Benny Osei-Yeboah is nine years old and he loves ballet. When he dances, he says it makes him feel like he can do anything. But he doesn’t tell his friends at school because he’s worried they will laugh at him.
Benny is one of a handful of boys – among many more girls – taking part in a ballet class on Tuesday night in a tough area of east London. They are all immaculately turned out in their uniforms – blue tops, black shorts, white ankle socks and ballet shoes for boys, leotards for girls – and are accompanied by Mr Marshall on the saxophone.
We’re in a secondary school in Dagenham, in a class run by the Royal Ballet School, as part of an outreach programme called Primary Steps, which offers access to communities, often in deprived areas, who would not ordinarily take part in or see ballet.
The first thing you notice is the children’s extraordinary level of concentration – despite having done a full day at school – and the sheer pleasure they are taking in their dancing. Watched closely by two teachers, they do a mixture of classical technique and creative dance. At the end of the session the boys bow and the girls curtsey to Mr Marshall in an elegant gesture of thanks, and they line up happily to leave the studio.
After class Benny and three friends sit on the floor, trainers on, bags slung over shoulders, and describe what they like about ballet – and the problem they have sharing that with friends. “I think ballet is really fun,” Benny says. “You get to do a lot of exercising, you do a lot of stretches. I’ve not told many friends – I’ve only told one who’s left my school.
“They know the girls do ballet, but then if I told them I did it, they would laugh at me. They say ballet’s for girls. My mum tells me to ignore them, then if they don’t stop I should tell the teacher.”
It was the Primary Steps programme that drew 12-year-old Connor Williams, a young dancer from Blackpool, into ballet. His story made headlines last week after he posted a video on Facebook in which he filmed a letter he had written, describing being bullied and asking his tormentors to stop. The video went viral, the story was picked up by national newspapers.
Connor told them that – a bit like Benny – he had started to keep his ballet a secret. “I was just getting sick of it,” he told the Daily Mail, “and after the last time it happened, I just got a piece of paper and started writing what I thought. I just hope people might leave me alone for once. I don’t know why they do it – I think it’s just me. They started saying stuff, saying I’m small and saying I’m gay.”
On Monday, happily, Connor was back in class – he has now graduated to a gifted and talented group for older children – dancing as though nothing had happened. His teacher says he hasn’t missed a week in more than four years. “I know that Connor has struggled in the past,” Sarah Gough says. “To be honest, I didn’t know to what extent it was a problem for him until just the other day. The children came in and said: ‘Have you heard about Connor?’ and suddenly it was all over the news.
“He came to class on Monday as usual. Nothing stops him dancing. The dance class for Connor is his place. It’s where he gets his enjoyment from. It’s a release from life.”
Boys dancing in the Blackpool class are fortunate as, alongside Gough, they have a male dancer, Rob Bell, teaching them, providing a positive male role model. When the children start ballet, the class is split equally between boys and girls, but that changes as the children get older.
“The reality is, yes, boys drop out because of peer pressure,” Gough says. “We try to create a balance from the beginning, but it’s unfortunate it does happen. In any community anywhere, unfortunately for some people, they’ve not seen men and boys dance before.” Denzel Bilson, eight, echoes Benny when he says boys at his school think ballet is just for girls. “It’s because of the way our shoes look,” he says. “ But I don’t really care.” He plays football too but prefers ballet. “Football’s is a bit boring, all we do is kick a ball.”
The Primary Steps team, which works with more than 1,500 children in 27 primary schools across five areas of the country, are all too aware of the peer pressure on boys, and do everything they can to support young male dancers.
But the programme manager, Pippa Cobbing, fears cultural attitudes towards boys and men dancing have become more entrenched in recent years, despite the impact of Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film Billy Elliot, about an 11-year-old coal miner’s son who becomes a ballet dancer.
Despite still having many more applications from girls, the Royal Ballet School is seeing a rise in the number of boys applying to study full time. In 2009, 115 boys, compared with 505 girls, applied for 25-30 places. In 2013, 177 boys applied compared with 609 girls. In terms of full-time students, there have been more boys than girls at the school since 2010. In 2013/14, for example, there were 109 girls and 112 boys.
“Many, many hundreds of years ago, Queen Elizabeth I used to choose her ministers on the basis of their prowess as dancers,” Cobbing says. “Today, however, dance is not viewed as something that is for men or boys.”
Boys wanting to dance may meet opposition from their fathers or other relatives, so Primary Steps works hard with families to support all children who want to do ballet, and like at the end of Billy Elliot, it’s often dads who become the real champions of their sons’ talent.
“Entrenched cultural attitudes to men and boys dancing are not going to be changed overnight,” Cobbing says, “but we are confident that we are making progress in changing people’s attitudes”.