Mexicans too macho for ballet? Not any more. BBC’s Will Grant meets Mexico’s ballet boys, leading a boom in classical dance

For RAD dance teacher Miguel Calderon, changing hearts and minds in Mexico is a gradual process. ‘When I started giving classes in Oaxaca, it was just girls. But a handful of boys came in and clearly wanted to learn,’ Miguel explains. ‘While they were making jokes about ballet, I challenged them: “I was a football player too,” I told them, “but I bet you can’t handle an hour and a half of one of my ballet classes.” Well, they accepted and now I have 11 boys learning ballet! And what’s great is they don’t care anymore. They might have first turned up to be around the girls, but now they’ve fallen in love with dance as well!’

Mexico, it seems, is enjoying something of a boom in classical ballet. The Royal Academy of Dance both reflects and fosters this progress, noting an impressive spike in examination entries and a dedicated new cohort of RAD ballet teachers. For some young people, trying to make a life in the discipline involves breaking some deeply ingrained cultural norms.

‘I started to dance at 18,’ remembers Miguel, who is now 26. ‘It hasn’t been easy. My parents didn’t support me when I said I was going to start ballet. I was a football player, but when I finished high school I met ‘La Maestra Ivonne’ and she said if I wanted to be a dancer, she’d help me with a scholarship.’

‘La Maestra Ivonne’ is Ivonne Robles Gil, an RAD registered teacher from Guadalajara who runs the Antoinette Dance Company in Puebla and is a tireless campaigner for improved access to cultural activities. ‘Mexico has improved a great deal in terms of ballet,’ she tells me. ‘Classical dance has become more widely available in recent years, particularly among men. Now you find many more male dancers including some who have achieved national and international acclaim.’ This, she says, has opened the minds of boys who might have wanted to take ballet classes but were fearful of the reaction in what is a notoriously machista and often homophobic society.

Now some of her dancers are performing abroad or becoming teachers themselves. ‘Two years ago, I graduated as a professional dancer’, Miguel says with a bashful smile. ‘But I’ve always had to work that little bit extra to move my career forward. It’s tough for a male dancer here in Puebla to move on, or to be able to count on the support of his parents or the rest of society.’

Yet he faces many of the same challenges as a teacher that he faced himself as a student, namely prejudice. It is not uncommon for boys to hide the fact they are receiving ballet tuition from their parents, at least until they become so proficient that families accept their choices. It might all sound a little like Billy Elliot, but in some of Mexico’s more violent rural regions, such decisions can have serious consequences.

The key may be to make ballet more accessible to Mexicans, and to break down assumptions that it is a pastime exclusively reserved for the educated and wealthy elites. Ivonne Robles Gil regularly travels with her dancers into far-flung mountainous parts of Mexico to perform ballet in remote rural and indigenous communities. ‘Neither I nor my dancers are paid for this work. We do this out of a sense of vocation. It would be wonderful if more teachers and more dancers did this kind of work.’

This is an edited extract from the latest edition of Dance Gazette, the magazine of the Royal Academy of Dance.

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