Just when you thought the holidays couldn’t get any suckier, or Christmas couldn’t get more viciously stolen, of course, COVID-19 went and canceled The Nutcracker. Despite some virtual versions and outdoor performances (somewhere too sunny), there’s something about subtracting one of the holiday’s most precious kid-rituals that’s super-depressing. So how to fill the Sugar-Plum-Fairy-sized hole in your little one’s heart? Sure. Of course, you can watch the live-action The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. You can screen classic Christmas movies until your eyeballs fall out, or you can treat yourself to some sexified-Suess via Benedict Cumberbatch (damn, even his name is sexy!). But if you want to get some serious Literary Brownie Points on this ballet-less holiday; bust-open a book.
Boys Dance! presented by the American Ballet Theater is not just a love letter to boys who dance ballet, as well as a love letter to the talented men who have paved the way––it happens to be a great book for anyone who appreciates and misses dance (or any live performance). Written in charming rhyming couplets, Boys Dance! follows a group of adorable boys in their dance studio, as they take to the barre, practice the basic five positions, and master their hella-impressive tour en l’air-s, a move performed almost exclusively by male dancers (yeah, you’re gonna have to Google that too).
There’s a palpable sense of joy as well as a personal touch that permeates through this picture book’s pages. Author John Robert Allman, who already secured his performing arts street-cred with his broadway themed A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies and B is for Ballet: A Dance Alphabet, shares in his bio that he was often the only boy in his dance class. Illustrator, Luciano Lozano also reprises ballet themes in this collaboration, as he previously published the picture book, Diana Dances.
Full spreads that pay homage to men in the dance world are great springboards for kids to leap into further reading about some of the greatest performers of all time. In addition to the inspiring leading men of the ballet world, there’s also illustrated shout-outs to masters of jazz, hip hop and other genres, such as: Savion Glover, Paul Taylor, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, and Gene Kelly. The back matter contains pictures and personal anecdotes from the “Men of American Ballet Theatre,” with moving mini-essays about each dancer’s history with ballet, and how much the artform has transformed and fulfilled their lives.
It’s a little surprising that in this day and age, some parents might still struggle with the idea that boys like to dance too. What’s interesting about any parental hesitancy (particularly that of a dad)––most people know that a boy who can shake his booty gains access to a specific kind of social currency. We’re talking about the priceless middle school confidence of a thirteen year-old who’s the first one on the dance floor at all the Bar Mitzvahs. You know, the one who could do the Running Man like nobody’s business (I’m looking at you, Drew Gellin.) Fast forward to high school, and even testosterone-induced pimples are much less of an issue if you’ve got rhythm. A good dancer is snatched up for a prom date quicker than the last pancake at brunch.
But seriously, Boys Dance! is of course so much more than a potential vehicle for boosting your kid’s popularity at homecoming. With all the talk about increasing representation in children’s literature, Boys Dance! gets major props for including all kinds of kids with all kinds of skin tones, deliberately celebrating dancers of color. This book is not just a celebration of dance, but of diversity.
And while Boys Dance! will no doubt mean a great deal to any boy out there who feels somewhat isolated, like he’s the only one of his friends to wear a ballet leotard, perhaps it’s equally important to share this book with non-dancers, who happen to be either boys or girls. Wouldn’t it also be great if this book were also “just” a book about ballet? Or “just” a great stocking stuffer? Or simply a book about kids doing what they love, regardless of what that activity may be? The last two lines of Boys Dance! say it best: “Whatever passions you pursue, what matters most is being you!”
So maybe these sentiments of being true to yourself and validating all artistic expressions are the real gifts we need to give to our children this Nutcracker-free holiday season.
And if that Micro-Ted Talk didn’t convince you to give ballet a go, I’ve got one last appeal from a super-famous dad who is admirable (not just because he accepts and sports his balding head like a British boss), but because he put his son’s happiness above the entire world’s potentially-judgy, gender-normative side-eye. If ballet is good enough for Prince William’s pirouette-loving son, George––you best believe it’s good enough for your non-royal too.