So You Think You Can’t Dance: On Dancing Boys: High School Males in Dance by Zihao Li

Rien Fertel

Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016. 179 pages. $27.95.

Early on in Dancing Boys, a memoir-meets-ethnographic case study about boys who do and do not dance, author Zihao Li writes, “I am a male dancer and dancing is part of my life.” The sentence reads less like an introductory statement and more like a declaration of intent, a daily affirmation, a testimony he’s been waiting to publicly reveal for most of his life.

Growing up in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin, Li was forcibly enrolled in a dance class by his father. Just five years old, he initially thrilled at the “exhilarating jumps and skips,” but couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the class’s gender disparity. Out of forty students, he was one of two boys. At ten years of age, he earned a spot with the esteemed Qian Jin Dance Company, an affiliate of the People’s Liberation Army. There he trained in classical ballet with Russian ballet masters, studied centuries of Chinese dance forms, and drilled in military uniform while waving the Communist Party flag. A decade later he went pro, joining dance companies and earning dance scholarships in Guangdong, Hamburg, Hong Kong, and Toronto. He absorbed and admired the sublimely artistic expression, not to mention the masculine figures, of Balanchine, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev. But all the while he doubted his place in dance. “I thought that males, including myself, should not be in dance; rather, they should pursue careers that seemed to be more ‘macho’ or ‘manly.’”

There’s no need to volunteer chaperone a high school prom or to take notes from the margins at a wedding to conclude that it is the rare man who obligingly, effortlessly, joyously takes to the dance floor. Men, according to the dance theorist Michael Gard, have been tacitly coached to consider male dancers “effeminate, trivial, and deviant.” Dance instructors have long sought to populate the dance floors with men. Disappointed by the dearth of professional male dancers, the American modern dance innovator Ted Shawn founded an all-male dance company in 1933 to showcase the athleticism and masculinity of the male form in motion. But by decade’s end, the curtains had closed on Shawn’s venture.

Li endeavors to revive Shawn’s project through a teaching position at a public high school, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, in Toronto, where recent curricula reform has endorsed dance as a suitable elective subject area. Dance “introduces students to the notions that movement is a medium of expression and that the human body is an instrument,” Ontario’s school board guidebook asserts. “Dance transforms images, ideas, and feelings into movement sequences.” In Dancing Boys, over the course of a school year, Li documents the lives of a dozen male students, tracing each moment of panic and every plié.

Professor Li must contend with stubbornly non-dancing dance students, young men stricken with chorophobia, the fear of dancing. They might follow Dancing with the Stars and binge-watch music videos—though aside from the occasional Bruno Mars and Beyoncé performance, dance seems to have even disappeared from this once-kinetic musical setting—but many admit to joining his electives, all-boys and mixed-gender courses, in order to avoid taking a dreaded gym class. Their journals, quoted liberally by Li, reflect the anxieties of the dancer as a young man. Take for instance the sophomore Bruce (the author gives pseudonyms to his subjects), who tells of his first class in language that will resonate with the most dedicated of wallflowers:

I was extremely intimidated. I found myself surrounded by about forty girls in complete dance attire. I was wearing a T-shirt and some pajama bottoms. I felt and looked like a complete idiot. I was sweating crazily and shaking uncontrollably while standing there and thinking about what dance class would be like later on. . . . Stomping stupidly and tried [sic] to catch up with difficult dance routines. Just the thought of it almost made me pee in my pants.

But by term’s end, Bruce, like many of his peers, learns to embrace the benefits of dance. They lose weight and gain inner strength. “I don’t feel as self-conscious and flimsy as I did before,” he writes later. “I am gaining greater self-esteem and confidence.” Some marvel at their ability to ballet and improvise. “It was like a miracle,” says Tom, “I felt like I was flying and turning and flying again until I dropped on the floor.” Others transcend the self. David professes that, “A dancer can be whoever he wants to be when he dances.” Michael agrees, “In dance, I can be anyone.” No matter their skill level by year’s end—one of Li’s students miraculously join Toronto’s Opera Atelier as a principle dancer—each boy learns to be a body.

Dance should be treated as a “form of literacy,” Li writes, that allows humanity to “express, create, and communicate.” Dancing Boys will not teach anyone how to shake it on the dance floor, but it might just be enough to convince readers, no matter their gender, to sign up for a class, to let some innate rhythm take control, to dance with and for ourselves.

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