While pregnant with Raines, I danced ballet as my workout 3-5 times per week. It was something I had started almost 10 years prior, and by this point it felt necessary, like breathing or drinking water. Dancing fills me in a way nothing else can – it is at once both meditative and freeing. I love the exuberance, the emotion and the rigor. There’s something about that combination of hard work and expressiveness that is hard to replicate elsewhere. Dancing is, by its nature, a soulful activity. You speak with your body, pulling from the very depths of your existence. It is power and light and rage and beauty. But is it….manly?
After class one day, I was chatting with a few of the other dancers. We talked about how excited I was for the baby (my first!), and how I hoped (oh how I hoped!!!) that he would like ballet as much as I did. At this point, we knew I was carrying a boy. In a room filled with dancers, I received nothing but support. But later, my friend (let’s call him Joe), also a ballet dancer, confessed that he was troubled. “Shana, you have to understand what it means for a boy to grow up dancing” he warned. “I love ballet, I love everything about it. But growing up as a male ballet dancer in this country is very, very hard. You might be setting him up for ridicule.” Joe may-or-may-not have been gay (and truly, even in this context it matters not at all), he simply was a man who loved to dance ballet.
At the time, I didn’t realize how terribly, horribly sad Joe’s words were. He meant them kindly – we were friends! And I took them in the warm spirit with which they were intended. It was only after Raines was born, after I started viewing the world through the lens of mother that’s Joe’s words haunted me; they broke my heart.
I don’t want my son growing up in a world with such a narrow definition of masculinity. I want him to feel free to experience all that life has to offer – to not just feel his emotions, but to express them, express who he is – in any way he chooses! If he chooses to express himself through art, through dance, through long soulful conversations, or through pounding it out on the basketball court or racing down the side of a mountain – I don’t care. I just want him to know himself without the distraction of labels. I don’t want him worrying about what it means to Be A Man – he IS a man. He defines it by his very existence.
I would make the exact same case for girls. There is no label broad enough to define us – we are all complex, multi-faceted individuals. If you are a girl, anything you happen to like (baking, fashion, medicine, data mining, underwater basketweaving, construction) is YOUR version of what it means to be a girl. So it’s….girly? Yup. By definition.
Of course, looking at labels this way means that they lose all meaning.
I want my boys to grow up feeling loved and accepted for who they are. I want them to be kind and compassionate. I want them to express themselves – their true selves – in any way they see fit. I want them to be innovators, disruptors, pioneers. And I want them to be brave, because the world isn’t always ready for people like this, and I want them to be brave enough to try and change it – change it by their very existence. And so, despite the often-overwhelming messages of What It Means To Be A Real Man, I quietly fight. We fight, Mike and I. We fight by example, by exposure – we fight to show them that there’s another way. That the definition of Real Man is a broad one, so broad, in fact, that it encompasses all men. We fight to show them that some Real Men cry and some Real Men love and some Real Men dance.
So tonight, once Mike gets home from work and the scotch is poured and the popcorn is made and we’re all snuggled up on the couch, I’m going to turn on our appletv and play this video, powerfully choreographed and danced by a Real Man.
It is, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.
If any of you are Philly locals, BalletX is our very favorite ballet company to take the boys. The Wilma Theater is small and intimate (you can hear the dancers breathing, hear their shoes on the floor, see the sweat running down), and the dance is a rigorous combination of ballet and modern, with both men and women playing starring roles. These performances are so powerful that both of our boys will sit through the entire show (even four-year-old Pax). Their winter series runs from Feb 18 – 22nd.
These pictures are from a couple of years ago. Raines will still dance with wild abandon once in a while, but it’s only at home, with just us, the curtains drawn and the camera put away. But it’s in there. It’s in that little heart – the grace and the power and the passion. I just hope that someday, when that soft little boy face is covered in scruff and he’s big enough to pick up his Mama, I just hope when that day comes, he’ll know that his heart – exactly as it is – is the heart of a real man.
Happy Valentine’s Day.