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."
Scott Osbourne, an eighth-grader at Sudbrook and an Owings Mills resident, has been studying ballet for three years and hopes to someday join the New York City Ballet. But he also runs track, epitomizing the athletic crossover between dance and sports that Fox often sees.
"I started dance lessons as a kid to help with baseball," recalled Fox, who grew up in the small town of Jenks, Okla., "where, believe me, kids weren't taking ballet."
"Dance taught me so much, like how to be disciplined and how to be in a room and not be talking," he said, recalling his own rambunctious class-clown approach to school. "Discipline helps kids learn to learn."
Monica Osbourne said her son has thrived under the program.
"When people think of ballet they automatically think of girls, but there are young boys who love ballet and who are just as good as the girls," she said. "I am thankful for this program for giving my son the opportunity to do what he loves."
Tamisha Bell, whose son is Sudbrook eighth-grader Damontae Hack, agrees.
"Since starting dance, Damontae has become more efficient with his movements and his confidence has grown," she said, adding that he will be auditioning for the dance magnet at Carver Center for Arts and Technology in January. A cello player who also enjoys acting, he's set a goal of joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.
While stereotypes about boys as dancers have been changing for a long time, Fox said, television programs like "Dancing with the Stars" continue to reinforce newer, open-minded attitudes.
"Ballet, in particular, can be misunderstood," he said. "But people who are very good at what they do — whether they're in sports, entertainment or whatever — are very coordinated."
Brian Friedlander, president of the Greater Pikesville Recreation Council, said the old stigmas are gone.
"When I came up in the 1970s, boys may have concealed an interest in dancing," he said. "Now, the walls have been knocked down. When you see a phenomenal running back like Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys dancing on TV, you know people wear this (talent) as a badge of honor."
While Friedlander said he's proud that the recreation council offers such diverse and affordable programs as boys' ballet, he gives all the credit to Dolid, whom he says is "highly regarded in dance circles."
"It's an honor to be in this program and I work to get that across," Fox said, adding he expects next year's auditions to be even tougher. "Ballet is incredibly hard; good dancers just make it look really, really easy."
The Baltimore County Youth Ballet will present its 20th annual production of "The Nutcracker Suite" on Sat., Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sun., Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. at the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills.
Students from the Ballet for Boys Only classes will participate in the show, which has a cast of young professionals and is geared toward children. Laura Dolid is staging and directing the production, which will also offer special matinees and pricing for school groups on Friday, Dec. 16.
All tickets are reserved seating and cost $15. For more information, go to baltimorecountyyouthballet.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun