FARGO — Henry McMullen-Wendt was all set to make his “Nutcracker” debut last year, but a broken arm left him watching from the sidelines. The 10-year-old is back this year and looking forward to taking the stage.
It will be a step forward for the young dancer and something Matt Gasper, artistic director of Gasper’s School of Dance and its sibling organization, Fargo Moorhead Ballet, is excited to see. Young male dancers like McMullen-Wendt help show that dance — especially ballet — is not just for females.
“It is more accepting, but it’s still difficult. There’s still a stigma of it being feminine,” Gasper says.
This year’s production of “The Classic Nutcracker” has seven boys from ages 6 to 12 and eight men, 18 and older, including Gasper, who plays the butler.
That’s much better than in 2012’s show, which only featured three male dancers.
The strong showing of male dancers this year is especially heartening in light of “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer’s comments in August, laughing at the news that England’s Prince George was planning to study ballet.
Her quip drew criticism from the dance community and she apologized days later as a male-led ballet lesson was held outside the show’s studio.
“It sucks because we fight to be recognized as artists. When a comment comes out like that, it’s like four steps backwards,” Gasper says. “It’s frustrating that we’re still in that mentality in society, that we have those stereotypes and stigmas that hurt.”
He has heard young male students say they don’t tell their classmates at school that they are in dance for fear of bullying.
Teasing at school is something Nikolas Dahmen has had to deal with, but the 13-year-old has no plans to hang up his dance shoes.
“It’s fun. I like dancing and it’s a sport I’m good at,” he says.
Dahmen will be one of the young party guests with McMullen-Wendt.
Older male FMBallet members like Chris Taylor, 26, who plays the title role, and Shawn Viseth, 27, who plays a couple of different roles, have endured teasing and odd looks over the years.
“I just tell them to keep on pushing,” says Jayson Douglas, an instructor at the St. Paul Ballet who serves as a guest artist for the troupe.
Once he saw the New York Ballet at age 8, he knew he would be a dancer. Despite his determination, he faced some bullying about it growing up, but persevered with the support of other young male dancers who had his back.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” he says.
A turning moment came in high school when basketball and football teams came to watch a ballet class to see just how athletic the dancers were.
“To me, it’s educating what they don’t know about dance,” he says.
McMullen-Wendt hasn’t felt any bullying and likes to dance simply because it’s fun and he’s made new friends, like Rowan Nelson, 10, who is in the same tap dance class.
McMullen-Wendt’s parents likes that dance teaches him concentration and discipline and gives him a fun way to build strength and flexibility outside of contact sports. The 10-year-old has osteogenesis imperfecta, sometimes known as brittle bone disease, which led to last year’s broken arm.
This year, though, a broken finger won’t keep him off the stage. While the disorder sidelines him from contact sports, his parents see him developing teamlike bonds with the other male dancers.
“Mostly, we enjoy watching him dance because because you can tell when he does it that he really does find joy in it. You can see it in his eyes,” says his dad, James McMullen-Wendt.
“I was blessed to have parents with open minds,” Gasper says, referring to his parents, Eddie and Kathy, who founded the dance studio. “I feel for those little boys who love to dance. If you like to dance, you should dance. If you like to cook, you should cook. If you like to sing, you should sing.”
“I like it,” Henry McMullen-Wendt says about his dance experience. “I want to do it for a while.”
If you go
What: FMBallet’s “The Classic Nutcracker”
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, and Saturday, Dec. 21, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 22
Where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University
Info: Tickets range from $12 to $48