Boys can be dancers, and there’s nothing wrong with that

For these three boys, dance has become an intregal part of their lives—and they have the moves to prove it.

Photos: Mikaela Mackenzie

A pint-size hockey player, Noah Young made headlines when a video of his improvised hip-hop moves in his goalie gear was shared online and immediately went viral. But was all the hype because he is an athlete who knows how to dance? Are we really getting better at looking beyond gender when it comes to dance or are we still battling tired stereotypes about male dancers?

We spoke with Noah and two other rising dancers about what it’s like to be a boy who dances.

Young boy named Kai in a mid-air dance position

Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie

Kai Podruzny
Age: 13
Hometown: Oakville, Ont.
Dance experience: ballet, jazz, contemporary, lyrical, tap, musical theatre and hip-hop

When did you start dancing?
I was about four years old. I was at a summer camp and I saw a poster for a dance studio. I showed my mom and asked her if I could go. I just took hip-hop at first and I was always really excited to go. Not long after that, I was asked if I wanted to join a part-time program, and by grade one I was taking all forms of dance. My mom was really supportive and talked to me about how she danced when she was younger, too. I was so glad to hear that—it felt like something we shared.

Have you ever felt singled out or discouraged for being a boy who dances?
At my old school, a lot of the boys made fun of me and talked about me behind my back. I couldn’t hide that I was dancing competitively because I missed school to attend competitions. I’ve been called gay and transgender and my mom has had to go into the school and ask them to help me. There have been many days where I didn’t want to go to school. It’s better where I am now. There are still a couple of kids who think it’s weird, but I just spend my time with kids who get it.

How do you feel when you’re dancing?
I am so happy when I dance. I remember that there was one really bad day at school. My mom picked me up and I cried as soon as I got into the car. I cried all the way to dance class and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go. But as soon as I started to dance, all of those feelings just fell away. I feel strong and confident when I’m dancing. I feel like me.

What are some of the great things you’ve experienced because of dance?
I dance competitively, so I perform in a lot of competitions and I’ve won some exciting titles and awards. I’ve also had a lot of great opportunities to learn from choreographers in different places. This summer, my teammate and I got to travel to Massachusetts for an amazing summer choreography intensive, thanks to the support of our dance studio. And I auditioned for Team Canada and made it onto their hip-hop team, so I’ll be travelling to Copenhagen to compete with teams from around the world.

What do you see in your future when it comes to dance?
I definitely want to be some kind of professional performer. But I also love all kinds of music and have taught myself to play a few instruments by watching YouTube videos and practicing. I took guitar and vocal lessons, too. I just love anything to do with performing.

What would you say to other boys who think they want to dance?
You need to stay positive and not worry about what anyone else thinks. In the future, when you look back, it will only matter that you did what you wanted to do. Just go for it.

Young boy named Noah dancing in goalie gear on ice

Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie

Noah Young
Age: 9
Hometown: Brampton, Ont.
Dance experience: recreational hip-hop dancer

When did you start dancing?
I started taking dance classes when I was in grade two. I was always with my mom at my sisters’ dance studio, and one day I watched a class. I asked her to put me in it and she said it wouldn’t work with my hockey schedule. I started to cry because I really wanted to do it.

Paige (his mother): We ended up finding an all-boys class that we could manage with his hockey schedule, and there has been no turning back since.

Has anyone ever made you feel singled out because you like to dance?
Never. I even tried out for the school talent show this year and did a dance with some other friends. Everyone liked it a lot.

Paige: I hate the idea of any boy being judged for wanting to dance. Noah inspired four other hockey players to join him in his hip-hop class. They ended up being invited to perform at a dance competition.

What was it like when your video went viral?
I kind of felt nervous when the kids who saw it started telling all the other kids at school about it. My friends were all over me, and people I didn’t know started talking to me. My teacher didn’t believe me at first, and my sister had to convince him to watch it.

Paige: We were shocked. Our extended family members were sharing it everywhere. It actually brought us closer because we were all so proud of him. He has been invited to perform with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Brampton Beat, Mississauga Steelheads and Toronto Marlies. Being able to combine his love of hockey with his love of dance has been really fun for him.

How do you feel when you’re dancing?
I feel really good about myself when I’m dancing. I’m just happy, and it feels like I’m being me.

Do you have any role models when it comes to dance?
My sisters, Chasity and Madisyn. If they didn’t dance, I wouldn’t have wanted to dance and none of this would have happened.

What would you say to other boys who think they’d like to try dance?
Just do it. Don’t listen to what other people think. You just need to be yourself and do what you like to do. If you like to dance, just dance.

You play competitive hockey. Do you think you’ll keep dancing, too?
Yes, I definitely want to keep going into dance. I’m crossing all my fingers and toes that my mom can find a way for me to do both.

Young boy named Leo dancing ballet

Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie

Leo Hepler
Age: 17
Hometown: Devon, Alta.
Dance experience: full-time student at Canada’s National Ballet School since 2013

Was it your idea to start taking dance classes?
I think it was my parents’ idea to put me in classes. They’ve always held the belief that my two brothers and I should try whatever interests us. I was only three when I started dancing, but I couldn’t wait to go to class every week. I was always asking my mom, “Is it Saturday yet?”

When did you start to focus on ballet?
I was about six years old when I started taking classes at a studio in Edmonton instead of my small town. It was there that I began learning classical ballet.

When did you make the decision to audition for Canada’s National Ballet School?
My ballet teacher at the time had also taught at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and knew about the audition tours at various ballet schools. She told us about them and encouraged us to attend, not only for an opportunity to be accepted but also for the audition process itself. I auditioned for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Alberta Ballet and Canada’s National Ballet School the year I was heading into grade seven. I really enjoyed the audition class for Canada’s National Ballet School and knew it was where I would want to dance most. I was accepted and attended the summer program that year.

Was it a difficult decision to move away from home?
I was accepted to the full-time program at Caanda’s National Ballet School after my first summer, but I didn’t feel ready to make the move at that time. It was funny, though, because as soon as I got home and returned to school and my regular dance studio, I spent a lot of time imagining what my life would be like if I had gone to Toronto. I think I knew I wanted to be there, but I had some confidence issues to work through. I had to tell myself that I was given the opportunity for a reason. I returned for the summer program the following year and accepted a full-time offer for grade eight.

It was really hard, though. It was a big adjustment for me in many ways. I’m from a town of 6,000 people, and city life was hard. I was still working on building my confidence. By November of my first year, I was sure I would quit, but I kept pushing through and telling myself I was chosen for a reason and it got better. It never stops being difficult to be away from my family, but I’ve found that it makes the time we are together more meaningful.

Have you ever been singled out or discouraged for being a male dancer?
If I ever felt singled out, it was definitely self-inflicted. I think when I was younger, I felt like it was weird that I was dancer. I was very careful not to tell people I went to school with that I was dancing. I danced on my own time, so it was easy to keep it to myself.

As I got older, I realized I was hiding a really big part of myself, so I started telling friends and sharing it. No one judged me for it. I think I’m lucky that I lived in a small town because everyone knew me as Leo first and the fact that I danced was just something I did. My friends were very accepting.

What does dance mean to you?
For me, dance has been a constant I can lean on. It has always been there, behind all the other noise in my life. It’s so empowering to be able to move my body to music with that kind of physicality, and it’s an incredible emotional release. I feel like I’m always growing as a dancer and as a person because of it.

Do you have role models in the dance world?
Of course, there are male dancers that make me gawk over their technique. But I actually draw a lot of my inspiration from female dancers because they’re often given more dramatic roles with a broader emotional range, and that appeals to me.

I also look to my classmates every day. There is something very special about the collective competition but also the mutual respect of going through the same gruelling barre exercises together every day. I always feel so understood when I’m in the studio, and that translates to a positive energy I can channel into my dancing.

Do you think it’s important to encourage boys to dance?
Men can be dancers, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s quite simple: Our world needs artists, and we need every voice. We don’t need male dancers any more than we need female dancers. We need both because men and women have unique life experiences to bring to their artistry, and we can learn from each other. Some female dancers become mothers, and that adds a layer to their storytelling. As for being artists, gender shouldn’t matter. I would tell boys who think they want to dance that if you can make the most of it, it’s a lifestyle that will be more fulfilling and meaningful than you can imagine.

Read more:
Does your child challenge traditional gender roles?
12 kids’ books that challenge gender stereotypes

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