After karate, swimming and the family vacation, there's something seemingly out of place in this little boy's summer itinerary – ballet.
Actually, it'll be the second set of dance classes for John-Paul Frank, an energetic 7-year-old barely taller than the barres used for warm-up exercises at the Brookline Ballet School, where John-Paul and six other boys – all only a few years older – have received an introduction to the dance this spring.
The boys-only classes, somewhat unusual in the world of ballet, have been a major selling point for the school since it opened in January and a special interest for Parren Ballard, a retired professional dancer who taught with the Boston Ballet before opening the Brookline school with his wife, also a dancer, and another couple from nearby Washington Square.
Though he teaches a variety of classes at the school – including some aimed a professional dancers – it's the boys classes that get Ballard most excited. A former child athlete who was turned on to ballet after a class field trip, Ballard is now on a mission to get young boys interested in the athleticism of the art before it's too late.
"There's a window in which you need to get in, otherwise it closes," he said. "Flexibility is a big issue – if they wait until they're 13, 14, 15 and try to pursue it seriously, it's close to being too late. It's something that that needs to happen around that 10- to 12-year-old range when the body is still developing, you can still work on the flexibility and the coordination."
The problem, Ballard said, is that most ballet schools approach young boys – the ones in his class range in age from 7 to 12 – the same way they do young girls, with tedious exercises that are repeated until perfected, and then repeated again. Some, like Brookline's Jean Paige School of Dance, don't offer instruction for boys at all, while others, like the Brookline Academy of Dance, keeps boys and girls together.
Ballard admits to practicing an "unorthodox" approach to keeping his students engaged, and it basically boils down to letting boy be boys. Instead of hammering away at technique and form, he gets his squirming, giggling dancers off the barre as soon as possible and puts them to work on the fun stuff: leaping over piano benches, spinning in pirouettes and even jamming on the air guitar.
Except for the skin-tight white shirts and black leggings, the boys often look more like they're engaged in a recess game of follow-the-leader than ballet instruction. A few approach the exercises with solemn seriousness, but most are giggling, squirming and hopping around impatiently between instructions.
Parren uncorks that energy by breaking the rules completely, occasionally allowing the boys to dance along to the music however they like, which often involves a lot of goofy improvisation and air guitar
"They're floppy, they're messy, but we don't care," he said. "We're just enjoying the movement, the freedom that's allowed."
But that doesn't mean the class is all playground sessions. During barre work and exercises, Ballard carefully adjusts the boys postures, gently chides them when they misbehave ("We don't play ballet, we do the real thing") and teaches them the French terms for the movements that are the building blocks for the ballet catalog.
And he's eager to move the boys toward more serious training once they're ready. Two of his oldest boys are moving into a classes with girl dancers – a big step – next fall.
On the boys part, there seems to be little recognition of the potential stigma against men in ballet. Most of the boys in Ballards class just see it as another activity, no different than the many other sports and hobbies that fill their days. For them, it's just fun.
"My younger sister takes ballet and I saw how much fun she was having," said Christian Pforr, one of the two most advanced boys in the class. "I heard they were starting a boys class so I joined."
And Ballard said that's exactly how these boys should think of ballet – for now, at least.
"At some point, if they're going to pursue it seriously they have to eliminate some activities and focus on fewer," he said. "But at the point they are I'm glad it's just another thing they're doing."