lost time, he now trains four days a week during the school year and six days a week in the summer.

"Most girls start around 6 or 7, whereas most boys start around 11," he said. "And so it's always hard because you have to do this catch-up."

Then again, once they begin the opportunities are limitless, as 8-year-old Finn Miller Vaughan is quick to point out.

"I'm hoping that I'll get big parts as a boy when I'm older because the boys are always, like - there's a lot of girls who take ballet so when they audition, most of them get a part. But the boys, there's only like 5 or 6, so all of them get a part," Vaughan said. "That's an advantage of being a boy."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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