Being an artist and raising a child in the arts does not have to be exclusive with fun. Nor does your kid being “normal.”
Although I’m an artist and theater administrator by trade, most of my writing for the CFR skews more towards politics. Still I like when I have the opportunity to tackle a little bit of both — after all, we’re the nexus of such things, right? So when our Executive Editor posted a relatively irritating article on Facebook about fathers being the obstacle to young boys taking ballet, I felt the need to vent a little and maybe also to remember some of the real obstacles to arts education — namely, stigmas and stereotypes.
I have an adorably brilliant and precocious seven-year-old boy. Guess what? He’s been in some form of ballet or movement for three years running and he absolutely adores it. Does that make him “weird?” Nope. He told me once that a couple of other boys thought it was weird for a boy to take ballet. My son replied, “No, it’s not. It’s different and cool.” What was the response of the other arts-phobic, stereotyping boys? “Oh, OK.” So it really is fine, guys. Or, to paraphrase Dick and Oscar, you’ve got to be carefully taught. As I wrote a few months back, the kids are all right.
But not all boys in ballet have a father who has spent a fair amount of his career as a professional choreographer.
Some of the problems lie with the parents, I’m afraid, much like many things as I watch the oncoming generations mature, and both fret at, and rejoice in, the opportunities that are available to them. My son’s mother is also a theater director and equally encouraging of his participation in the arts. If you ask my son, in all of his seven-year-old wisdom, what he wants to be when he grows up, he proudly crows “A theater director, like my Mom and Dad!” We, of course, encourage him to be a hedge fund manager, as we’re teaching him that he can buy things with money and also, we’d like to retire someday. I kid (mostly), but we’ve decided to wait until he’s 10 to let him start doing shows as we want him to do some “traditional” kid things if he wants to — running around the woods, riding bikes with friends.
When my son had an opportunity to enter Boy Scouts, he said, “No, I have to wait a year. Because then ballet moves to Thursday nights and Boy Scouts are on Tuesday nights like my dance class now. So in a year, I can do both!” Like I said, he’s a pretty cool kid.
I think what bothers me about some of the dialogue around boys in the arts in general, and boys in dance in particular, isn’t from any blowback that I have received that my son is in ballet. It’s more because the feedback that I do get from other parents is “That’s so great!” — as if it’s a revolutionary decision to want my kid to like ballet and theater and music as much as football and discussions about poop. I also discussed this article with my current partner. I confessed that when I was a teenager and getting started in musical theater and my non-theater friends would question it, I would respond with “Yeah, but lots of hot girls do shows, too, so that’s great.” You know what? That wasn’t great, or OK. It’s OK to want to make art just because you want to make art.
Which brings me to the inspiration for the headline of this column. A few years ago, I was directing a production of Forever Plaid and one of my Plaids was complaining about a particularly challenging section, questioning why it was written that way, and claiming that it didn’t need to be so difficult. My reply was “Sometimes it’s just beautiful, and that’s OK, and that’s why it was written that way.” It’s OK to just dance. Or sing. Or act. Or write poetry. Or paint. Or sculpt. We should raise our next generation of boys with a mindset where it is safe to want to create and not to be judged for that desire. We should raise boys without fear of being called “gay” or “effeminate” for participating in the arts, or for anything else — to know there is nothing wrong with identifying however they do. A lot of my peers are doing that. We also know there is another side to America, where creaky and hateful stereotypes are still pervasive and dark ideals are being passed on to the children of the arts- and homo-phobic. In the arts, at least, we can make a start.