Culture Trips

Men en pointe: ballet dancers kick against gender stereotypes | Ballet

“I was always attracted to pointe shoes. They were like magic! I wondered: Why can only girls use them?” Iván Félix is a 24-year-old ballet dancer from Mexico who has been dancing en pointe for three years. “I think that many people look down on the men who dance in pointe shoes because they think it is very easy, or we do it because we cannot dance as a man in a traditional way,” adds Félix who dances for Les Ballets Eloelle in New York, a company in which all the roles – often comic – are played by men.

Since the art of pointe work was popularised in 1823 by Amalia Brugnoli, the form has become part of the mystique of the female ballerina, while men use floorwork and execute incredible jumps and athletic movements. When male dancers have performed en pointe in the past, it has traditionally been for comedic effect, not to showcase skill. For example, men who portray Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have to pair a giant donkey’s head with hoof-like movements in pointe shoes. Now, male ballet dancers en pointe want to be taken more seriously.

‘Why can only girls use them?’ ... Iván Félix in pointe shoes.
‘Why can only girls use them?’ … Iván Félix in pointe shoes. Photograph: Iván Félix

Kadeem Hosein, 25, says: “I studied ballet for about three years before I started en pointe. I was aware that it would help to strengthen my feet. Second, and more importantly, I enjoyed watching pointe work so figured why not?” He now lives in London and although he’s not a professional ballet dancer, still trains en pointe. “I think it would be interesting to see performances where roles are allowed to be performed by either male or female,” he adds, “not by force, but by the dancers’ own choice.”

Rosine Bena-Porter, a ballet teacher from Nevada, has been teaching the art form for 50 years. She tells me that her mother, who she taught with, was always an innovative instructor and began teaching men pointe work because she “was sick of trying to correct the male dancers in partner work”. She hoped that if men could understand the movements behind pointe work, they would make better partners. But “both of us realised that the men got so much out of it [although] they did complain more about the pain”. Pointe shoes can be extremely taxing on your feet. Having danced en pointe myself, I know the agony that dancers mask on stage to make their movements appear effortless. Today, Bena-Porter requires all her dancers to learn pointe work regardless of gender. However, she only requires her male students to study the form for one year. After this, they can continue, or return to training without pointe work.

Cost is a barrier, because pointe shoes wear out quickly. Dancers can go through two pairs in a performance, which adds up as they are priced from around £50 to over £100. Brian Syms, a dancer in the US, adds: “Sizing has been a problem for me. I’ve begun to understand that the way a male en pointe must care for his feet differs slightly from a woman. My weight seems to always be a factor in regard to pain, and my shoes die very quickly due to a mixture of weight and sweat. Unfortunately, there’s no self-help book for men en pointe, so I had to piece together what the girls know and figure out how it applies to my size 12 feet.”

Brian Syms, male ballerina who dances en pointe
‘Some people don’t like the idea of playing with gender’ … Brian Syms. Photograph: Jeff Holcombe

Syms continues: “As a gay black man, it started to become important to me that I be represented in ballet. I started to have another longing, this time for ballet’s stories, which I’ve come to love so much, to reflect the world that we currently live in. This beautiful colourful world full of complex individuals. I wanted to see that on stage, and the place to start was with me. I knew for some time that I felt better represented as a person and artist when I danced these female roles in the privacy of empty studios and my bedroom.”

Has he ever faced discrimination for being en pointe? “There’s your fair share of people who are going to turn their noses up at you – either because they don’t like the idea of playing with gender or because they just don’t think you’re strong enough to dance en pointe. But people’s opinions are just that, and although sometimes they can create an uncomfortable environment around us, we should not allow them to affect our performance.”

In Oakland, California, the dance company Ballet22 was founded last year to “push the boundaries of what is possible in ballet by breaking gender normative stereotypes, specifically through the ungendered use of pointe shoes”. When I asked the Royal Ballet if they were considering training men en pointe, a spokesperson replied that: “Most of the repertory does not require the male dancers to be en pointe.” They explained that “there are some roles that do require it” and “when that ballet is revived the dancers are coached in pointe work for the role”.

It may be a while yet before the option becomes commonplace, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction. Speaking about the future, Syms tells me: “I hope that the movement of men en pointe forces us to take a look at representation … The world is so much more than gender roles these days, individuals are so colourful and diverse – it’s a shame not to see it in ballet.”

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