Ok, they’re not really named Sue, but they might as well have been. These danseurs, also known as “Ballerinos,” are serious, and for good reason, if their common experience is any indicator. Julian Josip, Sidney Chukus, and Zephyr Balch, all started ballet in elementary school, and each shared the same experience as the little boy from Memphis, made famous by the Johnny Cash hit song, enduring bullying and ostracism as young dancers. It was this ongoing mental boot camp, however, that was required to grow the thick skin that their sport still demands in America today. Even Nolan Robison, who didn’t start taking ballet until his junior year in high school, suddenly found that he had to go on the defensive in his tolerant, progressive school and hometown of Evanston. Regardless, these four bright and ambitious boys, all have the strength and the spine to do ballet, and, in spite of all the challenges they’ve had to tackle along the way, they are succeeding by leaps and bounds.
Why American Ballerinos are Tough
Like many little boys, Julian Josip, now a junior at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), tried most conventional sports, including little league baseball, soccer, and basketball. But while his teammates got more competitive and advanced to more elite teams, Josip spent most of his time on the baseball field looking for butterflies. Soccer games were spent avoiding the ball while wondering what the half-time snack would be. He promptly quit everything until, one day, Josip announced that he wanted to take a tap class. He’d just seen the movie Happy Feet.
“You mean, like a tap dance class,” asked his dad. His family quickly learned that there would be challenges that came with Josip’s new sport of choice and his father getting over the idea of his son occasionally wearing shimmery hot pants in public was the least of them. For starters, until he was 12 years old, Josip wanted to keep the fact that he danced a secret. Although none of his schoolmates actually bullied him for being a dancer, he was aware of the stigma associated with boys doing ballet—a stigma that was reinforced every time a well-intentioned adult would make a comment like, “There’s nothing wrong with doing ballet. It’s harder than people think.”
Almost worse than being bullied, Josip felt like an outcast. While his classmates were bonding on football and soccer fields, he was typically the only boy in his dance classes. But as often as his feelings got hurt, he wouldn’t quit.
Then, one day, when Josip was in a juniors dance company for middle-schoolers in Chicago, he burst through the door after rehearsal and announced with an enormous smile that he had a new dance partner who was great. Then he added, “And, her dad looks just like the mayor.”
Not long afterwards, Josip confirmed that his dance partner’s father was Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emaunel. Josip unabashedly walked up to the political powerhouse, who was meeting constituents at a street fair in Chicago, shook his hand, and told him that his daughter was a good dancer. Little did Josip know that Mayor Emanuel had been a particularly good ballet dancer himself while attending New Trier High School, and had earned a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet, Chicago’s premiere ballet company.
Batman at the Barre
These young Evanston boys are all super fit and strong, and can jump as high as any basketball player. Sidney Chukus, a senior at ETHS, is nicknamed “the Tank” because of his chiseled physique. Anyone who first meets him could easily mistake him for a quarterback. He also started out playing soccer and basketball as a youngster, but he quit both when dance became the center of his extracurricular life. For Chukus, ballet is more than a sport, it’s an expressive outlet. He says his idol is Alvin Ailey, a man who overcame the obstacles of growing up as a poor, black boy in rural Texas to found the decorated Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Like Mr. Ailey, it seems that everything Chukus does is hard. He pushes himself not just physically, but mentally, too.
When one of David Beckham’s sons announced that he was quitting soccer, he shocked the world. The reality is that most kids who play soccer don’t strive to end up in the starting line up with the Chicago Fire. Josip, Robinson, Chukus, and Balch similarly have career aspirations that don’t include being a principal in Swan Lake at La Scala. Chukus is interested in environmental engineering, Josip in acting and zoology. Robinson wants to be on Broadway. And Balch, a sophomore at ETHS, can’t decide between astrophysics or astrodynamics. Interestingly however, and unlike the other three boys, Balch’s only extracurricular is dance. He’s the youngest of the four boys, and one of the best technically. Balch is known to be patient and focused, and right now his focus is on ballet. In fact, and according to Mike Gosney, founder and Artistic Director of Elements Contemporary Ballet, one of the major benefits of ballet, along with improved posture, stamina, and coordination, is concentration.
The most recognizable ballet dancer in the world is still Mikhail Baryshnikov, father of a Northwestern Alum. Even back in his native Russia, dance, including ballet, was never considered feminine or girly. Rather it was and still is a part of their popular culture. Any man who managed to get into a ballet company actually earned not only a level of celebrity but also street cred. In his 2014 Northwestern University commencement address, Baryshnikov told graduates “don’t just strive to be the best, strive to be better than you were yesterday.” Nolan Robinson, an ETHS senior, started ballet at a late age because he knew it would help him attain his goal of going to Broadway and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. Nolan has crafted his ambitious pursuits on a bedrock of hard work, generosity, and kindness. When ETHS announced that the next musical would be Jesus Christ Super Star, Robinson declared that he wants to be the lead. “I want to be Jesus,” he says. And, because Nolan is the way Nolan is, everyone is rooting for him.
All four boys say that as “older dancers,” since starting high school, they haven’t been bullied or ostracized for doing ballet. Quite the opposite is true. Now people act impressed and even think it’s cool when they find out what they do for their sport. It may be because the kids who once bullied were only projecting their parents’ old-fashioned opinions, and now, they’re old enough to know better. Or it could be due to the globalization of cultures from the explosion of social media. Gosney, who teaches ballet at Dance Center Evanston as well as the Chicago Dance Academy, is the common denominator for all four boys, also an important mentor and advocate. “There are more young men interested in dancing today than when I was young,” he says. “I believe social media, YouTube, and programs like So You Think You Can Dance have exposed this art form in ways I could only have dreamed of in the ‘80s.” In fact, boys are learning that while ballet is crucial in becoming a “triple threat,” it’s also the best cross-training to make them better athletes in any other sport.
While Billy Elliot may charm audiences in theatres; life can still be challenging for his real life counterparts. Hopefully, one day one of these boys will do for ballet what Michael Phelps did for swimming.