Not long after 5 p.m., the students in Stephanie Clemens' Thursday evening ballet class began shuffling in one by one. Distilled out of the chaos in the hallwayâ€"a flashing din of moms and siblings and snow boots and bookbagsâ€"10-year-old Alex Schorsch gabbed with Max Gorgol, and Christopher Gaumond meandered the length of the room, humming to himself. Cross-legged on a mat in his red Blackhawks sweatshirt, 8-year-old Jesse Benedict exuded an untroubled equanimity. Jack de Tombe had forgotten his ballet shoes.
"Again?" sighed Clemens. Jack stared at his socks. "Well, all right," she said, giving him a stern smile. "Try to remember them next time."
Just then, Robert Hunter Bly hurtled into the room, stumbling headlong toward the floor, arms overflowing with his coat and bag. Unharmed, he slid to a halt by the ballet barre.
"Hey, guys!" he exclaimed joyfully, glancing up at his classmates.
Finally, Clemens raised her arms and called for silence: It was time to begin.
The six youngsters who meet here every Thursday in Studio 1 make up the most advanced of several all-boys dance classes at Oak Park's Academy of Movement and Music. For an hour every week, the 8- to 11-year-olds practice plies, pas de chats and degages, coached through the motions by class demonstrator Aidan Feldman, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior who hopes to double-major in dance and engineering. The boys twirl their way across the room pretending to be snowflakes or penguins or ice skaters. Backing up for a running start, they hurdle 2-foot piles of exercise mats. Sometimes they do pushups. A gymnast when he's not in ballet shoes, Jesse is the reigning champ.
"He can do 62 in a row," bragged Alex. "He just keeps going and going and going. It's like, we hardly ever want to do our own pushups. We just want to watch him."
"They have a wonderful camaraderie," Clemens said. "There's a lot of friendship here."
Bucking the barbs
According to Clemens, all-boys ballet classes make about as much sense as boys taking ballet in the first place. That is to say, perfect sense. Ballet, she insists, appeals to boys' athleticism and sociability, their eagerness to perform, their need for discipline.
"And here in a class of all boys, it's not like the boys will make fun of you, because they're all doing it too," Alex explained.
Exactly. Clemens, who began corralling boys into their own ballet classes nearly four years ago, knows all about the ridicule male dancers can endure. Her three sons were wearing ballet shoes almost as soon as they could walk, but only her youngest, now a professional dancer with the Nashville Ballet, stuck it out.
"When my two older boys announced at their school that they were in The Nutcracker, a group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys ganged up on them and beat them to a bloody pulp," Clemens said. "Names like 'dancerella' and 'homo' followed them through high school."
Larry Ippel nodded. A 30-year colleague of Clemens', Ippel teaches two boys production workshop classes, which have long constituted an intermediate step for boys between the Academy's preschoolâ€"where he's also a teacherâ€"and its formal ballet instruction. Clemens credits Ippel's magnetism for drawing many boys into ballet at the Academy; most of the others are lured by curiosity about their sisters' weekly lessons. Ippel recalls the fallout from his own decision in college to devote himself to dance and choreography.
"When I first started to dance and I made the announcement to my family, my brother was an elder in our church," said Ippel, whose son Peter was also a dancer and now works as resident manager for the San Francisco Ballet School. "My brother lost his position in the church because of me. I was no longer allowed to see my girlfriend from high school. I was in a speech class then, and every speech I gave was on topics like, 'why men dance'â€"all these subjects to try to convince myself that what I was doing was all right."
So far, the energetic youngsters showing up at the Academy in T-shirts and ballet shoes don't seem to have suffered that dark night of the soul, although they're plenty aware of their rarity in the world of dance. Not all of them are insulated in classes of only boys. Clemens' slightly more experienced male studentsâ€"some who've been dancing at the Academy since the age of 2â€"plunge into classrooms filled with girls. Offering up their Saturdays, many boys take part in some productions by MOMENTA, a professional dance company tied to the Academy. For MOMENTA's upcoming March concert, 13 of Clemens' boys are laboriously rehearsing a Viennese waltz with 13 little girls.
Still, most young boys don't talk much about ballet with their school friends or soccer teammates or baseball coaches. They'll own up to playing the piano or acting in musicals, but dancing is still an embarrassment apart. When word gets out, they handle it as best they can.
"People talk about it some, but it's OK," said 10-year-old Frank Orphan, whose been dancing at the Academy for eight years. "I don't worry about it."
"I don't tell people at school," said Alex's brother, Zach Schorsch. "I want to wait and invite them to see a show and they'll say, 'Is that Zach?!'"
Twelve-year-old Tommy Schimmel, who divides his time between dance, musical theater and the flute, said he's learned to shrug off the jibes of his schoolmates. Indeed, his mother said she'll always remember the brave morning three years ago when Tommy arrived downstairs dressed for school in his cast T-shirt from the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker. Very much "a boy's boy," she said, he was unworried about his classmates' comments.
"People say, 'Oh, you must be such a sissy, you take ballet,'" said Tommy, who practices ballet twice a week, jazz dance once a week and acts as demonstrator for another all-boys class. "But I'd like to see their faces if they stepped into one of my classes and saw what I'm doing. It's hard. They couldn't do it."
All around him, other boys shifted on their mats, chuckled in self-vindication and said, "Yeah."
Boys can jump
In teaching boys, it's important to understand just how much of their interest in ballet depends on its raw physicality, Ippel said.
"Boys start from a different imagery," he said. "Girls have this idea about ballet, and they go into it. For boys, there's a kinetic that's very important."
"It takes them awhile to come up with the image," Clemens seconded. "There's nothing more seductive for a little girl than a little pink tutu with a tiara and toe shoes. For boys, it's Power Rangers. And we try to give them that."
Part of the boys' strength, Clemens knows, lies in their numbers. Every boys-only class is as much a club of supporters as it is a place to learn third position and a proper port de bras.
"My son doesn't love dance so much as he loves rehearsals and hanging out with the other kids," said Helen Standen. Her 10-year-old son Hunter followed his sister into ballet at the Academy when he was 5. "I don't know if he'd be here if he wasn't in MOMENTA."
"That's what's great about here," said Bonnie Jackson, whose third-grade son Tommy dances at the Academy and in MOMENTA productions. "They may not necessarily be friends outside here, but there's a real comradeship between these boys. This is a good thing in a safe place, and the boys gain confidence here. They had this day at my son's school where you had to bring in your five favorite things, and Tommy brought in his ballet slippers. It's not a big deal to him. Not yet, anyway. When he hits fifth, sixth grade, we'll see."
Standen said she's waiting for her son's crucible, too. Right now, she said, Hunter is equally devoted to dance and soccer and myriad other sports. But what about when coaches' practices start running up against ballet rehearsals?
"When a boy has to decide, 'Dance is my thing,' that's a hard choice to make in this society," Standen said.
It's a choice Tommy Schimmel, for one, has already made.
"And I didn't make it for him," his mother said.
Dads dance, too
Hoping to harden her young students' resolve when it comes to ballet, Clemens makes a point of including boys' fathers in their sons' performances. Most of the men have never worn ballet shoes in their lives, but they throw themselves vigorously into dance roles like Professor Dumbledore or the Mountain Troll in Harry Potter. They giddily agree to play trees or rocks, or wear all black and attempt invisibility as they hoist kids from one side of the stage to the other.
"I never thought my husband would learn a dance step," Jackson said. "Now he makes the costumes."
Clemens' greatest triumph, she reckons, came four years ago, when she dressed the dads up as pirates in Peter Pan and ordered their Lost Boy sons to beat them up onstage.
"That was when I won these kids over for good," Clemens said with a grin. "One of the reasons these boys enjoy dance so much is that I try really hard to find dance stories that boys will enjoy performing. Ballet isn't all Swan Lake and pink tutus. Boys like being in The Nutcracker because they get to be soldiers and use swords and fight with mice. ... And when they see their fathers onstage with them, it makes them feel good about what they're doing."
Aidan's not sure he'd be at the Academy at all if not for his father. A former football wide receiver and a veteran of musical theater at 18 years old, he's a newcomer to ballet. Aidan showed up on Clemens' doorstep just eight months ago. Aidan's father had been urging him to take ballet for almost a decade, but the message didn't sink in until last year, when the director of OPRF's dance troupe, Orchesis, told him his dance skills would only win him roles in two shows.
"She told me to get some training," Aidan said.
Richard Feldman had been telling his son the same thing since the boy was a sixth-grader.
"I knew the mistake I'd made not taking ballet, and I didn't want Aidan to make that same mistake," Feldman said. Once an aspiring contemporary modern dancer, he was offered a place in a professional troupe's traveling show, on the condition that he get some ballet training.
"They wanted me to wear tights and take ballet, and I said, 'No way,'" Feldman recalled. "I was probably in seventh or eighth grade then."
When his son started showing an interest in performance, Feldman started prodding.
"Ballet is the basis of all dance, and I knew if he was going to be a truly fine dancer, he had to learn ballet. He's got talent, but it wasn't trained talent."
After resisting for years, Aidan caught fire last summer. Now he spends six or seven days a week at the Academy, rehearsing, training, making up for lost time. It's not unusual for him to get home after 9 p.m. He's hoping all this will add up to a chance at a modern dancing career.
"Guys are able to start late and still become professional," said Aidan, who's gearing up for college auditions. "I'm planning to study engineering, too, but I would love to dance if I can make it professionally."
Sticking it out
For Hogan McLaughlin, meanwhile, dance was just part of his upbringing. A sophomore at OPRF whose mom teaches at the Academy, Hogan enrolled in Ippel's creative movement class when he was 2 years old. The Academy has become his second home, and dance, Hogan said, just always spoke to him.
"I was always into artsy stuff," said Hogan, who's hoping to snag a berth at Julliard's prestigious summer dance program for high schoolers. He hasn't yet decided what role dance will play in his life beyond graduation.
"I'm still going back and forth on whether I want to major in it," he said.
Linda McLaughlin confesses that her son, once "such a butterball of a kid," surprised her with his dedication and discipline.
"I was a dance major in college, and I always wanted somebody to be the dancer," McLaughlin said. "I've got two younger girls, but Hogan was the only one who stayed at the Academy."
Hogan said he draws fortitude from an unusually supportive circle of a dozen or so friends. Ridicule just isn't part of the dynamic.
"We all go to each others' shows and cheer each other on," Hogan said. "If you knew my friendsâ€"they're just so amazing."
McLaughlin, though, remembers the early adolescent year and a half when her son dropped out of dance. "He'd never admit it now," she said, "but I think there was some teasing that bothered him then."
The teasing definitely got to J.P. Tenuta, Clemens' youngest son. Now a professional dancer in Nashville, Tenutaâ€"like his two older brothersâ€"was barely out of diapers when he found himself fitted for a pair of ballet shoes.
"Pretty much as soon as I could walk, I took pretty much as many classes as they would let me," Tenuta said. "I was a real physical kid, always very, very active, and dance gave me something to do and taught me some discipline. Plus, being physical and performing is its own little drug."
Still, Tenuta wasn't immune to the catcalls of other boys. By the time he reached junior high, ballet was beginning to give way to basketball. Tenuta stopped dancing altogether at 12 years old, and he didn't take another class until his sophomore year of college, when he quit Valparaiso's varsity basketball team and started working toward a degree in dance.
"Teasing is just a normal part of growing up anyway," Tenuta said, acknowledging that without it, "I probably would have stayed with dance and had a much better base to start my career. I would encourage the boys at the Academy now to stick with it if they enjoy it. Just to stay involved twice a week or so, it gives the discipline, the exerciseâ€"all the things little boys need. It's artistic, but it's also physical."
Back in Studio 1, Clemens' pupils finished up the evening with a series of exultant leaps. One by one, they sprinted toward a pile of exercise mats in the middle of the floor, sailing into the air at the last second. Some curled their legs beneath them, others flailed over to one side. Occasionally, they seemed to leap the length of the room.
"Beautiful, Max!" Clemens shouted as the youngster hit the crest of his jump. "Do you know what hangtime is?"
Behind Max, Jack crouched for his turn, and behind him, Alex and Christopher and an endlessly buoyant Robert. Jesse's gymnast legs always seemed to carry him twice as high as the pile of mats.
"Arms, Jack, arms!" Clemens barked when Jack opened his feet into the air. "Good!"
Turning sideways, Clemens confided, "At some point, they begin to realize that dance is about how you look, that you need to make shapes and sculptures with your body and you need to control your movements. A lot of boys get carried away with how movement feels, instead of how it looks. Eventually, though, they realize this is art."
But not yet. For now, the six boys in Clemens' little studio were happy just to feel the strength of their legs, the speed of their jumps, and the weightlessness of the air that lifted them, just for a moment.