By Annette Hinkle
It’s something Mikhail Baryshnikov probably learned fairly early in his career — being a male ballet dancer had its perks, among them the fact that it’s a great way to pick up girls (literally).
You’d think that what’s true for world class dancers would be true for teenage boys as well — and theoretically, it is.
The problem however, is high school boys aren’t always eager to test the validity of that theory … after all, there are reputations at stake.
“It’s the tights,” admits Meredith Shumway, who knows all about it.
The Southampton native began ballet lessons at age three and kept with it all the way through college at Ole Miss. These days, she’s back on home turf and teaching dance to the next generation at Studio 3 in Bridgehampton, a dance school founded by her mother, Diane Shumway, back in 2005.
As any dance program out here will quickly reveal — while there are countless aspiring ballerinas, male counterparts are few and far between. But Meredith feels teenage boys are really missing out on something.
“If I were a high school guy with these girls, I’d go to ballet,” says Meredith. “The fact is they get to lift them and are dancing with them. It’s actually very masculine. You have to be strong and confident.”
But on the East End, finding boys to do the “heavy lifting” (so to speak) is practically impossible. That’s a problem for girls who may have higher aspirations in dance because learning to partner is a vital part of advancing in ballet.
“At this age in ballet, at most professional studios they are dancing with the boys,” concedes Diane.
This weekend, when Studio 3 presents “Mixed Nuts” (an unconventional 1950s twist on the Nutcracker) at Bay Street Theatre, not only will there be girls offering spins, pirouettes, tap routines and jazz numbers, but there will also be something far rarer in such productions — teenage boys.
“This is our second year doing ‘Mixed Nuts’ and personally, I wanted more of a true life story instead of just girls dancing,” explains Meredith. “I wanted the feel of a real story with boys and girls.”
Luckily for Meredith and Diane, some of their teenage ballerinas were able to convince a group of boys — mostly from Pierson High School — to step in and help them out.
“It started with a partnering class, then we asked and they decided to do the show,” says Meredith. “It’s really amazing to have guys in the studio.”
“It’s nice to try out partner dance,” admits Pierson sophomore Rachael Pepper who is serious about her ballet. “The guys are learning it and we are too. It’s a lot more mature.”
Pierson sophomore Zach Zimmerman recalls how he and his friends Theo Gray and Duncan Bennett were recruited by classmates Natalie Palumbo and Abi Gianis who also dance at Studio 3.
“I’m good friends with Abi and Natalie,” says Zimmerman. “We go to church together and hang out outside school. They said, ‘Do you want to do this? You have to pick us up.’ We were skeptical, but it’s fun hanging with cool girls.”
Also joining in is Zach’s friend John Andes who attends Mercy High School in Riverhead and Zach explains that the boys’ role is not to leap and spin across the stage, but to truly support the girls so they can shine,
“We’re not doing the moves they’re doing,” qualifies Zimmerman. “We don’t do the jumps and arabesques — that takes years of experience and flexibility that we don’t have. We stay behind them the entire time and hold them.”
“It’s about making the girls look good and us not being seen,” adds Zach.
A chivalrous goal to say the least, and a lot more work than one might think. The boys put in some serious training to get into shape as “support staff.”
“We did weightlifting and 150 to 250 pushups a day,” explains Zach. “We’d start a session with 60 push ups and end with 30 to get muscle mass. Even if the girls are only 100 pounds, it’s hard to hold them up for 10 seconds.”
So now that Zach and his friends are dancers, the question inevitably arises — how have their classmates reacted?
“A lot of people at school say it’s not a thing a guy would do,” says Zach. “But we said we’re helping the girls out so they can do their moves, spins and twirls. They’re also seeing us talking to 10 girls at lunch. After two weeks, no one cared.”
“I think I’m definitely going to stick with it,” he adds.
For his part, Theo Gray loved dancing in elementary school and is a natural at it. When he was 10, he was offered the chance to train for the lead in Billy Elliott when that show was being developed for Broadway. But it would’ve required years of intensive training and a move to New York City, so Theo declined.
“I stopped dancing for five years after that and got into sports. This is the first time I’ve danced since then,” says Theo, who finds partnering much different than the kind of dancing he used to do for fun.
“I’ve never done lifting of girls before,” he says. “People who don’t do this don’t think it’s is hard. They say, “it’s just ballet,’ … but it is hard and much more challenging than you think it is.”
“We’re starting a new trend,” he adds. “We’re definitely the first boys doing the Nutcracker.”
Diane hopes boys in the studio as well as on stage is a trend that continues.
“Some of the boys are a little hooked now and some have shown up for ballet class,” says Diane. “And the partnering is great for the girls. It’s renewed their enthusiasm.”
Not all the boys in “Mixed Nuts” are there to support the girls. Gabe Martaron, a Pierson seventh grader, is a serious break dancer in his own right and is dedicated to his art.
“I’ve been dancing three years and I taught myself,” explains Gabe. “I’m dancing here with Meredith now just to be in these shows.”
“The thing about me, I can’t be taught something,” adds Gabe who has a hip hop solo as Elvis in “Mixed Nuts.” “Just give me a DVD with someone dancing — I’ll watch them dance and see what they do and I can do it.”
It’s young motivated dancers like Gabe who give Meredith hope that she and her mother are on the right track with Studio 3. Though she loves ballet, Meredith has come to understand how difficult it can be for those who want to dance professionally. She feels that by also offering jazz, tap, contemporary and hip hop, Studio 3 is not only providing boys with a way to get involved in dance, but ensuring all aspiring dancers have a range of opportunities in the future.
“We want to give kids that option,” she says. “You can be an amazing Broadway star, a Rockette, a Dallas Cowboys dancer — you have those options. Ballet is a great foundation. But it’s limiting.”
And of course … there are those tights.
Studio 3 presents “Mixed Nuts: A classic holiday Nutcracker … with a twist!” at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. and on Sunday, December 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($15 students and seniors). To reserve call 537-3008 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.