If you ask someone to name a valuable commodity, they may say gold, or oil. Ask someone in ballet the same question, and there’s good chance they’ll say boys.
Most ballets have almost equal part male and female roles. But in the U.S., boys who want to do ballet are hard to come by.
For that reason boys often receive full scholarships to ballet schools and other forms of special treatment in order to attract them to the profession.
Former principal dancer with New York City Ballet Philip Neal was one of those boys.
“I always joked, it would be 30 girls in a line with one little boy tap dancing on the end,” remembers Neal of his early dancing days in Richmond, Virginia. “Even at the School of American Ballet where I was on staff up until quite recently, the boys program up to a certain age was all scholarship to attract enough boys. It wasn’t even merit based, just pure scholarship.”
Neal, who now works at Miami City Ballet, admits it’s a lot harder for a girl of equal ability to get money for her dance training.
Miami City Ballet School Director Darleen Callaghan explains that offering free classes to male students is as much for parents as it is for their sons.
“You have to open the door for them so they take the chance,” said Callaghan. “If you offer a scholarship, families are more willing to let them try it.”
Even though the ballet field is flush with women, it’s generally men who become choreographers and artistic directors.
This phenomenon, where men quickly rise to the top of female dominated professions, is called the glass escalator. University of Texas at Austin Sociology Chair Christine Williams coined the term and says it’s basically the opposite of the glass ceiling effect.
“So, instead of suffering from a wage gap they often receive a wage premium for men even though they’re working in jobs that are predominately female,” said Williams who has been studying gender inequality in the workplace for decades.
She says for women in ballet to make it into a top company, they may have to be the best dancer out of hundreds of others.
“And is that also the case for men? Probably not. I think that for a lot of men there are certainly examples of outstanding talent, but it’s almost like there’s affirmative action in place for men in these positions.”
However, as cushy as ballet might sound right now if you’re a guy, Neal says devoting your life to the art form is a double-edged sword. Growing up in a private, all boys school in Virginia, Neal had to deal with a lot of teasing.
“In one hand you have a great opportunity by being the boy and having less competition than the girls do,” said Neal. “But what you have to go through in your real life is not easy.”
Whatever the tradeoff, the school’s recruitment efforts seem to be working. Miami City Ballet School enrolled more boys at the beginning of this season than ever before.