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‘Boys, Books, and Ballet’: a recipe for increasing gender diversity in dance

A room full of children faces a male ballet dancer in front of them. They mirror him as he raises an arm of his body and points one leg out.
Louisville Free Public Library
"Boys, Books, and Ballet" aims to get children across Louisville interested and educated about ballet. The program focuses particularly on boys and increasing gender diversity in dance.

The Louisville Ballet and Louisville Free Public Library are collaborating to show young people, primarily boys, that dance has space for them.

Ballet Bound is an initiative from the Louisville Ballet meant to give young dancers the opportunity to take classes in a professional space at no cost. It aims to lower barriers that could hinder youth from exploring their interest in dance.

At an audition a couple of years ago, Louisville Ballet Director of Community Engagement Stacey Blakeman said she noticed something stark in the turnout.

“No boys showed up. And we were like, ‘We need to get boys more interested in ballet because this is a tuition-free program [that] will be perfect to get boys into the ballet school,’” Blakeman said.

Thus “Boys, Books, and Ballet” was born in the summer of 2020.

The Louisville Ballet partnered with the Louisville Free Public Library to create an evening of learning about ballet.

“We do a fun brain dance, we teach them lots of locomotor moves to move across the floor, then of course, we give them some ballet basics. And then they always get to learn a little bit of choreography,” Blakeman said.

This year attendees will learn choreography inspired by “Swan Lake.”

“Boys, Books, and Ballet” programs are happening at library branches throughout Louisville from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Thursday this month:

  • June 13 at Northeast Regional Library (15 Bellevoir Circle)
  • June 20 at South Central Regional Library (7300 Jefferson Blvd.)
  • June 27 at Iroquois Library (601 W. Woodlawn Ave.)

In addition to learning dance, participants will read books about male dancers.
By partnering with the library and traveling to different branches, Blakeman said the ballet hopes to continue to break down access barriers.

“We know if we want to reach more people, the library is a great partner to have, because we're trying to reach, you know, the widest possible audience, and finding community hubs where people like to go is always a great way to meet them,” Blakeman said.

Tracy Heightchew, who works in community relations at the Louisville Free Public Library, said libraries can often act as safe spaces.

And that comfortably means more openness to participating and learning about something new.

"If they come here [Main Library] [or] they go to their neighborhood branch and you encounter ballet there, and then it's very hands-on, you're in a room with a dancer … it's pretty great,” Heightchew said.

Louisville Ballet dancer Sameer Rhodes first got interested in dance in middle school when he was a cheerleader.

“It's funny because it was my librarian who actually gave me the opportunity to get enrolled in the Louisville Ballet school. And I started taking classes there,” Rhodes said. “And after my first class, I just kind of fell in love with it.”

He said the role of male dancers is often not fully understood.

“We oftentimes can get seen more of like the background, because our job sometimes is to make the ladies look good and nice. But we still have a strong role in a company or whichever piece or dance that we're a part of,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said he hopes he can show boys and all young people interested in dance that there is room for them, especially children who may not have had the chance to encounter dance before.

“Me being a person who came from a not-so-fortunate community, I love this program because it's taking it to the places where they feel comfortable — people in these communities,” Rhodes said.

As an adult and professional ballet dancer, Rhodes is now giving young dancers of all genders the same access he got as child and in the same venue — a library.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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