A Young Man That Dances — Exclusive Interview with Garrett Smith, Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and HB II Graduate

Garrett Smith; photo by Trent Nelson

Garrett Smith; photo by Trent Nelson

At 20 years old, Garrett Smith is a recent graduate of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and already an accomplished performer and choreographer. As a member of Houston Ballet II, Houston Ballet’s pre-professional company, he has toured internationally to places like Budapest and Japan. In addition, Garrett has set four works on HB II, often doing double duty as dancer and dance-maker.

Even before being awarded a scholarship to the Academy in 2006, Garrett’s ambition and dedication won him numerous honors. Originally from Riverton, Utah, he has performed off-Broadway and in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Summer Olympics. Garrett is a national title winner of the New York City Dance Alliance competition, awarded in the Junior category at age 13 and selected as Teen Male Outstanding Dancer at 16. And, as an NFAA youngARTS winner, he was one of 20 students selected as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2007. And those are just his dance achievements!

Clearly, on the fast-track to a bright future, Garrett took some time to talk with me about his early training as a young man in dance, his passion for choreography, and what lies ahead for him.

Dance Advantage: You began dancing at age 9 but you didn’t start with ballet. What prompted you to try dance in the first place and why did you decide later to give ballet a try?

Garrett Smith: Sports just weren’t doing it for me so I tried tap, jazz, and hip hop. I loved it. I was silly at age 9 wanting to be famous. I thought if you were a jazz dancer, it meant you were dancing on screen with the Utah Jazz [laughs]. I tried ballet because the studio I was attending was dying down and I switched to this great ballet school in Utah called Jacqueline’s School of Ballet. I changed so much there, as did my opinion of ballet. I guess I never knew what ballet really was until I was in a correct ballet academy.

DA: As a young man with an interest and passion for dance, have you ever experienced teasing or taunting by peers or pressure to not be involved?

GS: Ugh, yes! From 3rd grade until 9th, it was pretty bad. I came home crying some days. But, through the years I improved and realized that I was going far at a young age. I knew what I was doing with my life, unlike the boys who called me names.  The teasing made me work harder to prove them wrong and to be successful. When I went to Europe at age 13, I realized that they were so wrong because I was having so much fun dancing.

DA: In your opinion or experience, how important is it that boys have male teachers to inspire and encourage them?

GS: It is very important. In my training it made the world of difference. I had to leave my home to train in a place where boys were better than me. It was nice when I was the only boy getting all the attention but, at some point, you need competition to compare yourself to. And you need teachers that understand a male dancer’s body and how a man needs to dance on stage – jumps and partnering in particular.

DA: How did you balance school and other activities as your study of dance intensified?

GS: I was born into a religious family with great values. My mother taught me that I am a young man that dances, not one being raised to be a dancer. As my dance training became more serious throughout high school, I tested out of gym classes, left school early to drive down to rehearsals, and I did my whole senior year independently. I think that a normal upbringing in public schools, developing social skills, and being raised with values and good morals helped me balance my life as a young man and dancer.

DA: Do you feel you missed out on anything by making the choice to finish your high-school education from a distance?

GS: No, I don’t feel I missed out on anything really. I think that I was pretty normal for going to most all of my schooling, church activities, and doing drama and musical theater performances outside of school. My drive comes from my love of art and doing what I do best. Wanting to get better and better and seeing the improvement over the years, the amazing places I go and friendships I make, gives me the motivation to continue on this path to becoming a dancer.

Garrett Smith; photo by Trent Nelson

Garrett Smith; photo by Trent Nelson

DA: You’ve been an honored recipient of awards in nation-wide competitions and arts programs. As a result you’ve worked and taken instruction from some of the world’s most renowned professionals. Not every dancer reading is interested in pursuing dance at this level but many do participate in conventions and competitions. How might students at any level make the most of master classes or other experiences which take them beyond their home studio?

GS: When you are at any type of dance convention, it’s important to watch others and observe how the teachers move their bodies. Listen to what the teachers’ motives are behind the steps. Also, don’t be afraid to get in front of the group of dancers and show yourself. Be confident but be open to correction and adapt to change. The right way to dance a step might not always be what you learned at your local studio.

DA: What did you take away from your experiences at summer programs like School of American Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet?

GS: I was introduced to great dancers from all over the world. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I was a little behind in my men’s technique and partnering. I was so skinny and weak but, I was more versatile than most any dancer I came across because I had opened myself to a wider vocabulary of movement. Maybe they could to a triple tour, but I could tap, sing, play the piano, choreograph a ballet, I knew hip hop, and was successful with most any contemporary ballet thrown at me.

DA: What advice would you give to a dancer that is seriously considering either a short-term or long-term continuation of their dance study away from family and friends?

GS: I think that when you are young, it’s scary to think of moving away and being alone, but now I wish I could have moved away to train earlier! Away from my family, I depended on myself to cook, do schooling, and it was all up to me in the end. Nobody but me was getting myself out of bed to class. That’s how I knew that I was really serious about ballet!

My advice to other young dancers is to just be honest with yourself. Don’t go for any other reason than for yourself. Friends should not be the reason you are going, you are not there to party, you are there to work. If you know you want this, then when you are mature enough and ready, go to the schools that will benefit you the most, even if it happens to be in another country.

DA: You were awarded a scholarship to attend the Houston Ballet Academy through Youth America Grand Prix and you’ve continued with your study there. What’s made the Academy a good fit for you?

GS: Over the past three years I have become a strong partner. I did the pas de deux in the Spring Showcase this year which means so much to me because I never thought of myself doing this kind of role before. I had other offers before Houston, such as PNB, and the Kirov, but I decided Houston Ballet’s Academy would be the best fit because of the diverse training that is offered. They have great men’s technique here, really good jazz and modern class, character, pilates, and a very well taught pas de deux class.

Most important for me has been the multiple choreographic opportunities that have come along, for which I am so grateful. It all started with the Houston Ballet’s summer program workshop, American Festival for the Arts (AFA). You have two weeks to work with dancers to set your own piece. You even get to costume it and light it on stage. It is really cool. This is what made me realize, “Wow, I love this!”

DA: Your work has become a fixture at the Academy’s Spring Showcase. Tell me a little bit your last piece, “Of Opposing Nature,” your creative process, and inspiration for the work.

GS: Jiri Kylian, David Dawson, and Stanton Welch are all great choreographers in this generation, and they all inspire me. For this piece I experimented a little bit more with lighting ideas. There are 7 movements in the ballet and I have used amazing music by Vivaldi. The work is for 5 men and 3 women. There is a conflict between the men and women, as well as connections, diversity, discovery, and subtle romance. After working long and hard for the piece this year, I was very excited for its premiere.

“..unique with an appealing unpredictability. The dancers slid and skidded along the floor, carving through the space with large, dynamic movements, and then a flick of the wrist, a moment of measured restraint or stillness, swiftly changed the mood. An unusual costume device utilized by the five male dancers featured fabric extended at the neck like a scarf. Whether stretched over the face or ferociously wiggled, its use illustrated Smith’s creativity and willingness to take risks.” – from my review of the 2009 Spring Showcase

DA: Okay, big question, I heard you may audition for So You Think You Can Dance? Is this still a possibility?

GS: I won’t be able to audition because I now have a contract for the 2009-2010 season with Houston Ballet!

DA: Assuming you’re a regular viewer, what do you think is different about watching dance on television as opposed to seeing live dance performance?

GS: I still always watch my friends dance on the show and never really miss an episode. That is the kind of dancing I grew up with. It is just disappointing that it has become so much about hip hop and sex appeal. I think ballet needs to be better respected and given some credit on the show, and done correctly. I guess that is what is different about America watching dance on TV rather than live.


DA: You’ve done so much for someone a mere 20 years old. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

GS: I see myself in my dream company, dancing awesome parts in amazing ballets, working on new masterpieces, hopefully for Houston Ballet and other companies. Maybe getting married [laughs].

If there’s anyone that could do it all…! Thanks, Garrett.

My Brother Can Dance

Well, my brother can’t, but Ariel Amir Lacey’s brother can and, in an act of sisterly love, she has created a line of t-shirts to show her support! This is a truly sweet gesture and these t-shirts could make great gifts for guys who dance (whether they’re your brother or not).

The designs are artwork hand-drawn by Ariel, depicting boys dancing, along with empowering sayings like Real Men Lift and This is My Playing Field, and they are now available for ordering. In fact, if you hurry, sales for the holidays are at a reduced price to accommodate priority or express shipping costs.

Here is a little back-story on how and why the shirts were created. Visit the My Son Can Dance blog for more information, and order a t-shirt for your dancing man here.

Let’s Hear it for the Boys!

photo by ravenmaven

photo by ravenmaven

A while back I did a post entitled Encouraging Boys to Dance. It had a good response and I was even asked to submit an edited version for the PTA (National Parent Teacher Association) website.  It is my firm belief that boys should be encouraged to dance by dance teachers and parents in particular. After all, there are many who would discourage them – we should be making it an easier choice for young guys who may have an interest in the art form.  Sadly, many dance schools seem completely geared toward females (maybe without even realizing it), effectively turning young men away.  Dancers thrive in an environment where they feel comfortable to be themselves and safe from judgment or abuse.  Therefore, dance schools and parents must make an effort to provide this environment for boys in dance.

Check it out!

I recently came upon two blogs which are the primary purpose of this post.  They are excellent resources for male dancers and their parents.  The first is My Son Can Dance, a chronicle of one dance mom’s experiences with raising a boy who dances.  Teachers, dance moms, and male dancers should definitely take note of this site! The second is Boys and Ballet, essentially a collection of news articles from around the globe that feature boys or men in the dance world (specifically ballet but other genres are occasionally featured) – an excellent resource that can act as a source of encouragement for young men involved in dance.

While we’re on the subject…

Here are some other links:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5G9gtZa1H0]

Children’s Books (great for your studio waiting room or home library)

Participate – WordPress now has PollDaddy!!

Encouraging Boys to Dance

Dance is a physical and athletic activity requiring great skill, strength, and agility. Sounds like an ideal fit for energetic boys… so where are they?? Well, we know that public perception is difficult to change and, in general, the current perception is that dance is not a “manly” activity. For ballet and some other dance styles, the aesthetic is for movement to look effortless. Even though the audience knows that men in dance must be in top physical form, beauty and elegance masks the blood, sweat, and tears it seems we like to see from men in our culture. Therefore, the grittier athletic activities are favored for boys, while dance is considered a better pursuit for girls. This is, of course, a simplification of the gender issues in dance. However, to a young boy or teen pursuing dance, the road is often anything but simple.

So, how do we get boys and keep them in our dance classes and schools? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Consider the appearance of your studio from a boy’s perspective. Are the walls pink? Does your artwork feature only females, or fluffy animals? Is the furniture flowery? This will not attract boys. Try more vibrant decor with clean lines and feature artwork that depicts athletic, strong, and powerful images of both men and women. And, for the younger ones – show children dancing in interesting ways, not just a row of cute little girls in tutus and bows.
  2. When advertising your classes through ads, articles, or on your website, make it clear in the pictures and wording that boys are welcome, too.
  3. Hook them when they’re young children. This is a great time for boys to start taking class because learning is often more playful and movement more free. However, boys/parents of boys will not be rushing to sign up for the Petite Princesses and Fabulous Fairies classes, and will not appreciate twirling around like “Cinderella” or tip-toeing through daisies. Both boys and girls will love a creative and conceptual approach to dance in which all of the movement spectrum is explored – fast/slow, sharp/smooth, high (on the toes)/low (on the floor), etc.
  4. Offer classes that interest or are geared specifically to boys. Hip-hop, tumbling, capoeira, rhythm tap, movement for actors/stage combat, all-male ballet, are good examples.
  5. Make sure that in mixed-gender classes that the instructors are aware of their musical and movement selections. Some teachers are so used to only teaching females that boys in the class become an afterthought or a problem to work into what they’ve already planned. Choose teachers who have experience instructing and choreographing for young men and hire or bring in male teachers whenever possible. Attending conventions or workshops with male teachers is also a plus.
  6. For boys who have elected to study ballet more intensely, a stricter dress code is appropriate. Adopt a more flexible dress code for recreational classes so that boys will feel comfortable. Big and baggy are still out, but a t-shirt and sweats or shorts can work for boys. Remember, it is important to address proper undergarments as the boys reach 10 or 11. This site has a nice list of other sports and activities that require tight clothing (in case they need a reminder).
  7. Include partnering elements in choreography whenever possible. Even young boys can do simple lifts and assists with a partner. Just be sure you know how to teach these safely.
  8. Offer opportunities for men and boys to perform even if they’re not regular students. For example, create special father dances (these can be serious or humorous), have dancers bring along boyfriends, friends, or brothers to learn choreography for an exciting finale (perhaps a swing or salsa number), invite a sports team to participate in some unique choreography (use movements they would normally do in practice as inspiration), check out local boys or youth clubs and see if they have a break-dancing group that would like a chance to show their stuff on stage.
  9. Find ways of reminding boys that dance is a physical and athletic activity. Emphasize this in the work done in class, by watching male dancers in action, and by helping them to see and compare the relationship between athleticism in dance and sports.

All of these suggestions will help boys and young men to feel more comfortable in dance class. Keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you may still lose talented young males due to peer or parental pressure. Someday they may return, if not to you, perhaps to dance in general. However, it may be a comfort to know that even if you lose some guys here or there, these ideas will also benefit your female dancers. Young women are sometimes surprised when, as a college student, they are suddenly expected to be fierce and powerful dancers. In many dance studios I’ve found that, starting at a very young age, the physicality of movement is limited to what is considered feminine, pretty, or sexy, creating very one-dimensional dancers. Creating a space and an attitude within your school in which boys are encouraged to dance will provide a richer experience for all of your dancers, parents, and community.

What are some ways your school encourages boys to dance? What do you consider to be the advantages of having boys/men in class? If you are a guy, please share your perspective or experiences.

Update!

One of my favorite things to do in a boys’ class is to set up an obstacle course with four to six stations that include stretches and splits, jumps and turns, an acrobatic trick, hip-hop or break dancing, and, always, something they improvise. I am consistently surprised at how committed to this exercise the guys are. In fact, by the end of the year, they usually ask to make up their own course and steps. Talk about time consuming—sometimes the course takes up the whole class, but I love it when time zooms by during a long, busy night.”

See the rest of this article: Psyching Out The Guys by Gregg Russell

**Just adding a link to one school’s method of getting boys through the door – Free Classes!