On the second floor of the Sudbrook Arts Centre in Pikesville, Tim Fox snapped his fingers to live piano music as he watched his three teenage ballet students move elegantly through their growing repertoire of ballet positions.
"This is not brain surgery and nobody dies if you screw up a step," the instructor said gently, detecting a slight hesitation at the double and triple combinations he was calling out as the trio warmed up at the barre to Richard Strauss' "Russian Folk Dance."
Dressed in footless black tights and ballet shoes, the students could be dancing in any studio. But this one's different than most: The pupils are all boys enrolled in Ballet for Boys Only, a new offering this year for Baltimore County students at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, located off Bedford Road in Pikesville.
The twice-weekly class was made possible, in part, by a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to the Baltimore County Youth Ballet, said Laura Dolid, a Reisterstown resident and the ballet company's co-founder and artistic director.
Nine county public schools students were awarded full-tuition scholarships to the ballet program, which is coordinated by the Greater Pikesville Recreation Council and runs from September to May.
"This course will ultimately focus on the physical strength, power, and brilliance of male dancing," said Dolid, who held auditions for the scholarships and chose recipients based on desire, musicality and parental enthusiasm.
At the same time, it will increase the agility, coordination and strength required in sports, said the director, who is on the faculty at Sudbrook Arts Centre, Goucher College and Peabody Preparatory. Fox, who lives in Columbia, teaches two sessions back-to-back, one for students ages 11 to 14 and the other for ages 8 to 10.
"Boys' practice includes push-ups and pulls-ups to become strong enough to lift the girls," she said. "Men's upper body strength and flexibility are two important skills needed to pull off complex choreography."
At no time was the absence of girls more obvious during a recent class than when Fox sent the three boys, ages 13 and 14, scurrying to the floor to attempt a split, a maneuver which is usually easier for female dancers.
"Guys, we gotta try," Fox implored. And they did, pouring themselves into it with varying degrees of success.
"Now doesn't that feel great?" he joked, drawing a nod from one of the boys. "What — you like it? You must be kidding me!"
Fox is intimately familiar with what he's demanding from the older boys. He performed with the New York City Ballet and elsewhere for many years before becoming an instructor. Aside from Sudbrook, he also is currently teaching at the Washington School of Ballet and the Maryland Youth Ballet and is an adjunct professor at Goucher College.
"We choose boys with the physical ability and the attitude to deserve a place in the room," Fox said. "I don't care if they become professional ballet dancers; I do care that they learn respect for ballet."
Trés McMichael, a ninth-grader at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, said the class is "very hard" and students have to "stretch, practice and eat right" in order to be prepared for the workout they receive in class.
But, that's seems like a very small price to pay to Trés — who also acts, sings and plays tenor sax, and envisions himself on Broadway someday.
"Mrs. Dolid runs a tight ship, which a successful program like this needs, and Mr. Tim puts the boys through a good combination of dance and physical training," said Trés' father, Calvin McMichael. "I knew that dance was very demanding, but I never realized how much technique and strength it takes to lift even the smallest dancers in the air.
"The scholarship allows Trés to explore another avenue of performing arts that he may not have had the opportunity to experience."
As the boys practice, Fox is right there to correct flaws in technique or form. But he also assumes a coach's role during class, encouraging the older boys to complete sets of rigorous push-ups and chin-ups that bring to a close a demanding hour-long session.
"Don't give up," Fox cheered as the boys' arms shook while they took turns grasping the bar and raising themselves up time and again during class. "Control it on the way down — that's when you'll feel the burn."