New book preview: Baby ballet class and gendered playtime

This week I’m departing from my usual blog posts about the structure and style of romance novels, and instead I’m giving you a sneak peek at my current novel in progress. I won’t give you the plot yet, but if you follow me on social media, you know it’s a royal romance. I’ll concentrate today on a scene in which one character, who was assigned female at birth but identifies as non-binary and uses “they” pronouns, looks back at the dance lessons they took as a child.

Before the dancers start trolling me, let me tell you my own past. I grew up dancing. I studied tap, jazz, modern, ballet, Irish dancing, and gymnastics. I spent hours and hours at the dance studio each week while the other kids in my class were playing sports or hanging out in each other’s basements. When I was in high school, I became a teaching assistant and eventually got to teach some of my own classes. I love dance. I think ballet is beautiful.

But it’s also a nightmare for queer people, as are many forms of dance and other sports. In ballet, women need to be lithe and light on their feet. Their movements should speak of grace and agility. Imagine how much strength it takes to raise your entire body up on the tips of your toes, and imagine how much harder it is with a few extra pounds. The idea of dancing en pointe alone shows what is expected of women: teeny frames, zero body fat, and the ability to withstand large amounts of pain for the sake of beauty (which is an apt metaphor for being a woman in general).

Here you can see that a dancer balances on the tip of the toe, not the knuckle, and it takes a toll on the toenails and skin.

Men are also supposed to move with grace and agility, but giant, flying leaps and the ability to pick up women are also valued. In the classic pas de deux (dance of two), the man and woman first dance together, usually with him holding her while she balances or turns. Then each dances alone, her showing off her ability to balance in impossible poses, him showing off how many revolutions in a pirouette he can before leaping five feet in the air. The dance concludes with them together.

Think about the implications on gender and sexuality for this. It is presumed the couple is heterosexual and that a “natural” pairing of man and woman makes sense. It is presumed that each dancer’s gender identity corresponds to their anatomy at birth, which corresponds to whether they are supposed to be brave and strong or tiny and graceful. Whether they are the one holding someone up or being held.

There are some really cool dance companies working to change this. The most famous is probably Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, in which the parts of the (beautiful, graceful) swans are played by men. Bourne’s production became known to a wider audience when it served as the conclusion to the film Billy Elliot, in which the child of a working class single father dreams of becoming a dancer. In the last seconds of the film, he is seen as an adult on stage as the lead in Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Strong, manly swans. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

And, in real life, it has been announced that Prince George is taking ballet lessons, which will hopefully inspire many other gendered-play-conscious parents to recognize the value in broadening opportunities for their boys (and girls). Here’s a video of an all-boys ballet class, which is adorable and probably helps with the stigma of dancing as feminized (though the “all-boys” classification still perpetuates the notion that “girls” and “boys” are discrete groups who should be separated for comfort). Usually, when boys and men are forced to defend their interest in ballet, they do so by arguing that ballet is a stereotypically masculine sport requiring strength and skill. Social expectations don’t often allow boys or men to say, “Hey, yeah, it’s pretty and graceful and that’s why I like it.”

In my book, a non-binary character reflects on taking ballet lessons as a child. Assigned female at birth, they were expected to perform the role of the pretty princess in a tutu, but since their class didn’t have enough boys (a common occurrence), the teacher asked them to perform a boy’s role. Our little hero delights in being able to hold a girl’s hand while she turns and balances. It’s subversive and intimate and out of the expected boundaries.

Unfortunately, their parents do not approve. And I wonder how many parents today still don’t approve of their children “flipping” roles when dancing or playing? Let’s have more ballet classes where little girls are told they can leap high and don’t have to wear pink tights if they don’t want to and where boys are permitted to celebrate their swan-like beauty. And let’s make dance moves and roles that aren’t always divided by gender. I think the world would be a happier place if we did, and I bet ballet would still be just as beautiful.

Edited 8/28/19: A mass of men, boys, and supportive women dancers took over Times Square for a ballet class after Good Morning America‘s Lara Spencer mocked Prince George for studying ballet. See the video here.

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