Facing the Music
Tevin Johnson wasn’t one of those guys who started dancing soon after walking and never stopped. It wasn’t until a spontaneous opportunity at a sixth-grade school dance that Johnson realized he had some natural talent. Since then, he has honed those natural skills through rigorous training and boundless motivation. Now 17 and a junior at Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt, Johnson says he’s ready for the inevitable struggles that come with pursuing a career in dance.
“I love pretty much everything about the arts, so for me, dance was the best way to channel that,” says Johnson. He is drawn to the musicality, athleticism and emotional expression dance offers.
“I guess it is just something in me. I did some modeling when I was in seventh grade, and started singing in eighth grade. But dance is probably the most real expression for me,” Johnson says. “You’re basically acting with your body all the time.”
Johnson, of Syracuse, has that rare combination of talent and ambition that could take him to the bright lights of Broadway one day. But he started as one of a growing number of boys who spend their free time learning a form of dance. Slowly, societal attitudes about male dancers have changed, and local dance instructors are noticing. There are (slightly) more guys in class these days. But what may be more notable is that despite still being the minority in their dance schools and classes, they are not discouraged.
Brandon Ellis, artistic director of Dance Theater of Syracuse, based at One Village Dance Centre in Syracuse, notes that dance has become more mainstream in recent years. Few popular singers perform without choreographed dance these days and television shows such as Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and Glee continue to spark interest.
“Seeing male dancers featured so prominently at the commercial level—to me it’s a positive symbol for guys,” Ellis says. “Here, I’m noticing kids as young as 5 years old who are being inspired by those examples.”
A native of Queens, Ellis started taking modern jazz classes when he was 7 years old. He was hooked. “Dance gave me structure and hope,” he says. “It made me feel special. It was my calling.”
Ellis went on to become a principal dancer and choreographer with a number of major dance companies on the East Coast. But these days he helps young dancers reach their potential. At One Village, he teaches Horton technique, a discipline inspired by traditional and folk dances with Afro-Caribbean influences. Tevin Johnson has been taking Horton with Ellis for about two years.
“He was basically self-taught when he came to us,” Ellis recalls. “But he had so much raw ability. It’s been amazing to see how far he has come.”
About five nights a week—totaling about 25 hours—Johnson is at One Village working toward his goal. In addition to Horton, he trains in ballet, contemporary and tap. Johnson says when he started coming to the studio nearly three years ago, something about it just felt right. “This studio felt like home. The people are less judgmental. It’s more like family.”
His mother, Tonya Johnson, says she wasn’t initially thrilled with her son’s interest in dance. She admits that she was concerned about how difficult it would be for him to be successful.
“To be honest, I just thought it would blow over,” she says. But when Tevin used his dance skills for a school project—and got an A—she began to get a sense of how important it was to him.
“Some friends of his filmed it and put it on YouTube,” she continues. “So the next day I typed in his name and there he was. I knew then that it wasn’t just a phase or a hobby.”
Now, she and Tevin’s father, Frederick, couldn’t be prouder. She still accompanies Johnson to many of his rehearsals. “It’s a big commitment and we support him however we can,” she says.
Johnson, who has also been successful in gymnastics, baseball and track, says having supportive friends and family is important—especially since it’s still not exactly common for guys to choose dance, or any other artistic endeavor, over sports.
“Having the support of my parents helps a lot,” Johnson says. “They know how committed I am, and I can talk to them. I think there is more support for male dancers now than there used to be, individually, but it’s still needed (culturally) in all areas of the arts.”
Ellis says while he was lucky to have the support of friends and family when he was just starting out, it wasn’t always the case for other dancers he knew. The current generation has a distinct advantage over their predecessors. “Being a male dancer was more taboo years ago,” he says. “Now, I think young people see it as a plus.”
Johnson admits that because he spends so many hours in the studio, he doesn’t see as much of his classmates as he used to. He made the decision not to run track this year because it became too difficult to balance with his dance schedule. The close friends he has made at the studio understand the depth of his commitment, and having like-minded peers has boosted his confidence in all areas of his life. “If you go into something like this, you can’t be shy,” he says.
Johnson says he has never been concerned about what other people thought about his interest in dance. “What would dance be without the guys?” he says. “Women just can’t do the lifts and other things. Everyone adds something, and men bring a certain strength and physicality to dance. But it’s not really about gender: It’s more about what you can bring to the table. What can you bring to the process that is unique?”
Shannon Holmes, owner of Empire State Dance Center in DeWitt, also knows how males contribute to dance and how to help them develop their skills. She grew up with two brothers who danced, and now she encourages her male students to be confident in exploring their expressive side.
One of her students, K.C. Edick, 16, has loved dance all his life. As a little boy, he took tap lessons, but as he got older he couldn’t help but notice the assumptions people made about his choice to pursue it seriously. Some people in his Watertown neighborhood didn’t hide their disapproval.
“Some (kids made remarks like) ‘you’re a faggot dancer’ or they taunt me about being in leotards and tutus—even though males do not wear them,” Edick says. “But that is only a small group of people. Most have been accepting of me dancing.”
“In the North Country, it’s all about rugged, outdoor activities,” says K.C.’s mother, Carrie Edick. “Some people aren’t as diverse as they could be.”
Like Tevin Johnson, Edick, a junior at South Jefferson Central School in Adams, dabbled in various sports before deciding to focus on dance. He enjoys the physical challenges of dance—and the creative ones. “You have to be an athlete to dance, but you have to be an artist to be a dancer,” he says.
Edick says no matter what other people thought, his family has always been “100 percent supportive.”
“We just realized this was his calling and he had to put in the time,” Carrie Edick says. “He’s always been that kind of kid. When he’s into something, he’s into it 110 percent.”
Edick found Holmes by accident six months ago. His family happened to stop at Shoppingtown Mall in DeWitt to get directions and noticed her studio. Now, he’s there up to five days a week.
Edick also studies voice and piano. He would like to teach dance at the college level one day, but his more immediate goal is to start auditioning for Broadway shows or Disney. A spot with a New York City-based dance company would be a dream come true.
Holmes says Edick has the talent, and dedication, to take his dancing as far as he wants to go. “He’s worked his tail off,” she says.
Edick has a formidable role model in one of his instructors, Derek Corbett, 22. Corbett never considered dance a career option. But it is a positive and important part of his life.
“I started when I was 4 and I just absolutely love it,” says Corbett, a Rochester native who now lives in Syracuse. He adds that he was fortunate not to have to deal with the kind of backlash that Edick did.
“I went to a school where people were probably a little more open-minded about that stuff,” Corbett says. “I don’t know how I would have dealt with the kind of things K.C. has. I respect him because (school) can be tough. But he doesn’t care. I don’t think anyone should. If a guy wants to dance, he should just go do it.”
Corbett acknowledges that some people still foolishly view dance as a reflection of sexual preference. “The gay questions. . . there is that,” Corbett says. “When I tell certain people that I tap dance, the first question they will ask is if I am gay. People have even said it to one of my girlfriends when she was watching me perform.”
But Corbett has never been deterred. As he got older, he also developed a love for ballroom dancing—a skill that, he says, does have certain benefits. “Girls love guys who can dance,” he says. “There is no doubt about it!”
Corbett, who has been teaching tap at Empire State Dance for the past several months, is currently working toward a master’s degree in bioprocess engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). While he admires more focused dancers like Edick, he’s just happy to have a pastime that is fun, active, and stimulates both mind and body.
“I do love performing, but mostly I just do this for fun,” he says. “K.C. has an incredible work ethic, and that will help him reach his goals.”
In addition to tap, Edick takes several classes of ballet and contemporary each week. “Ballet certainly wasn’t my first choice, but the training is important,” Edick says. “Ballet teaches you a lot about control and precision of movement. It teaches you how to really use your core muscles.”
If Carrie Edick is tired of making the hour-long drive to and from Watertown week in and week out, she doesn’t show it. Now that her younger son, Jonah, a freshman at South Jefferson, is also taking classes in tap at Empire, she’ll be doing that trip even more frequently.
Edick says Jonah has a mild form of autism. Dance has challenged him cognitively, and boosted his confidence. It has also given him something he can share with his older brother. “They often practice together and it’s nice that they have this thing they can do together.”
Guys discover dance in many ways—including Central New York’s ethnic influences. Few cultural dances have been embraced by young people as enthusiastically as Irish step dance. For Brendan Sullivan, 11, of Syracuse, a student at Holy Cross School in DeWitt, the cultural ties run deep. His great-grandparents were Irish immigrants, and his first exposure to Irish step dance was at the St. Patrick’s Irish Festival on Syracuse’s Tipperary Hill six years ago. He and his twin sister, Molly, have been dancing with the Johnston School of Irish Dance ever since.
“Both kids were just drawn to it, so we decided to give it a try,” says their mother, Marianne Murphy Sullivan. “Little did we know that there was a whole world of Irish dance.”
Today, Brendan competes at the preliminary level, which means he has placed first in at least one soft- and one hard-shoe competition. Last November he was among 20 boys who competed in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Oireachtas, held annually in Philadelphia.
Sullivan says the Johnston School of Irish Dance, founded in 1993 by Ann Johnston, encourages a healthy competitive spirit, and that, perhaps, appeals to the boys. “In some ways, it’s pretty intense,” says Sullivan. “But it’s not just about personal success. The kids have made some great friends along the way.”
Since boys do different dances than girls, there’s no Riverdance-inspired dueling going on with the Sullivan twins. In fact, the Sullivan family has found it unifying. Brendan and Molly attend several feiseanna—Irish dance competitions—a year. Their father, Michael, is always there cheering, as are various members of the extended family.
Dancing has been the gateway for Brendan and Molly to learn more about their Irish heritage. And while there are noticeably fewer guys among Johnston’s 200 or so students, Sullivan says Brendan has never been concerned.
“It’s nothing he’s embarrassed about,” Sullivan says. “Brendan is very connected to his Irish heritage, and this is one way he expresses it.”
Despite maintaining high grades and being active in several sports, Brendan never balks at the demanding, thrice-weekly rehearsal schedule.
“It encourages good organizational skills and it’s important to them,” Sullivan says. “As parents, we try to find activities that our kids can really connect with. … I’ve told both kids, if it stops being fun, you shouldn’t do it.”
While their motivations for studying dance may be different, perhaps the reasons why more boys are dancing these days are just that simple: It’s fun. No matter how much effort they put into their training, all are taking something greater from it.
“There is always something new to learn, a new move to master, something different to bring to the table,” says Tevin Johnson. “It’s almost like there is never an end to what you can do.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
Photos above: Michael Davis Photos