08/05/2012 06:04 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

My Son Loves Ballet - Get Over It

Boy in ballet class Getty

My four-year-old son has been laughed at by grown men, called a 'poof' and told he's not a 'proper boy'. His crime? Taking ballet lessons.

Every Saturday he dons his leotard and ballet shoes and lines up with the girls to perfect his point. He loves it, and as long as he enjoys it I'll fiercely defend his right to dance.

So what's our problem with men in tights?

My friend Stuart thinks ballet's just for girls. "It's not a proper sport, is it?" he told me. "Lads should be out on the rugby pitch, or playing football."

Sure, boys can play ball sports, I just don't see that the activities are mutually exclusive; if Josh wants to kick a ball around or take up cricket, then I'll be happy to support him, just as I'll support my daughters if they want to play basket-ball.

Charlotte Semler's
son Caspar has been dancing for two years. "I love watching ballet and signed Caspar up for classes two years ago. I thought it would be good for developing strength and coordination, and I like the idea that he'll be able to dance well when he grows up."

Far from being a pushy mother, it was Caspar who wanted to try it out for himself after watching an outdoor ballet at the Tivoli gardens in Denmark. "He was blown away by the male dancers' muscles, and the way they lifted the girls," Charlotte says.

Like me, she's received some negativity about her son's choice of hobby. "Some idiot dad in a school meeting once mumbled something about it being 'gay'. I didn't bother saying anything – you can't argue with someone who thinks that kids can be 'turned' gay." Charlotte has no intention of taking Caspar out of dance classes while he's still enjoying it, and hopes he'll continue for several years.

Emily Archer, director of the Chipping Norton School of Dance for nearly 20 years, says that boys all too frequently drop out of ballet when they start school. "I regularly have boys start ballet at three, but the majority have finished by the age of six. There's a lot of pressure for school age boys to give up because ballet is 'for girls' and I think it takes a child with a certain personality to be comfortable in their own skin and deal with these types of comments."

Emily works hard at integrating male students into her classes, not tolerating any reluctance from the girls to hold hands or partner the boys. "After it happens week after week they get the idea that it's going to happen every class and it stops being an issue. Eventually they realise they can dance much better with the boys lifting and partnering them."

A 10-year-old boy in Emily's dance school regularly suffers from name-calling and bullying because of his love of ballet. "I try to suggest male role models, such as the dancers in Swan Lake," Emily says.

"Most dancers in pop videos have studied ballet so music channels are another good place to see men dance. As a female teacher it's hard for me to display the more masculine side of dancing, so when my students are old enough I encourage them to take up scholarships to be taught by male teachers."

I enrolled my son in dance classes in order to develop coordination skills, and Emily agrees ballet can support this. "Ballet can really help boys with posture and physical development, discipline, multi-tasking and confidence. I have had boys in my classes who feel they are failing in many areas of their lives. If I can give them some confidence through dance this can only be a good thing."

One of Emily's most successful students is 21-year-old Brendan Crawford, who had ballet lessons from the age of four. Two years ago he secured a degree place in Theatre Dance at the London Studio Centre and has already danced professionally for television, theatre and film.

Brendan had more than his fair share of abusive comments when he was growing up, but never let it put him off. "I always thought the best thing to do was just to ignore the comments and try not to give the bullies the reaction they were after. If people questioned my choice of hobby I'd say 'yeah, I do ballet – I'm good at it', and gradually people realised there was nothing wrong with a boy doing ballet."

The strongest influence in Brendan's career has been his mother, responsible not only for enrolling her son in ballet classes, but for keeping him going through the tough times. "She wouldn't let me give up and I'm so grateful for that – I couldn't ask for better support."

Emily agrees that parents have a crucial role to play in normalising dance for boys, supporting those children who want to take it further. "I've heard more negative comments from parents than from anyone else – until adults change their attitude there will always be prejudice amongst the children."

Anyone still thinking that ballet is for sissies should take a look at Brendan's college timetable. On an average day he's warming up by 8.30am for a 90 minute ballet lesson and a lecture. He trains in the gym at lunchtime then takes back-to-back dance classes till 7.30pm, when he returns home to do stretches and strengthening exercises.

Just for girls? I don't think so.