Dance Like a Boy

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Lam Chun-wing fulfilled his childhood dream when he became the first Chinese dancer hired to join the Paris Ballet Opera in 2015. He admitted, however, he wasn’t that enthusiastic at first: as a 7-year-old, he was enrolled at a ballet school in Hong Kong. “I wondered why my mother took me to such a girly extra-curricular activity,” he said. But after the first class, Lam fell in love with ballet and has not stopped dancing.

While ballet is a favorite activity for girls — often the first extra-curricular activity they choose — few boys have the audacity, or the family support, to pursue it. The comment of the titular character’s father in the movie “Billy Elliot” sums up the widespread stereotype: “Lads do football … or boxing … or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet.” But how true is it?   

Despite its association of being a female-dominated profession, ballet has its share of legendary male ballet dancers. Among them is Mikhail Baryshnikov, a former principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, who also has a successful career in theatre and film. (Many of us would still remember his heartthrob role in the last season of TV series “Sex and the City”.) His contemporary, Vladimir Vasiliev, a former principal dancer and director of Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, was nicknamed “God of Dance” and famous for his powerful leaps and turns.

Watching them dance and practice shows that ballet is no easy feat. Like soccer players, ballet dancers train for foot speed, albeit more quickly and in more exact positions. If you think lifting weight in a gym is difficult, it is nothing compared with lifting ballerinas for eight hours daily – while looking effortlessly, and without making any grunting sound.

It is no surprise male athletes and soldiers incorporate ballet as part of their training regime. An elite sports and arts academy in South Africa required their teenage students to take ballet lessons to polish their soccer skills and improve their jumps and kicks. South Korean soldiers guarding the demilitarized zone learned pirouettes once a week to strengthen their muscle, correct their posture, increase their flexibility – and relieve stress. “There’s a lot of tension here, since we live in the unit on the front line,” said soldier Kim Joo-hyeok. “However, through ballet, I am able to stay calm and find balance.”

And quite a few martial artists have dancing as their secret weapon. Thanks to her ballet training, Michelle Yeoh could easily morph herself into a badass action star. Before pursuing a career in martial arts, Bruce Lee was an award-winning cha-cha dancer in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Jean Claude Van Damme, the Belgian martial artist and actor famous for his immensely flexible split, credited ballet for helping him with dexterity and flexibility, calling it “the hardest workout a man can do”. 

So much for a “girly” activity, right?