By Christine Grillo
Photography by Jim Burger
Finding a like-minded group of young men — and male instructors — is key for the talented dancers who enroll in the Estelle Dennis Dance Training Program for Boys at the Peabody Preparatory, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Setia Kurniawanto bounces lightly on his toes. “Dance studio floors have to be springy,” he says, demonstrating in one of the Peabody Institute’s studios. It’s spacious, with clean lines, barres, and quite a few mirrors. He skims a foot across the wood floor. “You can slide a little more on wood,” he says, pointing out that some floors are wood and some are made of marley. “The marley provides more friction. They’re different, but they’re both good,” he says.
Kurniawanto, age 18, is a first-year student in the Conservatory’s BFA Dance program, which launched in the fall of 2018. But he’s been dancing and learning in Peabody studios since he was 12 years old, through the Estelle Dennis Dance Training Program for Boys at the Peabody Preparatory.
The program was established in 2009, after Carol Bartlett (then artistic director of the Preparatory Dance program) and Barbara Weisberger (then artistic adviser) approached the Estelle Dennis Scholarship Trust about a partnership. Named for the dancer who founded the first dance theater in Baltimore, the Estelle Dennis boys’ dance program trains boys — and only boys — in many forms of dance, with an emphasis on ballet and contemporary.
It’s unique in many ways, starting with the fact that acceptance into the program is based entirely on the raw talent and passion observed during auditions. Another special fact about the program is that it’s almost entirely free to students: Not only is tuition covered, but also the cost of shoes.
Kurniawanto danced with the Estelle Dennis program for four years, commuting from Frederick, Maryland, where he was homeschooled. His mother drove him to the Baltimore campus for after-school classes.
“The program was a really big part of my education,” says Kurniawanto, the first graduate of the boys’ dance program to attend the Peabody Conservatory as a dance student. Now, as a college student, he lives in a Peabody residence hall.
“This building was my second home for years,” he says, “and now it’s my first home.”
danah bella, chair of Conservatory Dance, says that Kurniawanto’s familiarity with Peabody “has made taking chances an easier feat.” She adds, “Already, in one semester, he has engaged in embodied research in ways new and different to him, and collaborated on various projects with student composers. He was well prepared to enter the Conservatory dance program.”
Keon Wagstaff, age 15, has been with the Estelle Dennis program since he was 9 years old. Currently a sophomore at Baltimore School for the Arts in the dance program, he was introduced to the program by his mother, Carissa Fowlkes, who has worked for 11 years at Peabody, currently as a registration system coordinator. “I used to just dance for hours in my living room,” says Wagstaff, “and then my mother signed me up for an audition.”
Fowlkes loves to tell the story about connecting her son to the program. “He used to flip, twirl, jump, and dance around the apartment. One day when I took him to work with me, one of the faculty members, Lisa Green-Cudek, saw him, and she said, ‘You should take him to Estelle Dennis.’ I was like, ‘But he’ll get picked on.’ But we did it.”
Fowlkes’ favorite part of the story is that, before auditioning, her son Keon had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At some point after starting the dance program, though, he was able to stop taking his ADHD medication. “He’s fully off it,” she says. “He hasn’t had it for years, because his outlet is dance. He just fell in love with it; he embraced it and owned it.”
Wagstaff is thriving at the BSA, both academically and with dance. In December, he performed in Trepak, the Russian dance in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which the BSA produces every year, and this spring he’ll dance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a dance production based on the Shakespeare play.
“His therapist chastised me for taking him off his medication,” says Fowlkes, “but he’s on honor roll. His creative outlet has helped his disorder. He’s at Peabody more than he’s home.”
At first, Wagstaff admits, it was hard to be in the program because of the stigma attached to boys and dance.
“You think of girls doing ballet, but when you think of males doing it, it’s weird,” he says. “I really didn’t tell anyone — I was ashamed — people think only girls only do it. But as I got older, I got comfortable with it.”
Melissa Stafford, director and department chair of Preparatory Dance, points out that in countries like Russia, Cuba, and France there are state-funded schools for ballet, for both boys and girls. “In the U.S., it’s unusual to have boys in ballet, for most of our history,” she says.
“Here, it’s not been seen as typically masculine,” says Stafford. “Boys often deal with bullying and questions regarding their sexuality. Parents would sometimes prefer their sons engage in traditionally masculine activities.”
“I had male friends in dance who were bullied,” says Kurniawanto. “But I personally haven’t encountered bullying, because I was homeschooled.”
Paul Wegner, who has been teaching ballet since 1992 — and in the boys’ dance program for five years — says the stigma is hardest for boys in middle school. He recalls a middle-school student of his, now at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who was at the studio when he recognized a friend who was there to pick up his sister.
“He ducked down so he was below the level of the window, so the boy wouldn’t see him,” he says. “But as he got older, he was able to own it.”
Because of this potential unease, the Estelle Dennis staff run the program to provide maximum support. Boys who are new to the program are enrolled in all-boys classes with male teachers, and they all go on field trips that allow them to see men dancing professionally, such as to Billy Elliot: The Musical on tour at the Hippodrome, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, a reimagining of the Tchaikovsky ballet with an all-male cast of swans.
“As they progress, we incorporate them into classes with girls, but when we do that we make sure that no boy is the only boy in a class,” says Stafford.
Wegner, who teaches in several dance programs, including ones at Towson University and Goucher College, says that the students will travel from as far away as Pennsylvania for the opportunity to be in a class with other boys.
“Having that opportunity to have male teachers, to be with a group of people who are like-minded is a special thing,” says Wegner. “It may be that in your whole town there’s no other boy who dances. Girls never have to face that. It’s quite common to be in a studio where you’re the only boy anywhere near your age. Or maybe there’s one other boy, but you’re 15, and he’s 5.”
There’s a different emphasis in a male class, says Wegner. The style is different, especially for arm movements, and there are more jumps and more emphasis on turning. There are between six and 10 foundational male steps that girls never learn.
“It’s still elegant,” he says, “but more rooted in strength instead of beauty. The timing to men’s jumping is different, too.”
Because the Estelle Dennis program is tuition-free, it’s able to enroll a diverse group of boys from the Greater Baltimore area. Fowlkes says the financial support is critical for attracting raw talent from the region, and Wegner agrees: “Many of them wouldn’t have the opportunity to dance if it weren’t for the program.”
“You have to help the boys and make it worthwhile,” says Stafford, “especially for parents who may beon the fence.”
When Kurniawanto was beginning the program, he says, his family’s financial situation was challenging. “This program being tuition-free is really the only reason I’m still dancing,” he says.
The Estelle Dennis program has a solid track record of graduates who continue dancing after high school. According to Stafford, the goal of the program is to get students into college dance programs or preprofessional training schools associated with dance companies.
One graduate, Kareem Best, who was the first in his family to go to college, is currently dancing with the Contemporary West Dance Theatre in Las Vegas. Cameron Pelton is a sophomore at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, studying ballet and choreography. And Logan Paschall, who was in the inaugural class of the boys’ dance program, performed in a hip-hop production of Pinocchio in Chicago and recently joined the Huntsville Ballet Company in Alabama.
“I’m trying not to have super-specific goals,” says Kurniawanto. “My goals are to get into a dance company, dance for a few years, as long as I can, then I want to teach. Maybe I can dance until I’m 40, if I don’t overwork and injure myself.”
Wagstaff plans to stay with the Estelle Dennis program throughout high school. After high school, he’d love to dance with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and he plans to audition for its junior dance company, Ailey II. “I want to do college as well, as long as they have a dance program,” he says.
For now, though, he’s happy where he is.
“Dance is a different way to express yourself,” says Wagstaff. “You just move and be free, and it’s also helped me; dance brings out another part of me — that’s why I love it so much.”