By Josef Brown
The beneﬁts of positive male role models in the classroom
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled."
Most of us that have lingered long enough in dance are likely to have a story about a teacher or teachers that made all the difference. A teacher who provided the opportunities and created the environment that allowed them to find that love of dance that ignited to become an enduring passion.
I started taking dance classes, or to be more precise ballet classes, very late. It was 30+ years ago and I’d just started Year 11 and had previously only done a few years of Friday night jazz classes and a little break dancing. It was highly improbable that I’d go on to enjoy a career in dance, let alone one that lasted over 20 years, and if it had not been for the inspiration of some key teachers I’m sure my trajectory would have been impossible.
It was the late 1980’s when I auditioned to attend the McDonald College of the Arts in Strathfield, Sydney. I went with the vague notion that I’d like to become an actor, but dance was compulsory and before I knew it I was secured into a jock strap, slipped into a pair of tights and ballet flats and surrounded in a class by 30+ girls dressed in various hues of pink. I shared that class with two other similarly floundering boys flapping their arms and feet around in the hope that a devoted energy might be all the alchemy required to turn our movements into something pure and graceful.
My saving grace at that time was the influence of some incredible male teachers that gave me far more than just training in technique and artistry. They offered me a sense of direction and purpose and an idea of what was possible. Perhaps most importantly, I came to see them as courageous role models for what a man could be, smashing the cliches and stereotypes I was surrounded with in the wider community. They inspired me to see and dream bigger than I could possibly imagine at that point in my life. Along with some guest teachers, those men were, John Byrne and Bryan Lawrence.
The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.
Both were dedicated, brilliant teachers in their own right with individual voices in how to convey technique and artistry.
Along with a meticulous eye for technical detail, which was mostly lost on me at the time, via John Byrne I began to understand the captivating power of presence, carriage and charisma, a love of stage craft, of the theatrical and the creative possibilities that dance affords.
The late Bryan Lawrence was a man of easy grace and charm. He had an effortlessness to his movement, seeming to glide elegantly through every step and enchainment. With my background in breakdancing and athletics, while I would tend to lean more naturally towards a primal physicality, I soon came to absorb and draw on Bryan’s experience many, many times in my performance life.
And from some other key male guest teachers I learnt how to be grounded. While other dancers and teachers, particularly the female ones I knew, appeared to employ their classical technique to seemingly float with only a breath between themselves and the ground, the male teachers had a way of balancing classical finesse with a feeling that was more primal, grounded and raw; providing an understanding of how important a strong, powerful body is to dance.
Yet it’s not been merely their guidance and instruction as dancers that has stayed with me over the years. Indeed, now that my performance career as a dancer is over (perhaps) it is the experience of them as men in the world that remains and seems to shine through ever more brightly. I know I carry a little of each of them with me and because of them, because of their presence that told me at a time when the rest of the world screamed, ‘Why are you dancing? Why are you wanting and trying to be a dancer?’, their example gave me a pathway, a hope and allowed a young man to dream of the highly improbable.
What they gave a young man was a new conception of status. While a career in dance held little status in my community and even less in the broader Australian culture at that time, because of their example I was able to see past and beyond to a vision that was rare and unique. Their presence gave me, or ignited and stoked within me, the fire of strength that I’d need over the coming decades to forge my own path and be liberated from the need for overt status as it’s more commonly understood by our male dominated culture.
Of course later I was lucky to find other wonderful male dancers that provided me with yet more role models that said to a young, ever-doubting man; ‘It’s OK. You can do this.’ Wonderful dancers and teachers such as Robert Ray, Timothy Gordon and the immortal Kelvin Coe. But I would never have got to meet and be taught by those wonderful dancers, those wonderful men and all those that followed, if it was not for those first seminal presences at the McDonald College of the Arts.
Of course there are many men who end up dancing despite not having strong male role models to be led by, nurtured by, to lean on. But how many boys and young men do stop dancing, or never start because there are not enough male teachers, because they don’t see the example that says, ‘Yes, you can do this. Be brave. It is worthy’.
The dance industry is perhaps unique in being built almost solely by powerful, entrepreneurial, creative women. But if we want to get more boys into dance and keep more boys dancing, then new programs such as the RAD’s Project B are essential. As is trying to adjust the language to make dance more accessible - though I’d err on the side of avoiding sports-like terms - and changing the studios and stores to reflect a better gender balance and/or inclusiveness.
However, while these shifts are all helpful, if they don’t also address and clearly articulate the underlying issue, my concern is that they will remain as merely bandaids to the larger problem, which is a man’s cultural conditioning to clamour after status and of a limited kind.
We need a greater presence of male teachers in our dance classrooms because they can address this, offering positive male role models that reflect a different kind of status so that young men can come to see a life spent in dance as worthy and valued.
We all know that currently our dance studios are missing 45% of their potential dance market and that needs to be addressed both for economic reasons, but more importantly because men not dancing and not perceiving dance as a worthy pursuit, and perhaps career, is to the shared detriment of us all.
"You cannot transit wisdom and insight to another person. The seed is already there. A good teacher touches the seed, allowing it to wake up, to sprout, and to grow."
Thich Nhat Hanh
Why boys must dance https://mdmdance.squarespace.com/why-boys-must-dance/
Women in Dance https://mdmdance.squarespace.com/women-in-dance-by-josef-brown/