There was only one little boy in Darcey Bussell’s ballet class when she was a girl. Like generations of aspiring ballerinas before and after her, she practised her pliés and pirouettes in a room full of pink leotards. While little girls dreamt of taking to the stage to perform Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, little boys dreamt of playing football or fighting fires… or so the cliché went.
“Every dance school I went to,” recalls the retired prima ballerina turned Strictly judge, “there was only ever one little
boy. That has now taken a 180 degree turn, and suddenly we’re producing more male dancers. “I was told by the director of the Royal Ballet School that they are getting more applications for boys than they are for girls – it’s amazing! Apparently the problem now is that we’re not producing enough women! How is this possible?!”
It’s a question that Bussell tries to answer in a new programme about her favourite male dancers.
Traditionally the role of the male ballet dancer has been to show off the ballerina – the relationship used to be equated to that of a frame around a painting; there solely to support and enhance it.
“Ballerinas have always been centre stage, while the male has gone through many ups and downs. Leading men weren’t given significant parts, the characters – mostly unnamed princes – were weak. But suddenly male dancers have become this extraordinary talent and we can’t get enough of them!”
There are now male-dominated dance troupes such as Matthew Bourne’s company, and the BalletBoyz, while choreographers are creating works that focus on the man, which have depth and character, and require emotion and lyricism, as opposed to just strength and athleticism.
Bussell believes that dancing “was never considered a job, especially for a man, because he was going into a woman’s art”. Men were brought up needing a trade, a profession that could provide for a family. All that has now changed because of what Bussell identifies as the Billy Elliot effect.
Ballet has always been viewed as an elite pass time. “But it’s the viewers that made it elite,” insists Bussell. “Dancers were always from every class. Lessons were expensive but there was such a desire for new talent that they have always been given for free. All ballet schools can get talented dancers sponsored. What changed with Billy Elliot was the perception – a boy from a working-class background no longer had to worry about what his parents thought, what his neighbours thought. And we now have very visible male dancers from very humble backgrounds, like Carlos Acosta from Cuba and Arthur Miller from Harlem.”
Programmes like Strictly Come Dancing have also helped, Bussell explains proudly. “The moment I saw footballers and cricketers ballroom- dancing, I thought, ‘This is going to change everything!’”
But while there may now be equality on the stage and in the ballet studio, there’s no chance of the men completely outshining the women. “Even Matthew Bourne admits he wouldn’t do without women at all,” Bussell smiles. “Ballet dancers are at their best when they find their perfect partner, someone they work with as one. People often say that you have to, in a way, fall in love with that person but if anything, I think not. When there’s a bit of tension between you it’s more exciting, because you’re sort of playing with each other.”