When the FM Ballet stages “The Nutcracker” this weekend, 10 of the 47 cast dancers will be male.
Like the other dancers in the holiday favorite, they must meet the physical and mental demands of rehearsal, and balance them with work and life.
But being a male dancer can also come with some negative misconceptions, including a stereotype that the men lack masculinity and athleticism.
“Nutcracker” performer Justin Heim said this stereotype arises largely because many people simply don’t see practiced dancers of any gender in action.
“Once people see us dance and see what we’re working towards, they generally get it. For people who don’t have a friend who dances, I would challenge them to go on YouTube and watch any male variation from any of the great ballets, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Don Quixote,’ especially,” Heim said.
Cody Olson, a junior at North Dakota State University, said he usually has to change the minds of his fraternity brothers.
“They give me a lot of crap about it,” Olson said. “There’s the stereotype that all dancers are gay, and that it’s easy, and we just like to dance around onstage. But it’s cool to see their reactions when they come to shows and they realize that, ‘Wow. Dancing is a lot of work.’ ”
The physicality and athleticism of dance are enough to dispel any stereotype that dance is any more or less traditionally masculine than, say, professional sports, said Matt Gasper, artistic director and choreographer for the FM Ballet.
As a kid, Gasper was drawn to sports and had his eye on a career as a soccer player before turning his attention to dance in his early teens. The decision was partly due to the prevalence of dance in his family (his parents founded Gasper’s School of Dance, where he is a master teacher), but there were other reasons.
“I looked around the soccer field, and there were no girls around. Dance is the best place to be in terms of guy-girl ratios,” he said, with a laugh.
Eventually, Gasper joined the San Jose Cleveland Ballet in California, where he would dance from 9 to 5 each day, followed by an evening of training and weight lifting, a regimen he describes as being as hard or harder than an Olympic athlete.
And while all dancers endure tough rehearsal and training, males are expected to do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Literally.
“People don’t understand that we’re pressing 120 pounds over our head over and over again repeatedly, and we’re jumping at least four feet high every time we take off the floor, Gasper said. “It’s no joke. The athleticism required is insane.”
Traditionally, that means a fairly rigid gender divide in who does what in ballet (“We’re the vase, they’re the flowers” he says of how roles are typically divided in a ballet.) Gasper adds that contemporary dance has made considerable strides toward dispelling gender difference within itself, with more equality for all genders in terms of the athletic demands and roles.
Gasper said the junior high years can be the toughest for a male dancer as young adults begin to explore gender roles and social hierarchy. When coaching young male dancers, he uses himself as an example of how to overcome teasing and misunderstanding.
“When they come up to me and say ‘I want to dance, but I’m being made fun of all the time,’ my advice to them is to recognize that they’re doing something they love. Some people search lifetimes for something like that. Eventually, everybody will come around and realize how cool it is,” Gasper said.
Echoing Gasper, the male dancers in “The Nutcracker” agreed that the sting of gender stereotypes or the misunderstanding of the work dance requires melts away when they create a successful production using skills that few people possess.
Heim said he loves the challenge of seeing how far he can push and stretch his body, and fellow “Nutcracker” performer Alejandro MullerDahlberg, 15, agreed.
“I like doing things that look cool. For me, soccer and football don’t look cool unless you do something like score a goal or a touchdown, whereas with dance you’re always doing stuff that looks cool,” MullerDahlberg said.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Monday, December 16 issue.
Images, from top: Alejandro MullerDahlberg rehearses as a Nutcracker soldier in front of a mirrored wall at Gasper’s School of Dance; FM Ballet artistic director Matt Gasper rehearses with Gabriela Baierle-Atwood, who is dancing in the role of Clara. Photos by the author.