The male dancer: the unread story

Alyssa Sparacino

Kent State Dancers learn a new dance for their upcoming performances. ABRA WILLIAMS-WITZKY | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Dan Kloock

For Brandon Hall, growing up in Atlanta in an underprivileged environment meant his parents expected him to become something that would pay the bills.

Hall, a sophomore dance education major, is one of only three male dancers in the dance program — a program of about 60 students — within Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance.

“I questioned myself and went into a lot of prayer about it,” he said about his decision to go into the field of dance. “I realized that is what was set out for me to do.”

Hall, who has been dancing since age 14, lacked initial acceptance from his family, but a female teacher at his performing arts high school became his support system.

“At first, my mom didn’t support my decision to dance. And growing up, my father wasn’t in the picture much,” he said. “She stepped in and said, ‘Hey, these are the advantages, and there will be disadvantages, but you’re going to have to deal with it. It’s something you love doing.'”

The teacher was also there for him during a time in his dance life when stereotypes began to emerge.

Hall said that being a male dancer can often lead to assumptions.

“When I first started dancing a lot of my friends would say, ‘Dude, you wear tights?'” he said.

There’s a stereotype that if you wear tights you’re a “sissy,” he said, which is something he has dealt with for years.

“I haven’t let it get to me because I know where I stand in my sexuality,” Hall said. “Just because I’m a dancer doesn’t mean I’m a homosexual. A lot of people don’t really understand it. They think, ‘He’s a dancer, he does ballet, therefore he’s gay.'”

Hall said he thinks the general public believes males are supposed to get their hands dirty and take on the traditional role of a man. He added that the public only sees the end result, a performance, and the dancers’ hard work goes unnoticed.

“We get injured just like athletes do,” he said, comparing dancers to men in other activities.

Yet, he also said he struggles with the decision to classify dance as a sport.

“People don’t realize there’s a certain passion you have to bring to dance,” he said. “You can go out there and play a football game and just be done with it and not have to show any kind of emotion, but when you’re on stage, that reads a lot differently than it may on the field.”

Even Hall’s closest friends questioned his motives for dancing. He said they didn’t understand what he was doing until they saw him perform.

“Afterward they started to come around,” he said, “but it took a while to mend those friendships back.”

Bernard Richards said some ups and downs during his dancing life have caused him to gravitate toward people who don’t have a problem with him being who he is.

Richards is a senior dance performance major who has been dancing since he was 5 years old. He has performed with The Canton Ballet in the “Nutcracker” for nine years, and said he is beginning to feel burned out.

“It’s funny because I never thought I’d major in dance,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard physical work — all day every day.”

Richards came to Kent State as a musical theater major but switched to dance performance at the end of his sophomore year. He said the decision was because of his surroundings, which he called “superficial.”

In contrast, both Richards and Hall generally met on common ground when they described the dance program as having a family feel to it.

Richards said he feels there are strong faculty members in the dance program whom he can confide in.

“The faculty has definitely proven to me, time and time again, that I can go to them and feel secure,” he said.

Having a support system, in whatever form it may be, is something Richards said is valuable in times when he deals with self-confidence issues.

Like Hall, Richards has been the brunt of stereotypes that are put on male dancers, which he said makes him more upset now than ever before.

“I got a lot of flak when I was a kid,” he said. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh he’s gay,’ which I actually am.”

Richards called this an “unfortunate affiliation” but also said dance is a field that homosexuality is often expected.

“I don’t dance because I’m gay,” he said. “I don’t do theater because I’m gay. I’ve had people ask me, ‘So do you join theater and then become gay?'”

Richards said that when he was younger, he suffered because he didn’t think being gay was something to be proud of, but now he said he would love to fight for gay rights.

“I just happen to dance, but I have other interests too,” he said. “I would like to dance in a professional company, but I would like the added security of something to fall back on.”

The issue of finances was a consistent factor these two dancers brought up and was certainly something that Richards said is impacting his future.

“It would be great to say I’m an ambassador of art, fighting for what I believe in — I also need groceries,” he said.

He classified dance as “estranged,” and something the general public doesn’t see enough of to understand.

“It is trenched so thoroughly in society today as a dominate woman art form, even though throughout history men were credited with initially incorporating the dancers’ role,” he said.

“It is a truism, an unquestioned cultural assumption, that there’s something inherently ‘feminine’ about dance, just as — for all the efforts by feminists to change this bias — we still see sports as irreducibly ‘masculine’ at root,” wrote Richard Schneider in a 2006 article from The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide.

Sabatino Verlezza, a professional male dancer and a part-time faculty member in the Kent State dance program, partly attributed these stereotypes to lack of visibility the community has with dancers.

“We are rehearsing in a room privately,” he said. “We will have a performance, that body of people will come, whoever they are, and it’s done. It’s insular.”

Verlezza is the co-founder and artistic director of Verlezza Dance, a company he and his wife Barbara Verlezza, another Kent State dance faculty member, developed together.

He has worked with some of the best in the dance field, yet he is still relatable to the male dancers in the program. His sexuality was also questioned, and he said his Italian family wanted him to become the mythical success story of a doctor or lawyer.

“I felt it was unfair, but my love for it transcended way beyond that,” he said. “When you work in the performing arts, you surround yourself with supporters.”

In 1660, men were considered to be the first professional dancers, and Verlezza said it is important to remember that historically, many teachers and performers were men, such as in early theater when each role was played by a male.?

“It was considered in classical times, to be a gentleman you had to be a warrior as well as an artist,” he said. “Today we are a little bit more confused what it means, as we search for the identity of our genders.”

Contact performing arts reporter Alyssa Sparacino at [email protected].