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When you think of ballet, your mind probably envisions beautiful women in tulle skirts dancing in the moonlight. But men dance too. As a matter of fact, back in 1660, men were the very first professional dancers.  When you dance, you probably dance to popular tunes at clubs, parties and graduations. You dance facing your partner, and if you do have body contact, it's only in a slow waltz. But have you ever tried to lift a girl and gracefully carry her across a room? Or jumped high in the air and turned your body two complete revolutions before landing? Or tried to do ten full turns balanced on the ball of one foot? And done it without becoming very dizzy? You would probably find these tasks rather difficult, if not impossible. It is scary enough to imagine dancing on a stage in front of 3,000 people. Well, for a professional male dancer, strength, grace, agility, musicality, discipline and performing come part and parcel with daily life in a ballet company.

A short history of male dancing

One of the most distinguished male dancers in history was France's Louis XIV, who became known as the Sun King after an appearance in a ballet in 1653 as the Sun King, Apollo. Ballet in the 17th century was rather a formal and stately affair and very different from what you see on the stage today. At first, there was no specific ballet technique, so the social dances of the period were ornamented for theatrical display. Through his love of dancing, Louis XIV supported the founding of the first academy of dance in 1661. The academy trained the first professional male dancers.

The beginnings of dance

Even before the court of Louis XIV, dance was very much a part of man's life all over the world. Dance was an integral part of society connected to religion, war, hunting, agriculture, births, weddings and deaths.  Men were the dancers, since their athletic bodies were ideally suited to the strenuous and sometimes violent activity of dancing. Dances were passed on from generation to generation of men. Over time, and with the emergence of an urban society, dance veered away from ritual, both religious and temporal, and is now used for entertainment or artistic expression.

If you study the folk dancing of any nation, you will see that it is very much a part of that people's culture, integrated within the community and its customs. Always keep in mind that it is from folk dancing that ballroom dancing and later ballet derive their roots.

Renaissance times

In the early days of professional court ballet, only men danced in what was a male-dominated society. Women's roles were danced by men wearing masks. By the end of the 17th century women began to appear on the professional stage. However, they maintained a secondary place because they wore heavy, long, full skirts which would not allow them to execute the "classical ballet steps". Men's costumes consisted of court attire, knee breeches and heeled shoes, which allowed them the freedom to perform with greater facility the intricate movements of ballet choreography.

Men dominated the stage and were the "stars" of their public. Jean Balon, a dancer who jumped and moved with such extraordinary lightness that the term ballon, meaning springiness or elasticity of the feet, was derived from his name. Also famous were the father and son dancers Gaetan and Auguste Vestris. When the pair performed in London in 1781, a session of Parliament was suspended to allow members to attend the performance.

The Romantic era

During the famous Romantic period of ballet, 1830 to 1870, male dancing lost its supremacy to the female dancer. Lighter and shorter skirts, the invention of the pointe shoe and the emergence of a number of captivating and technically brilliant ballerinas brought about a new period in ballet. Works were created whose themes centred around the ethereal, Romantic ballerina, such as Giselle and La Sylphide. Female dancers could now dominate the stage, their newly acquired lightness of movement and ethereal qualities as pleasing to audiences as male athleticism.  Men were thus overshadowed and relegated to the position of partner. The only male dancer to distinguish himself during this time was Jules Perrot. This very ugly man dazzled his audiences by dancing across the stage like a bolt of lighting which guaranteed that spectators didn't have time to see what his face looked like.

In Denmark, male dancing, then as now, had a great and respected tradition. August Bournonville was a talented dancer, choreographer and teacher. His style of dancing, the"Bournonville style," is exemplified by light, buoyant jumps and quick changes of direction. It has produced some of the world's greatest male dancers, among them Erik Bruhn, Peter Schaufuss, Ib Andersen and Peter Martins. Bournonville's ballets including Napoli show off the virility and elegance of the male dancer.   But by the 1870s, male dancing in Europe had almost disappeared, to the point that in the first performance of Coppélia, the role of Franz was danced by a girl en travesti.

The 20th century

In Russia, the focus of ballet was also on the female dancer in ballets such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. Today these ballets have male solos added to highlight the male dancer's lyricism and technical prowess.

Though the 20th century has produced many great ballerinas, it has also seen the re-emergence of the male dancer as a virtuoso, poet, partner and superstar.

In the one act ballet Les Sylphides, a lone man dances surrounded by a corps of women. This character, a poet, demonstrates not only poetic elegance, but also beautiful partnering ability and virtuoso, soaring jumps. The first man to dance this role was the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, the first great male dancer of this century. He also created roles in Le Spectre de la Rose and Petroushka . People who saw him dance say that when Nijinsky jumped he seemed to remain in the air as if suspended.

Nijinsky was a member of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, a company that took Europe by storm from 1909 through 1929, introducing dancing in a whole new light to audiences. The male dancers, in particular, were acclaimed for their virility and exoticism, which brought them renewed glamour. Nijinsky was the first male dancer to appear on a poster and he was idolized by his public.

Other male dancers were later to emerge throughout the century, including the English dancers Anton Dolin, Robert Helpmann and Anthony Dowell; France's Serge Lifar and Jean Babilee, Denmark's Erik Bruhn, Peter Martins and Peter Schaufuss; Edward Villella, Jacques d Amboise and Fernando Bujones of the United States, and two Russian dancers who made their careers in the U.S. Igor Youskevitch and Andre Eglevsky. Perhaps the best known ballet stars of all have been the Soviet trained Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Famous National Ballet male dancers of the past include David Adam, Earl Kraul, Frank Augustyn, Tomas Schramek and Hazaros Surmeyan. Today the National Ballet includes amoung its rosters of Principal Dancers Aleksandar Antonijevic, Rex Harrington, Johan Persson and Jeremy Ransom.

A list of male dancers is not complete without the names of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Though not ballet dancers, they brought popular dance to millions of people all over the world through film and television. Astaire's grace and elegance in such films as Top Hat and Shall We Dance? and Kelly's virtuosity and entertaining personality in An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain popularized dance and inspired many boys and young men to take up ballet, tap, jazz, ballroom and modern dance.

A respected career

Today, thanks to the men just mentioned, male dancing has become an accepted and respected career. Visits by Russia's Bolshoi and Kirov ballet troupes to the West in the 1950s and 1960s captured the public's attention. Another catalyst in the acceptance of male dancing was the emergence of ballet superstars Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Both were Soviet trained and their much publicized defections to the West (in 1961 and 1974 respectively), virtuoso dancing, charismatic presences both on and off the stage, worldwide performances, movies (Nureyev in Valentino and I Am a Dancer and Baryshnikov in The Turning Point, White Nights and Dancers) and television appearances have made them household names. These men have given weight to the value of male dancing and the effeminate image of the male dancer has almost vanished. Dancers such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov are stars no less popular than film, tennis and football stars, celebrities respected for their contributions to their art and society.

Each year more and more boys take up ballet in the hope of one day developing the qualities and strengths that will allow them to perform on the stage.

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