Knowledge springs initially from ignorance. So when Good Morning America host Lara Spencer foolishly mocked Prince George in August for taking ballet lessons at prep school, the ensuing backlash provided a chance to spotlight the unique benefits dance offers potential Billy Elliots as well as young ballerinas.
If Spencer had done any research before putting her foot so wrong, she might have read the 2016 survey by America’s respected Business Insider that found professional dancers top of the ranking for ‘the most physically active jobs in America’ – beating traditionally ‘macho’ roles like structural iron and steel worker and forest firefighter. Fitness instructors too. The criteria for judgement included dynamic strength, explosive strength, stamina and trunk strength. A study by the University of Hertfordshire, meanwhile, found ballet dancers had significantly higher overall fitness and strength than international swimmers.
While dance is compulsory at primary level within the UK national curriculum, it falls off sharply as an option in many secondary schools due in part to time pressures and lack of specialist teachers. Negative stereotyping sadly lingers on from the depressing uproar that greeted the mere suggestion of dance being compulsory for secondary boys during the 1990 consultation for a draft national curriculum.
‘Understanding the unique way dance fuses strength and stamina with grace and control is why I have made Brighton College a hotbed of dance for boys as much as girls’, says the school’s head, Richard Cairns. This year, around a hundred boys will throw themselves every week into a diverse programme of terpsichorean expressions of youthful energy and creativity. They choose from seven very different styles: Classical Ballet, Modern Dance, Contemporary, Street Dance, Musical Theatre, Tap and Jazz – taught in 100 classes a week led by nearly a dozen specialist dance teachers.
Dance fever is infectious too. Within a week of arriving at Brighton College, one teenage devotee had persuaded every other boy in his tutor group to take up dance too. A special dance taster day for Fourth Form boys at the start of the current academic year resulted in over 20 signing up for lessons.
In an era of increasing societal stresses, dance can play an unexpected role in tackling tensions too. One famous example saw early hip-hop dance dial down 1970s street violence in New York’s then-notorious South Bronx. Male gang members came together at the celebrated Hoe Avenue peace meeting, and previously warring young men decided it was better to battle for status via street dance clashes rather than bloodshed – opting for good moves over bad blood.
Last year, meanwhile, the media reported how dance had eased tensions in an atmosphere of simmering violence among the youth of Colombia’s Chocó region. ‘It is like a magic tool,’ one local politician said. ‘The young people like to dance… When they hear a drum, it runs through their veins.’
Giving boys in the UK more chances to dance can throw a similar lifeline, especially when gang-violence and knife crime bedevil the streets of many cities and towns. Offering dance to teenage boys as an integral part of their school day makes it a wonderful experience for all, rather than something just for those who had a luckier start in life, like Prince George.
There are hopeful signs that school dance provision may finally be making an elegant pirouette out of the doldrums. One Dance UK – who strive for a stronger and more diverse British dance community – reported an 8 per cent increase last academic year in the number of entries for AQA GCSE Dance. The first rise in several years, it saw over 200 new schools opting to deliver the qualification across the UK.
Each season of the BBC’s hugely popular Strictly Come Dancing sees a new batch of men of all ages begin a discovery of the real physical challenges as well as huge pleasures of dance. Let’s make sure schools give boys the opportunity to experience the same unique thrill.