One day about 10 years ago, at one of Sabbian Clover’s Dance Umbrella classes in Nelson, there were some teenage boys hanging out at the entrance waiting for the girls to finish their class.
“They were in the lobby and were being quite distracting,” Clover (pictured below) says, “and I was trying to hang onto the girls’ attention, so I said to the boys, you can either come in and join us or you have to leave. So I’ll be darned, four or five of them decided to come in.
Not only that, but some of them had so much fun they kept coming back.
“I couldn’t bring them into the class and say let’s do this 16 counts of choreography, so I hooked them in by making it very task oriented, and I have always approached it that way. You don’t have to ‘dance,’ you don’t have to wear special clothes, you don’t have to worry about self expression, you just have to drag this person across the floor or lift them and put them on your shoulder. That makes it really accessible for lots of boys.”
But she says it’s not as simple as that. It’s technical, and the boys like that too.
“Snatching someone up off the floor, it is such an accomplishment for them all to get this, and perform it on the stage and make it look effortless. The girl has to jump at exactly the right time and they have to catch them around the hips. It’s tricky, there is a lot of timing and precision and connection with their partners.”
This is what dancers call ‘partnering,’ which does not mean ballet, swing dance or ballroom dancing. Rather, it is part of contemporary dance and includes lifting, weight-bearing, supporting, and unison movements. Clover runs a special partnering class, with boys and girls.
Clover has three sons, all of whom have been in her partnering classes. The oldest, 30-year-old Connor, sometimes assists her with her classes.
All photos below are by Adrian Wagner Studios
She says it is unusual to have so many boys in a dance class, but that the social stigma against dance is not what it used to be.
“I have seen it become a more socially acceptable thing for guys to do. It has snowballed every year, from that little seed. I go to big cities to dance conferences and when I tell them that I have 10 guys in my partnering class, adolescent boys, people are amazed, even in New York.”
Dunavan Morris-Janzen, 19, was in her class for one year, and Gabriel Macdonald, 20, for four.
They think it’s always been a cool thing for boys to go into Clover’s dance classes. They seem to be surprised to be asked about it.
“It depends on how you act around it,” says Macdonald. “The first few years in (Corazón) choir I was embarrassed to tell my friends I was in choir, and then you start being like, yeah, I am in choir and I dance. You have to make it your thing.”
Morris-Janzen says it was already cool when he started.
“In our crew, I think the stage was set long before I started because I was seeing these older guys dance and it was pretty clear that these were the cool guys, it wasn’t a question in my mind.”
Macdonald and Morris-Janzen came into the class for different reasons.
“I come from a soccer background, but it looked like a new way to go at it,” says Morris-Janzen. “I saw some other guys like Gabriel and I saw them dancing and it looked like a different kind of organized sport.”
Macdonald says it was because he knew he was headed for a career in musical theatre and he was already a singer and actor.
“I realized I would have to dip my toes into dance at some point.”
Why is Clover so successful with boys?
“She is super respectful,” says Macdonald. “I started when I was 13 (in a multi-age group) but I felt like I was an equal. And she always makes it fun. She means business. It really is love, the way she talks about ‘my boys.’ She cares about each and every student on such a personal level and that is what makes her a very special teacher. It is a big family.”
Morris-Janzen adds: “I had no background in dance. The guys who came in with me were all in the same boat, and the girls we were dancing with were super experienced. But there was never a feeling of a lesser skill. We were given a chance to show creative drive, so we felt equal.”
Clover says partnering is a unique opportunity for teenage boys and girls to relate intimately in a non-sexual way.
“It is a great social activity to be together with female peers in that way. I am quite certain that being together in a physical and really intimate way that is not sexual has got to be hugely interesting to them. I have such respect for watching them together and how they are and how they touch each other and respect each other.”
“You are getting really close with them and there is so much trust involved but it is not a sexual relationship. It is not on the soccer field, it is not in Corazón choir, it is not at school, it is definitely not at the parties.”
How does Clover feel about ‘her boys?’
“I am unspeakably proud of them. They are doing something really unique.”