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As part of our #ScrumsOrSequins campaign, we spoke to male ballet Principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Iain Mackay. He told us about what made him embark on a career as a ballet dancer and what it’s like to be a male in a predominantly female profession.
1. A ballet dancer is not the typical boy’s career, such as a policeman or a fireman, which boys are often encouraged to pursue from a very young age. Did you face any negative reactions to your career choice? How old were you when you realised you wanted to be a ballet dancer?
I started ballet classes when I was 6 or 7, my older brother Rory (also a member of BRB) was the one who wanted to give it a go, he loved the TV series Fame and wanted to learn how to dance. I went along to keep him company as of course he was the only boy in the class. We went to every club going, football, scouts, gymnastics, and karate – ballet was the only one that lasted and we have both been lucky to make it to a professional level. It’s not the most obvious career path for two boys from Glasgow with no prior connection to ballet in the family, but we were both gripped and it was by far the hardest and most disciplined of all the activities we tried but also the most enjoyable. I have to be honest, we kept it quiet for a period of time just because I guess we realised it was slightly different in terms of a hobby but we lived in a small village and it wasn’t long before everyone became aware of our new pursuit. Both Rory and I were always very sporty and both football fanatics, we never really had any hassle. There were of course times when other kids would say nasty things, but in Glasgow at that time if you supported an opposing football team they gave you a mouthful. I do remember meeting other boys doing ballet who had more reserved personalities, that coupled with the fact they did ballet was like a red rag to a bull for the bullies; I guess I was lucky, I was certainly never put off continuing with ballet because of negative reactions. I remember when I first worked with a professional ballet company, Scottish Ballet, I must have been 10 years old and was picked to dance in their production of Nutcracker. Seeing it up close, being on stage that’s when I realised that ballet was what I wanted to do. I remember seeing the lead male dancer Vincent Hantam, I had never seen anyone jump so high or spin so fast, he was strong and the audience went crazy for him. I wanted some of that – that was cool!
2. You have been a successful dancer for many years, when you initially started on this road were you ever embarrassed to discuss your dreams with your peers?
I’ve never been embarrassed about what I do or what I wanted to do when I was a kid. My mum and dad were always so supportive and so proud that they taught us to be proud of it. My friends that I grew up with in Scotland who have nothing to do with dance (most of them are actually police officers now) were so supportive especially when at 16 and I was invited to study at the Royal Ballet School in London, they thought that was incredible. They also helped me keep my feet on the ground and maintain some form of normality away from the very creative and emotive environment that the dance industry is surrounded by. My brother Rory wasn’t always as comfortable with what we do. He went through a phase where he would meet new friends in a bar or on holiday and when they asked him what he did he would tell them he was a landscape gardener; he had never even cut the grass! I used to laugh my head off, especially when someone he met had just finished a degree in Horticulture and was suggesting they could start a business! The thing is, as a male telling someone you have just met you’re a professional ballet dancer is a real conversation changer, sometimes they shut down and move away, other times they are intrigued and want to know everything. I love telling people what I do now just for the reaction, what was even better was when my son told his class what daddy does!
3. Are you ever compared to your female colleagues? Do you ever feel as though you have to prove yourself?
‘Do you have to go up on your toes like the women’ is the question that still surprises me. ‘No we don’t, that is just the female dancers‘ is my standard answer, but you know if you have never seen a male dancer perform then the stereotypical image of a girl in a tutu on her toes is the first image that comes to mind when you mention ballet. The only place I feel I have to prove myself is on stage. It’s a physically and mentally demanding, highly disciplined art form. Our bodies are our tool; we push them to the limits daily, we have a huge amount of power for our body size both the men and the women. Recently, England Rugby coaches came in to our facilities to see how we train. They watched the men’s class which is our everyday warm up that lasts one hour fifteen minutes and then some of the dancers spoke with the coaches after. They were blown away, they couldn’t understand the level of speed, power, core strength, balance and flexibility we have. The height and distance we can jump from standing still. I love it when people come in and see what we do for the first time, or we go to a school and give a demonstration of our capabilities. Peoples misconceptions are immediately blown away, I like that moment.
4. Ballet has been in the press of late to highlight the health benefits for adults, what would you say are the health benefits for children?
Co-ordination, strength, posture, confidence, discipline, enjoyment, I could go on. Even if it is not as a chosen career path the benefits of ballet or dance in general for children should not be under-valued. I know a quite a few professionals whose parents took them to classes because they had so much energy and they couldn’t get rid of it solely in the play ground. It’s also an amazing way of learning how to emotionally express yourself to communicate with others in a positive way and open your mind to a more creative way of thinking. I have two wee boys myself, Oscar, 6 and Alex, 13 months. Oscar goes to ballet classes and the first thing he said was, there are no other boys. It’s such a shame, when I go to Oscar’s friends birthday parties the boys are always the first ones up dancing to the Frozen soundtrack or Bruno Mars, whatever is on they love to jump around, I wish more parents and children could see beyond the stigma of boys doing ballet. I invite Oscar’s friends and their parents to shows so they can experience it for the first time and they absolutely love it, it’s never what they were expecting. I want to help change peoples idea about boys doing ballet and I figure the best way to do that is those closest to me but essentially the parents.
5. What do you think you’d be doing if you hadn’t pursued a career as a ballet dancer?
I have no idea, something creative or sporty or both. My brother would be a landscape gardener for sure!
6. Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in dance, boys and girls?
Do it, find a good teacher, work hard, believe in yourself and follow your dream. It’s such a hard profession; it is a way of life rather than a profession. It’s 24/7/365 and that is the only way you will be able to succeed, even if you are lucky enough to be loaded with natural talent hard work is what will take you to the top. And if you can do that then it’s very rewarding, it’s shaped my life in the most positive way. It’s enriched my life, I met my beautiful wife because of ballet, I learnt to speak a second language because of ballet, I have travelled the world experiencing different cultures and I have met and worked with the most amazing people, and all the time performing this beautiful art form to thousands of people. I have gone to work for the last 16 years with a smile on my face thinking how lucky I am to have found ballet, not every day, but nearly!
Birmingham Royal Ballet are on tour with Swan Lake and Variations: Triple Bill throughout 2015. For info and tickets visit www.brb.org.uk