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Thursday, October 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Real men do dance

By Brangien Davis
Special to The Seattle Times

Dancers rehearse for the "Against the Grain: Men In Dance" performance at the Velocity MainSpace Theater in Seattle. Taking place over two weekends, the program features a variety of methods, music and men.
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There's a scene in the forthcoming Richard Gere movie, "Shall We Dance?," in which a motley crew of men finds itself in a ballroom dance class. It's the first session, and each student feels compelled to explain the reason he's taking the class — one guy's fiancée wants him to lose weight, another wants to impress the ladies, and the third, Gere, just wants to get close to J-Lo (who plays the taciturn-yet-steamy junior instructor). Though it turns out to be the case, none of the men is brave enough to say, "I like to dance."

Despite the undeniably cool moves of Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Savion Glover and countless MTV b-boys, our culture still harbors a weird taboo about men dancing. And that's precisely the reason Ray Houle and Gérard Théorêt started Against the Grain: Men in Dance.

Théorêt, who now teaches dance at Cornish College, recalls, "Ray and I were saying it was too bad that dance wasn't a popular or acceptable thing for boys when we were kids." Noting that as a consequence he and Houle came to dance relatively late in life, Théorêt posits, "We could've gone so much further." He calls this realization the "germ" for the Men in Dance festival, which began in 1994.

Roman Wright and his son Charlie, 4, practice their dance moves. "Reviving the old dancer in me, and bringing that together with being a father to my son, has been really wonderful."
Taking place over two weekends (at the "Oddfellows Hall," of all places), the program features a wide variety of methods, music and men. This year's festival marks the fifth biannual event and features 12 choreographers, plus special guest dancer Yoko Moshi-Moshii from the all-male Ballets Grandiva. The slate of solo and ensemble numbers includes everything from ballet to breakdancing, performed by an all-ages, all-races, all-male cast of dancers.

Houle, who ran a modern dance company in San Francisco in the 1970s, believes there's still a need for this gender-based event.

"We're at a point where dance has become a woman's thing, where women have to beg their husbands to dance with them," he says. "Men aren't connected with their bodies any more unless it's through sports."

Of dance and men

Still need proof that it's copasetic for men to cut a rug? Push back the furniture and pop in a movie that showcases dudes in dance:

" Billy Elliot" (2000)

"Breakin" (1984)

"Footloose" (1984)

"Saturday Night Fever" (1977)

"Shall We Dance" (original Japanese version, 1996)

"Singin' in the Rain" (1952)

" Strictly Ballroom" (1992)

Deborah Wolf, another dance teacher at Cornish and one of two female choreographers on the program, says, "In this culture there are stigmas attached to men dancing, including the fact that it doesn't guarantee a good living." In an attempt to explain why so many women are involved in dance (despite the economic downsides), she guesses, "Maybe because when little girls say they want to be ballerinas their mothers encourage them."

A longtime local choreographer who has danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kabby Mitchell III confirms the sparse opportunities for men in dance. "A lot of Northwest dance is geared toward women," he says. "So it's nice to see men get a venue where they can do their work — the camaraderie is great."

Participants in the Men in Dance program are hopeful, believing the lop-sided gender split is taking a pirouette for the better. "The stigma is still out there, but the climate has changed — certainly in Seattle and in other large cities," Théorêt says. "There are more men in the dance department at Cornish than ever before."

Wolf adds, "I think it's starting to change because of the popularity of things like MTV. There are more models out there for boys."

Coming up "Against the Grain: Men in Dance," tomorrow-Sunday, and Oct. 15-17, programs are different each weekend, Velocity MainSpace Theater, 915 Pine St., Seattle; $12 students, $14 general or $25 for both weekends (206-515-9868).

One wonders, however, if the dance role models today come anywhere close to the formidable triumvirate Mitchell counts as his primary influences: Rudolf Nureyev, Fred Astaire and "most importantly," James Brown. ("In the black community," he says, "if you can't do the James Brown, you aren't a dancer.")

But no matter how famous — or how funky — the dance idol, Houle stresses, "It's important for boys to see that it's OK to dance, especially because not all boys are good at sports."

Putting his theory into practice, Houle's Men in Dance number (to be performed the second weekend of the event) features both boys and men appearing together, and includes several father-son pairs. One of the dads, Roman Wright, says he has cherished the opportunity to dance with his son Charlie, a 4-year-old soccer player and kid-about-town.

Wright explains that as an older parent (he's 53), he felt sad that Charlie didn't know him during the part of his life he spent as a professional dancer (with the San Diego Ballet and PNB). "Reviving the old dancer in me, and bringing that together with being a father to my son has been really wonderful," he says. "It feels like a second chance."

Sam Hengst, 5, takes a break from practice while sitting on Jeff Hengst's shoulders. They are one of several father-son pairs in a "Men in Dance" number.
Currently an ASL teacher at Highline Community College, Wright admits that Charlie has sometimes lost focus during rehearsal, but attributes this to "the 4-year-old attention span." He adds that Charlie has been excited to show his new moves to his mom and big sister.

Another dad in the program, Mark Schueler (51), says that while his 10-year-old son, Evan, "has never been shy about performing," he has been somewhat "resistant" to dancing. But Schueler, a local musician, thinks it's important for Evan to at least see that dance is one of many options available. Brushing off the cultural stigma surrounding male dancers as "utter foolishness," Schueler says he'd like to see his son pursue a whole variety of interests.

Schueler's humble wish for his son hints at the real benefit of a program like Men in Dance. It may not produce the next Alvin Ailey, but it might just help convince men — of all ages — that it's OK to take a dance class simply because you like to dance.

Brangien Davis:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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