"I just wanted the bullying to stop": 'Danseur' shows how male dancers combat stereotypes and homophobia in the ballet industry

Gormley’s Danseur explores the complex subjects of bullying, homophobia and stereotypes that male dancers face while illustrating the athleticism and vitality of ballet.

"I just wanted the bullying to stop": 'Danseur' shows how male dancers combat stereotypes and homophobia in the ballet industry

"I didn't want to stop dancing, I just wanted the bullying to stop," a male ballet dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Patrick Frenette says at the beginning of ‘Danseur’ — a documentary highlighting the bullying epidemic in ballet. Patrick’s ballet journey started because of his sister’s dance class when he accidentally walked in and started whirling to the music.

His story of how he found his passion for ballet is strikingly similar to several other male dancers featured in the documentary, nearly all of them took up the dance form because of their sisters, mothers or female friends.

"Only 32 percent of males dancers say their fathers support them dancing”, according to Doug Risner, a Professor of Dance at Wayne State University.

Danseur’s producer, Scott Gormley, is among the rather few numbers of fathers who support their sons in their dancing career. He tells Meaww that while making the documentary, there was one issue which he personally found most disconcerting, and that was the lack of support of fathers toward their sons to pursue dancing.

A still from the documentary Danseur shows young boys during a ballet class.
A still from the documentary Danseur shows young boys during a ballet class.

John Lam, a Principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, tells us that his parents were strongly against his career choice when he started dancing, and he had to build a support system of his own to get through everything. "I kind of went about my dream without the support of my parents. They tried to reason with me by saying the profession would not help me make money, they did not want me to go through the physical struggle. They said they did not want me to suffer but they eventually realized my dreams were not their toy," Lam says.

"I have been with the Boston Ballet for 15 years and they still haven’t seen me dance professionally,” Lam adds.

Principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, John Lam. (Sabi Varga)
Principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, John Lam. (Sabi Varga)

The Boston Ballet dancer says that when he was a child, people around him saw ballet as a feminine dance form. He was teased about it by his friends and he often had to hide that he was taking ballet classes.

"More than 96 percent of boys face some sort of verbal or physical abuse when they choose to dance.” — Risner’s research.

Gormley, the director and producer of the documentary, says that he decided to make this documentary after noticing the social isolation and abuse his son Jack was facing because of ballet. "He was an outcast once he identified himself to his friends, particularly his male friends, as a ballet dancer. Many of them just assumed that he was gay,” Gormley tells us.

"Jack’s friends stopped associating with him in any form, especially socially. He felt he was being treated this way because of the stigma attached to being a male ballet dancer. He wouldn’t have faced this if he had chosen say soccer or any other sport,” Gormley adds.

Gormley’s 'Danseur' thus explores the complex subjects of bullying, homophobia and stereotypes that male dancers face while illustrating the athleticism and vitality of ballet through performance, creation, preservation and education.

Scott Gormley and his son Jack can be seen in the picture. (Scott Gormley)
Scott Gormley and his son Jack can be seen in the picture. (Scott Gormley)

Gormley says that he began conducting his own research after watching his son’s torment and realized that the issue was much larger than he had previously thought. He then started interviewing students and professional ballet dancers and learned of the varied struggles they have to go through in the female-dominated dance form. Ballet, as a dance form, has idolized woman in pointe shoes and tutus while relegating men to the role of partners.

"Only 1 in 10 children and adolescents studying dance in the United States are male." — Risner's research

There is also a popular stereotype that boys have it easy in ballet. When we asked Harper Watters, a Soloist with the Houston Ballet, about the stereotype, he laughed and said that it is not true at all.

"Talent is very difficult to hone when you are fighting things you cannot control, be it the stereotypes or perception of others. It is very difficult, there's a lot of strength, power, determination, artistry that is required for men to be a successful ballet dancer. When outsiders think it is weak or it is feminine that is a lot to handle sometimes,” the professional danseur says.

Soloist with the Houston Ballet, Harper Watters, can be seen in a still from Danseur.
Soloist with the Houston Ballet, Harper Watters, can be seen in a still from Danseur.

Watters tells us that it was not easy being a professional ballet dancer and although his parent got around to supporting him in his career and saw his potential, he had to sacrifice a lot in the pursuit of dreams, including his childhood. "I moved away from home when I was 14 in pursuit of a career in ballet. I moved even further away later. I grew up in New Hampshire and I moved to Houston, Texas when I was 16. That was an incredible sacrifice, forgoing a normal childhood. Those are formative years of someone's life, the teenage years, I left that to go live in a dorm with six other boys,” he says.

When asked about bullying, Watters says he did face some teasing but in the end he could handle it all. However, he adds there are other young male dancers who get bullied to such an extent that they begin to question if they really want to be a dancer. Watters, an African American, adds that his personal struggle was coming to terms with his body and looks, he says that he did not look like other male ballet dancers.

Harper Watters had to struggle a lot with his body image when he first joined ballet. (Harper Watters)
Harper Watters had to struggle a lot with his body image when he first joined ballet. (Harper Watters)

"When I would step into a ballet class, or audition, or I would look at professional companies that I wanted to join, I just didn't see anybody like me. I just did not look like anybody else. I did not look like other people who were trying to be ballet dancers, so the dealing with looking like the way I did was a real struggle. A lot of my personal battles have less to do with bullying and more so to do with being different and trying to make my own path,” Watters adds.

Both Watters and Lam, a Vietnamese American, also pointed out the lack of diversity in the United States ballet industry. Watters says that it is difficult for people of color to make it big in the industry is because the classes are so expensive. "Ballet studios and ballet companies are generally located in the areas where they get more financial support and the chances of a person of color to participate is a lot less,” Watters says.

While Lam says that there is rampant racism in the industry and adds that the dance form is very archaic in that respect. "I have witnessed it and experienced it but it hasn't brought me to a point that I feel completely upset. There are a lot of Asian female dancers but there is not a lot of Asian male dancers. No one really talks about it. I am the only Vietnamese American principal ballet dancer in a major American ballet company. There is also a notion of a certain type of physical attribute, Asians are typically smaller in size. I have been very lucky in my career, my race hasn't really stopped me but I know that racism does exist somehow. I just know that there is a certain ballet that comes along and I instantly know that I won't be considered in it because of my ethnicity,” Lam adds.

John Lam performing with his group. (Rosalte O'Connor)
John Lam performing with his group. (Rosalte O'Connor)

The danseurs say they have kept going on in their careers because of their love and passion for dance despite not being paid enough for all their hard work. "What we put ourselves through is equal to what football or basketball players put themselves through. It's difficult. We are trying as dancers to put ourselves on the same level of appreciation as athletes. We want the public to understand we are athletes who also utilize their artistry and emotion and their intellectual capabilities to execute our art form fully. That's a struggle. We need to fight for more,” Watters says.