Being a boy in ballet means less competition for roles, more leniency and fewer expenses – but the stigma surrounding male dancers continues
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Freshman Jackson Margolis has ballet at 4 p.m. Realizing that he’s going to be late, he decides to wear his school clothes.
Once he arrives at the Sacramento Ballet studio, he warms up on the barre with ankle weights and stretches. He then does four pirouettes, landing them perfectly.
Margolis looks around the room. There are 20 dancers, but only one other is male.
However, this isn’t an unusual scene for him, as all his ballet classes are female-dominated.
Margolis takes ballet classes five days a week for a total of about 11 hours. He will occasionally have practices on a sixth day.
In addition, Margolis takes contemporary, tap, lyrical and rehearsal classes for performances.
Inspired by male actor and dancer Gene Kelly, Margolis began ballet when he was only 6 years old after seeing the movie “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“He told (pre-K teachers) Barbara (Fackenthall Tash) and Donna (Manning) that he wanted to change his name to Gene Kelly and run around with an umbrella dancing in the rain,” his mother, Kristin, said.
So when Margolis was 5, she signed him up for a theater class at the Sacramento Theater Company (STC).
Margolis played Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” and recited only one line in the production (the famous “God bless us every one”).
“But for me it was a big deal,” he added.
A parent of another child who had also played Tiny Tim suggested Margolis might enjoy taking classes at Sacramento Ballet.
But Margolis was hesitant at first.
“I was like, no way,” Margolis said. “I wanted to be a professional actor and maybe singer.”
However, his opinion changed when he saw the other boy in “The Nutcracker.”
“I thought that if he’s in ‘The Nutcracker,’ I can be in ‘The Nutcracker,’” he said.
And eight years later he’s preparing for yet another production of the popular Christmas ballet.
Melanie Haller, Margolis’s current technique teacher and principal at Sacramento Ballet, attributes his success to his especially good jumping technique.
“In ballet, we have a large assortment of jumps which are categorized into petite, medium and large jumps,” she said. “Because of his high level of attack, his jumps fly and soar.”
In addition, she said, Margolis’s personality makes roles dramatically come alive.
“Jackson is incredibly high-spirited and exudes an immense amount of energy,” Haller said.
But not all male dancers are like this. In fact, many have a lack of dedication when it comes to ballet, according to Margolis.
“Guys take ballet for granted,” he said. “Girls will come to every single class, every week and put 100-percent effort into it. They will always ask teachers if there’s anything they can do to improve and always fully respect the teacher.
“Guys, on the other hand, come to class sometimes.”
The way boys dress for class also differs.
“I’ll honestly wear this to ballet today,” Margolis said as he pointed to his casual shirt. “(And) we also don’t always tuck our shirts in.”
Senior Camille Locke, who attends Sacramento Ballet with Margolis, said that she sees this every day.
“(The men) don’t come as much as everyone else,” she said.
In addition, there’s a rule in ballet where no one is supposed to sit, according to Locke.
However, the boys always do.
“We have Regional Dance America rehearsals with guest choreographers, and (the choreographers) get so frustrated by the guys because they’ll be out of the room or sitting down all the time,” Locke said.
Also, girls spend more. They are required to wear pointe shoes, while boys can wear technique shoes.
“Pointe shoes are $100,” Locke said. “And they need to be replaced every two weeks.”
However boys’ technique shoes cost $15 to $20 and need to be replaced only every two years.
And unlike many of the girls at his studio, Margolis doesn’t have a private coach.
Instead, Margolis has a boys’ class with only one other boy in which they work on big jumps, do crossfit or lift weights.
“Boys must exude strength, masculinity, and execute steps that are harder than any sport,” Haller said.
In Margolis’s studio there are 10 males.
“One year there were only six guys,” Margolis said. “There’s only one other guy in my level right now.”
However, there are hundreds of girls, he said.
“There are at least 10 more girls in every single class I’ve ever taken,” he added.
Because of the lack of male dancers, the boys usually get the top roles, Margolis said.
Locke agreed with Margolis.
“Guys definitely get more opportunities than girls,” she said. “There are fewer of them, and they don’t have to work as hard.”
For example, Locke is currently in “Swan Lake.” Her director made two complete casts for the production, so there are two dancers playing each part.
And the two males in her level automatically got the two highest parts.
“There was no audition for them,” Locke said. “There was no stress for them.”
Competition is another difference between the genders’ ballet, Margolis said.
“Guys are the meanest and the most judgmental,” he said.
And there’s one main reason for this.
“We’re all fighting to be the best guy in the studio because that’s a reality for us,” Margolis said. “But for the girls, there’s always going to be someone better than them.”
Another difference is that boys’ ballet overall is more masculine, according to Margolis.
“Everything is larger,” he said. “In one of my classes, if a girl jumps higher than me, I have to do 20 push-ups.”
However, girls are critiqued more harshly.
“If a girl landed her three pirouettes the same way a guy would land his six pirouettes, the teachers would be mad,” Margolis said.
“It’s all about the landing for girls and the little things that the audience can’t see.”
In addition, the girls in his studio are more flexible, he said.
“If I were a girl, with my flexibility, I would probably be four levels lower,” Margolis said.
Another important difference is that girls aren’t teased about being dancers.
When Margolis was in lower school, he was teased but said he didn’t mind it.
However, a friend of his had a different reaction.
“He told his friends he did ballet, and they all said he was gay,” Margolis said. “But he had a girlfriend. He ended up telling everyone that he quit ballet.”
Margolis was thinking of taking this same approach last year.
“But I realized that’s who I am; I should embrace that,” he said.
Haller said she hears about such teasing often.
“Boys in ballet suffer from being humiliated by those (who) lack knowledge of what ballet requires in order to succeed,” she said.
“There’s an ongoing stigma that boys in ballet have or need feminine qualities, resulting in ridicule from male peers in school or other social environments.
“The truth is boys in ballet train harder than any athlete – football players, swimmers and marathon runners.
“Jackson trains to do things that the average person can’t even imagine doing.”
Male dancers are stereotyped outside of ballet more than they are inside the studio, Locke said.
“People say that ballet guys are all gay,” she said. “But the two that are in my level aren’t. And a lot of the company members aren’t.”
Margolis has thought of quitting ballet many times because of both the stereotyping and the physical demands.
In fact, last year he rejoined STC to tap dance in one of their productions.
“I was the best dancer there,” he said. “I was thinking that maybe I should just do this because I would be the best (there).
“But then I was like, ‘You know what? I love ballet so much more than singing and acting that it just doesn’t compare.’”
Margolis attributed not quitting ballet to the amount of time he has put into it and the opportunity of being in “The Nutcracker.”
“Would I rather just sit and watch Netflix for an hour and a half instead of going to ballet today?” Margolis asked. “Yes.
“Or would I rather get my homework done so when I get home at 8:30 p.m., I wouldn’t have to start it all? Yes.”
But he said he doesn’t know if he wants to pursue ballet in college.
“I know I’m not going to go to Juilliard,” he said. “We’ll see how my path goes.”
This path could also lead him to being in the company, Margolis said.
“In order to get into the company, it’s hard,” Margolis said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female. The company needs both genders.”
—By Annya Dahmani