I was four years old when my grandmother dragged me to my first traditional Irish dance lesson. I put on my best performance before we left. Indeed, I didn’t hold back. But the tears, the moans, the tantrums and the fists pounding on the floor all failed to move my grandmother’s cold heart. I was dropped off in front of a whitewashed storefront, behind which a studio with hardwood floors, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and two dozen prancing girls were waiting.
She came back for me ninety-minutes later. Ninety torturous minutes of hop-two-three and jump-two-three and over-two-three-four-five-six-sevens. I was a very grumpy four-year-old boy, and not even my grandmum’s promise of ice cream could cheer me.
“I’m not going back,” I muttered into the folds of my goose-down jacket.
“Well, that’s just too bad,” said my grandmum. “I paid for six months of lessons, and you’ll be getting my money’s worth, won’t you?”
I responded with a word I had learned from one of the farmhands. There was no ice cream that night.
And the next week, I was back in that damn studio.
Thirteen years later I was a very young man on a stage with a renowned dance troupe. The lights went up on my first professional show, the first strains of music welled, and my grandmother smirked up at me from the third row, looking for all the world like the cat that had cornered the canary.
She tended to be right about things. I hated it.
Somewhere in those thirteen years, dance became my life. Traditional Irish dance is a demanding and complex art form. It requires immense core strength, agility, flexibility, and endurance. Even above the physical strains is the discipline required. Discipline that I never exhibited at home, in the church, at school, but only when I pulled on my hardshoes and started tapping out the rhythms of the hornpipes and double-jigs. I was a different person on the dance floor, in the studio, in the barn where I pulled out a sheet of plywood and drilled myself for five or six hours a day. And, to my astonishment, I found out that dance was something I was good at. I was natural. I went to the World Championships twice. At the height of my ability I was tapping at twenty-two taps a second.
I endured the typical teasing that comes to a boy who likes to dance, but it was nothing compared to what I faced when I came to America. I quickly learned that in this part of the world, dance is the least respected form of art for a man to participate in. Actors, singers, musicians, they have many more safe places to explore and grow in their art. Outside of the studio, a male dancer is vulnerable. I was called a fag every day for the first two years I spent at high school – and it was an Evangelical school. The names, the laughter, the allegations that I did ‘ballet for fat people’ followed me for years.
I faced it. I fought through it. Because I loved to dance and, all modesty aside, I was damn good at it. And when the lights came up on that stage and I stood among some of the best Irish dancers to be found, it was worth it.
Now, as an old and broken down wreck, I’m faced with watching the next generation face the same challenges that I faced. In a culture that reveres competitive sports and idolises athletes, parents whose sons want to dance are faced with a dilemma. I’ve seen dozens of mothers in near tears worried about the comments and the mockery that’s sure to come when their son steps out on stage in ballet flats. I’ve watched fathers come to the realisation that their little boy is going to run into the living room and shout ‘Look Daddy, a plié!” and he’ll have no idea how to respond.
And they’ve asked me, is it worth it? Does it work out in the end?
It does. It really does.
So this is my appeal. To you fathers and mothers. This is why you should let your sons dance.
1. It’s masculine as hell
Everything you’ve ever heard about how dance is for sissy men, girly men, weak men, is a lie. The social construct of the True Man who lifts weights, throws balls, screams at sporting matches but can’t do a basic two-step is just that – a construct. And a fairly recent one at that. Men have been dancing ever since we evolved to walk on our hind legs. From tribal war dances to religious rituals, men who danced have been a part of every culture. Ballet was once exclusively for men. In more modern times, gentlemen were expected to know the dances of the day. Swing clubs and dance halls have been the meeting place of a thousand communities, a million couples.
And let’s not start on the popular assumption that men who dance are somehow weaker than other athletes. Because….
2. It’s athletic as hell
Not to say that team sports aren’t. I’d be a hypocrite to look down on the physical benefits of playing on a conventional sports team. But dance is just as athletic as any sport, and far more physically demanding. Where sports are focused towards achieving a tangible goal – jump higher, run faster, score more points – dance demands physical perfection. It’s a language and a picture all in one. Dance demands that you make shapes with your bodies- incredible, bizarre, extraordinary shapes. Some dances, such as the step dances like Irish and flamenco, go even further and demand that you create musical rhythms as well as shapes. Dancers must be in peak physical condition. The things they do can be truly wondrous. And the cost can be severe. I’ve torn my ACL, sprained both my ankles broken every toe in my feet, and I still never lost the thirst to go further, leap higher, fly in the air a little bit longer.
Dance isn’t for sissies. Dance is for men.
3. It’s chivalrous as hell
Irish dance does have social and couples dancing, but it is mainly a solo art – that is each dancer dances for him or herself. Even during a performance we trust each other to stay on time and in sync, but we don’t physically rely on each other. That’s where couples dancing – most prominently ballroom dances – come in.
Ballroom dance has it’s roots in the courtly dances of the medieval and Renaissance eras. Today, they’re as varied as the cultures they come from. Tango, waltz, foxtrot, salsa, samba, paso doble swing, the list is long and varied. Ballroom dances teach trust, as couples must absolutely rely on each other. When you’re throwing a woman into the air and catching her around your back, there is no room for error and no room for hesitation.
But it does more than that. Dancing with a woman teaches respect for women. It teaches discipline. It teaches courtesy and chivalry. Because even among the clutching and the spinning and the lifts, there is only one place that a man touches a woman in ballroom dancing. Where she permits him to. It’s no accident that ballroom dancing programmes have been brought into the inner-city schools. Most famously portrayed in the film Take the Lead with Antonio Banderas, these programmes show at-risk kids a way to interact with each other with dignity and self-worth.
You want your son to learn the value of trust, of having another trust you, to touch someone with respect? Take him to dance classes.
4. It makes you confident as hell
Kids are cruel and teasing can be merciless. And it doesn’t just come from kids. Adults can be just as sneering, as unkind to a boy who does the jig. I’ve even heard religious organisations condemn it as effeminate and inappropriate for a man. I have had parents ask me if I think their son will be teased for dancing, and I answer yes. They will be. But that’s part of the beauty of dance. The focus and commitment it demands also provides an individual with the tools needed to face teasing and bullying. I’ve told so many boys that it’s hard now, but when they get through puberty and their bodies strengthen and grow and they exude confidence, discipline, and appeal, it’s worth it.
And, without exception, every boy who stuck with dance has experienced the intangible benefits of the confidence that comes from the dance floor.
5. It makes you desirable as hell
And not just to the opposite sex (or the same sex). The benefits previously listed – strength, confidence, discipline – are valued by every facet of society. Whether its an employer, college recruiter, or potential significant other, being a dancer so often means being able to go through life functioning as an adult. It’s a skill that’s sadly lacking more and more these days.
And dance is sexy. You’re making shapes with your body.
With your body.
6. It opens up a hell lot of opportunities
In dance, girls have the advantage over boys in many regards. It’s more socially acceptable, they’re more likely to do it with friends, their bodies are naturally more flexible and their hips give them superior technique. But girls outnumber boys in dance, often by a margin of 10-1 or more. Boys have an easier time finding dance opportunities simply because they have less competition.
Yes, I know, it’s not fair. Come back when you’ve had to do front-clicks in a woolen kilt, then talk to me about fair.
And then of course there are the opportunities that can come to anyone who dances, girls and boys. Friends from around the world, travel, jobs as choreographers and teachers, public exposure, the list goes on.
7. It makes you a hell of a lot better at sports
So maybe your son isn’t the dancing type. Maybe running down a muddy pitch chasing a small ball is his true passion. Fair enough. Hand him the tights and ballet flats and drive him to the studio anyway.
Many, many professional athletes have taken dance classes to improve their game. The core strength, balance, flexibility and agility that forms the basics of dance are often not provided in an average team practise. The Chicago Bulls have trained with the world-renowned Joffery Ballet. NFL stars, speed skaters, rugby players, they’ve all been at the barre and they’re all better athletes for it.
8. Hugh Jackman – hell yeah
Wolverine high-kicked with the Rockettes. Enough said.
9. It connects you to culture
Every dance has a source. Every dance is rooted in the people who first conceived the steps decades or centuries ago. Irish dance connects me to my people in a way that nothing else can. It’s the song of my home. It makes you a part of something bigger than you are. Some may call it a spiritual experience. I prefer to think of it as an inheritance. It’s a privilege to carry on something that brought my people through war and famine and death. It’s a responsibility worthy of a man.
10. It makes you a man
But I can’t tell you that. It’s something you must discover for yourself. Whether it’s you or your sons, dance is a ladder that a boy climbs to manhood. It’s an incredible journey.
Let your son take it if he wants to. Encourage him. Support him. Cheer him when you can and push him when he needs it.
And one day you’ll turn around and that little boy who was so excited to do his first plié won’t be there any longer. A man will have taken his place.
A man whose body can sing.