SINGAPORE - When the Singapore Ballet Academy started its first all-male ballet class in October, the principal of the school, Jeffrey Tan, was hoping to discover the next Billy Elliot. The hit 2000 film of the same title revolved around a young boy who discovers he has a talent for ballet.
Tan says: "In Singapore, I think there are a lot of boys who want to try ballet, but are too shy."
The class has turned out to be a hit, but not with Tan's target age group of 13- to 18-year-olds. Instead, the 15 dancers who signed up for the twice-weekly class range in age from 18 to over 40.
While the dancers are not what Tan was expecting, he says that he is glad for the interest.
"Most of those who signed up are into hip-hop or contemporary work, but want to know more about the basics and get to know more about ballet," says the 45-year-old.
While there are ballet classes aplenty in Singapore, the majority of the students are female.
At the Singapore Ballet Academy, excluding the all-male class, there are only three other male students aged between 14 and 16 out of a few hundred dancers.
One of the students in the new class is Chua Zhi En, 20. The hip-hop dancer is completing his national service in the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company.
"One thing that ballet helps us with is body awareness, knowing where your body is, learning about your body and being able to fine-tune the movements," says Mr Chua.
"As weird as it sounds, sometimes when you move, you don't know where your hands go, but ballet focuses on the nitty gritty and helps me with that."
He had tried taking several mixed ballet classes before, but says: "A regular class will not be planned for males, and guys and girls in ballet have very different roles. It's not that regular classes are not applicable, it's just that a male ballet class can focus more heavily on aspects like jumps."
Tan agrees that a class dedicated to male ballet dancers is useful for teaching as the instructors can focus on maleoriented techniques. The one-time premier danseur with the Singapore Dance Theatre, who started ballet only at 21, teaches some classes himself.
Others are taught by classically trained dancer Wu Mi, who danced with Singapore Dance Theatre for four years as a first soloist.
"A lot of the time, the majority of dancers in a class are girls, you can't just cater to two guys," Tan says.
"But it's different, the way guys stand and move. They have very dynamic jumps and they're stronger compared to the girls. All the girls are also en pointe and we don't do that."
Another dancer in the all-male class is Leonard Heng, 18. The student at Lasalle College of the Arts has a background in Latin dance, which he began learning when he was six years old. He started learning ballet in 2008, when he enrolled as a student at the School of the Arts.
He says: "The main thing about this class is having male teachers such as Mr Tan and Wu Mi. They've been in our position before and so they know what amateur dancers like us need and what we require to improve our technique."
With this all-male class, Tan, a bachelor, hopes to give young male dancers an opportunity he never had when he began learning the art: "When I started ballet, the classes taught mostly female movements. I'm quite flexible now because of that training, but there's both good and bad - when I went to London to train, I struggled quite a bit because the rest of the dancers were more advanced."
He adds that attitudes towards male dancers overall are already changing.
"It's not like during my time, where if you wore tights and did ballet, people would think you're a sissy," he says.
"A lot of guys now are doing hip-hop or contemporary dance. On shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, you see more males wearing tights and dancing. People are more open now and the idea of guys dancing is more accepted."
Applications for the next all-male ballet class are now open. Go to www.facebook.com/singaporeballetacademy or e-mail email@example.com for details
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