Dancing Through Distress: Male dancers from SYTYCD, NYCB and Broadway Reflect on Challenges and Struggles They Faced Growing Up in a Studio
A sense of fulfillment fills his body as he sees his reflection in the hazy mirror. The music begins, and he suddenly feels completely comfortable in a place he only arrived at a few weeks prior. Each beat of the song sends pulses through the somewhat scratched up flooring, up through his bare feet, taking over his entire body. His demeanor is peaceful, passionate and powerful as he commands his way across the floor with the other dancers, each movement a new discovery in his mind. As the combination comes to an end, finishing with a grand jeté into a graceful arabesque par terre, 18 year old Nick Nazzaro remains in disbelief that he is spending his days dancing in the city of his dreams.
Originally from Leawood, Kansas, Nazzaro explains that he made the move to New York City this past September to study dance at Marymount Manhattan College. Unlike many of his peers, he didn't begin dancing until his freshman year of high school. Having performed in musical theater during his preteen years, his theater director saw special dance ability in him and convinced Nazzaro to enroll at a local studio. What started off as a few classes soon turned into upwards of forty hours a week of dance training. Determined to catch up to those who had been dancing practically from birth, Nazzaro is now incredibly thrilled to be making such a large step towards his success as a dancer.
Yet, it wasn't always as simple as splits and pirouettes. In fact, Nazzaro faced many challenges as a young male dancer that he still battles with. With a majority of studios across the country highly concentrated with young girls, the struggles of male dancers are not always addressed. "It's a constant struggle even now," says Nazzaro. However, it's comforting for the young dancer to know that many now successful dancers faced challenges similar to his and found ways to keep on dancing through difficult times.
It's hard to deny the fact that male dancers are often ridiculed by fellow school mates because dance has been deemed feminine. For Nazzaro, attending an all-boys high school certainly posed many struggles in this regard. "They were very big on sports and were jocks and interested in girls and football: basically your stereotypical all guys school. I was the only dancer, so initially I would be picked on because I wasn't interested in sports and didn't know all the latest football facts or baseball statistics," he explains.
Broadway's Stephen Hanna explains that he faced a similar situation when growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "It was hard: it was really hard," Hanna explains. "A lot of kids didn't understand [dancing], especially where I came from. It wasn't like a very cultural situation or school." Hanna began dancing at age three before focusing on ballet at age ten. He then went on to study at The School of American Ballet before joining the New York City Ballet in 1997. In 2005, he was promoted to a principal dancer, then departed the ballet for Broadway in 2008. Hanna went on to perform in the Broadway ensembles of "Billy Elliot," "On the Town," "An American in Paris" and, this spring, "Hello, Dolly!" starring Bette Midler.
"In school, I definitely didn't talk about it or tell kids because I knew that they would make fun of me," he explains. "I used to leave school early to go and take ballet class; I would leave around one or so. I used to tell my friends at the lunch table that I had bad allergies and that I had to leave at a certain time because I needed to get this allergy shot and if I didn't get it, I wouldn't be able to sleep."
One time, however, school and dance crashed together for Hanna, and he found himself unable to hide his secret anymore. "There was this guy [who did] these children shows in Pittsburgh and he did these music videos and I was in one. Then he came to my school and had this all-school assembly and he played his songs and sang. Of course he knew that I was there and had me come up and dance in front of the whole school. The way that I was able to get people off my back in that situation was telling them I was on television so I got paid for dancing."
Alec Knight, a current corps de ballet member of the New York City Ballet, says he also tried to keep his love for dance under wraps. Originally from Queensland, Australia, Knight was unsure of how his peers would respond to his passion, and thus made the choice to keep dance out of conversation. "I would say that people that didn't know much about dance definitely had a preconceived idea of what I was doing or the type of person I was. I kept it a secret from my school peers and didn't really want to admit it to myself just because I felt like once I did that, I was scared I would lose the great life that I had. I was never a feminine sort of guy but I felt like once people knew I did ballet, they would assume I was gay (which at the age of 12, I obviously did not know). It wasn't that people didn't know, I just never brought it up or wanted to talk about it."
One day, however, Knight's acceptance into the Australian Ballet School made its way into the hands of one of his teachers. Thankfully, his peers were much more supportive than he expected. "My teacher once found a news article on me and how I was accepted into the Australian Ballet School and presented it to my entire classroom when I was 13, and I was absolutely humiliated. I started crying and got furious with her, and the reaction from my class members was incredible. They were so warm and welcoming, and everyone felt like once they knew what I was spending all of my time on, they felt like it all made sense."
Others had an even more difficult time hiding their love for dance, including Carlos Garland, a top 20 finalist on season 10 of "So You Think You Can Dance." On a dare, Garland auditioned for the dance program at Lavilla School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida and was accepted. Having a background in theater as well, Garland's passion for dance began to grow, and he was soon immersed in the art. Yet, bullying found its way to the young dancer, even at a performing arts high school. "No outside male watching dancers would think that, especially in middle school, that ballet was a masculine dance. I would always hear that dance is just for girls just because of the ballet and modern that they saw," explains Garland.
Garland also faced challenges related to the dance attire that he was required to wear. "We would have to walk in and out of the dance rooms in our tights to go to our dressing rooms, and during that time, the bell would ring and other students would be getting out of class," Garland explains. "So it was like the whole school was seeing me in those tights and not in my regular clothes. That was kind of awkward to me because all the boys would get called names sometimes and get picked on just because of our attire and what we had to wear in class."
Feeling as though eyes were always on him, Garland grew self conscious of his body, saying, "I also knew that my legs were very skinny and weren't very esthetically pleasing to me when I had to wear tights. And with my upper body being bigger, I felt that I looked disproportional and that made me have low self esteem growing up."
Like Garland, many who are new to dance often feel uncomfortable or awkward wearing tights and dance belts. Yet, unfortunately, there isn't a way around this standard dance attire. While to some it may seem unnecessary, tights actually help to improve a dancer's technique and make clean lines more vivid. For some like Jim Nowakowski, also an alum of "So You Think You Can Dance," tights and dance belts almost brought an end to his dance career. Nowakowski opened up about his struggles after finishing a tour with Emmy Award winner Travis Wall's contemporary dance company Shaping Sound, saying, "I was first introduced to tights at age eleven. It was very uncomfortable and took time to adjust. The dance belt especially. I almost wanted to quit dancing because of it. When I realized why we wore tights, I was able to rise above it because all I would want to aim for was to perfect my craft and technique. Now I feel weird not wearing a dance belt and wearing baggy pants."
And as if dance attire doesn't already make many feel as though all eyes are on them, the deficit of other males in class makes it easy for all attention to be placed on the few boys. While this can have positive effects, Nazzaro explains the negative aspects of it as well.
"When you're watching a group dance and there's only one guy, I instantly stand out, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing," Nazzaro says. "I couldn't really hide among the other girls at the studio, so if I made a mistake, it would be very obvious because I was constantly being looked at. It can be a good thing because you can get more attention from the teacher, but it can also be a bad thing because with every move you do, you're basically being watched."
With extra attention comes extra pressure, particularly when it comes to lifts and partnering work. Male dancers are often required to lift their partners gracefully and seamlessly above their heads, which can be very difficult, specifically for young boys who are still developing.
"Partnering can be very difficult," Hanna says, "especially when you're young and just learning. The stronger you are the easier it is, but that's something that's built up over time."
Broadway's Reed Kelly says he struggled with partnering work for much of his youth due to his thinner body frame. He began dancing at age 12 following a hockey accident. After discovering his passion, Kelly began to compete in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and lyrical. Kelly then went on to perform in the Broadway companies of "Wicked" and "The Addams Family" and is now performing in Cirque du Soleil's "Paramour."
"I remember when I was 13 and 14 years old and I wasn't strong enough to lift my partner over my head," says Kelly. "Something that's always kind of stuck with me my whole life is that I'm always that skinny kid who's not strong enough. While it can be intensively motivating on one hand, it can also veer into something negative if you don't watch it."
Nowakowski adds, "I was inexperienced when it came to [partnering] work. I had to get to the gym and make sure I was lifting and get with a girl and practice all the time. The only way to become a good partner is by doing it over and over."
And while strength plays a large part in lifts and pas de deux work, there's much more to it than the size of one's muscles. "It's not always about being super strong and having big muscles," says Nowakowski. "Some of the best partners I knew were actually quite slender. Partnering is a technique. Once you master the skills and get the experience, it becomes second nature."
But perhaps above all else, one of the main struggles that young male dancers face is body image. Though bullies often attack with words such as "girly," "sensitive" or "gay," male dancers are often needed and expected to maintain a high level of masculinity on the stage. Many also feel pressure to fit the typical dancer norm, which Nazzaro explains to be "having the extremely toned legs, built arms so you can lift girls, and big chest and six pack abs." He adds, "It's always a constant struggle with my body because I'm in the studio several hours a day, and we basically just look at our bodies the whole time in the mirror or at the ballet barre."
Nowadays, body image is often a struggle for many, both inside and out of the dance industry. With television, movies, magazines, and social media showcasing "picture perfect" celebrities, it's incredibly easy to begin to compare yourself to others and pick out flaws.
Derek Piquette, a finalist on season 12 of "So You Think You Can Dance," says he relates to Nazzaro in this regard. "Body image is huge. Being too tall or too short, not being good looking enough [or even] being too good looking."
Kelly explains that even now, after working professionally for some years and experiencing a great deal of success, he sometimes finds that his worst enemy and biggest competition is himself. " I'm super critical of myself and I think as dancers-when you spend eight hours a day in front of a mirror picking out all your flaws and how something could be higher or something could be tighter or something could be more pulled up-when you leave the studio, that mechanism of your mind doesn't necessarily turn off. You really have to be kinder to yourself. [That's something] I have to remind myself all the time."
While each of the six professionals interviewed opened up about struggles they still face today, each encouraged dancers like Nazzaro to never give up on their passion for dance, no matter what trials or struggles may be thrown their way.
Piquette emphasizes the importance of embracing your distinct personality and sticking close to the person you truly are, exclaiming, "Be weird, be different, be you!" He then goes on to say, "No matter what anyone tells you or any situations you are in, always stay true to who you are. The dance community can be a very confusing place as well as the best place. Don't try to fit in to have friends or be noticed. Trust me: you'll be much happier that way. Let others' negativity turn into the flame that pushes you harder."
Hanna mentions the benefits of having a strong support system made up of both great friends and family. "My family always believed in me. Hang out with people who support what you do, and if they don't, then maybe they aren't friends. Once you get out of the school situation that you're in, those people that are giving you a hard time won't be around and you won't have to answer to them. All you will have to do is answer to yourself, and if dancing is what you want to do, then do it."
Garland explains that taking note of the progress you make as a dancer will push you forward in times you may feel stuck. "Really try and be more- I don't want to say selfish- but you have to be more selfish in a way to keep what you know you love to do in your heart and keep your passion. So train hard, because you make yourself happy with the progress that you make."
Knight adds something similar, saying, "Do not let something that is so temporary be the reason that you stop something that will give you a lifetime of joy and passion. People will always take out their insecurities on other people who have what they want or are trying to get to the same place they are. You just have to be kind and respectful [to everyone] but at the same time be driven and selfish and know what you want and where you want to be, and don't let anyone stop you from trying to get there."
Nowakowski reminds young male dancers to reach out for help when they need it, something that is much easier in today's digital age. "There are so many male dancers out there. I always encourage watching other males at competition or male dancers who inspire you and take what you like about that particular dancer to become a well rounded artist."
Nazzaro is looking forward to where his path will lead him, whether with a dance company or even to Broadway. But no matter where he ends up, he is certain that he will find happiness following his dreams, staying true to himself, and persevering through difficult moments, becoming the all around best dancer he can be. He says, "In every area of life, there's going to be struggles and judgments, but if you're doing what you love, in the end, none of that will matter. I love to dance with all my heart and I love it too much to let a few [obstacles] get in the way of my dreams."