Stratford Festival's male dancers pirouette past ballet stigma

The stigma facing male ballet dancers has all but vanished for the young cast of Stratford Festival's Billy Elliot. Just a decade ago, young men often felt they had to hide their passion for dance from their peers.

'I really loved the idea of being able to express myself through movement' says dancer Colton Curtis

Nolen Dubuc, left, as Billy Elliot and Colton Curtis as Older Billy in Billy Elliot the Musical at the Stratford Festival. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

Growing up in small-town New Brunswick, dancing wasn't really something Colton Curtis, 26, made a big deal about. 

"As you can imagine, it's not always the easiest," he recalled of being 15 years old in his "very tiny" town of about 600 people.

"It was a hockey town. It was everything that small towns in Canada, especially on the East Coast, can be.... and I wasn't exactly over confident to share with the world that I was beginning to dance," he said. 

Curtis, who plays adult Billy in Billy Elliot at the Stratford Festival, picked up dance because he knew it would be an asset if he wanted to get into musical theatre. Soon he found it spoke to him on a much deeper level. 

"I really loved the idea of being able to express myself through movement, instead of words," he said.

Ballet vs. basketball

He remembers finding ballet therapeutic, in a way, as he figured out his sexual identity; it showed him a way to break through the walls he'd put up to protect himself. 

"I think dancing also helps free that as well, because you're physically expressing yourself so therefore you can't help but actually share who you are," he said.

Curtis's experience is fairly common for a certain generation of male dancers at the Stratford Festival. 

Stephen Cota, the associate choreographer of Billy Elliot, remembers being teased in the dressing room for Grade 9 gym class.

"I didn't understand. I was like, 'Why are you allowed to like basketball, but I'm not allowed to like ballet.' To me, it's just as athletic — if not more," he said.

The show's star, Nolen Dubuc, 11, was the only boy in his dance class when he started out at age four.

But times have changed. Despite learning to dance among a sea of leotards, Dubuc says he never felt isolated or alone. In fact, he says he didn't even really notice.

"When I was younger, I was really only friends with girls because that's just what I was around. So it didn't really phase me. It's the way it is, you know?" he said.

Emerson Gamble (left) as Michael and Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

Cota says there's been a shift in acceptance and popularization of the sport in mainstream media. It's translating into more male dancers at auditions — and greater selection to choose from in casting. 

"We're seeing it on TV now with all these reality television shows like World of Dance, So You Think You Can Dance," said Cota.

"I remember a big dance call, when I was first starting to audition, was about 25 guys — that was huge. And now we're seeing upwards of 60 to 70 guys who walk into the room," he said.

"And the talent is fierce."

'It's for yourself'

Dubuc says he feels very lucky he started to dance in a time when people started to be more accepting.

"Everyone's … supporting of dance," he said. "They're not like, 'Oh you dance? That's weird.'"

Emerson Gamble, 13, moved away from his hometown of London, Ont., when he was 10 to go to Canada's National Ballet School. 

"I'm very lucky, because the studio I was at [when I started dancing] there were boy dancers, and then at ballet school, of course, there are many, many ballet dancers, and here there's even more dancers from different styles and backgrounds," he said.

Now he plays Billy's best friend Michael in the show and credits male role models like his older brother, who also studied at Canada's National Ballet School.

"Because I've been surrounded by so many other male dancers, it's kind of helped my confidence to know that if someone's really telling me that dancing's not OK and that I put on a tutu, it doesn't matter," said Gamble. 

"I know that I'm getting better and I'm working toward something I want. It's not for [them] it's for yourself, and bettering yourself."

More stories from Stratford Festival: 

Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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