The first time Ashton Edwards tried dancing on pointe, it felt like coming home. “It was just like magic. It felt beautiful on pointe. I felt like I could dance forever.”
Edwards, originally from Michigan, has been studying ballet since the age of 4, and is now an 18-year-old student in Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s professional division. Those tentative steps last summer, however, were the dancer’s first: Edwards is male, and in the world of classical ballet, male students traditionally do not receive pointe training. But he dreams of a future as a gender-fluid dancer, dancing all the roles he loves.
“I would love to do everything that would fit me as a person, not based on my gender but based on what I can do and who I am as a person, who I am as an artist,” he said.
For those who love ballet, the sight of a ballerina dancing on pointe is an everyday miracle; born from years of training that culminated in ethereal, otherworldly movement. But until recently, the idea of a man dancing on pointe was a rarity, mostly restricted to comic effect in narrative ballets like Frederick Ashton’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the all-male dance comedy troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In a world engaged in conversation about gender and inclusivity, however, things may be changing in ballet, just a bit.
A Bay Area company, Ballet22, was founded last year with the purpose of breaking gender norms, particularly in the ungendered use of the pointe shoe. James Whiteside, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, makes viral videos of himself dancing — beautifully — on pointe.
And here in Seattle, Edwards is at the center of his own tiptoed revolution: He is the first male professional division student at PNB to take pointe technique classes. “He is quite remarkable on pointe and very committed,” said PNB artistic director Peter Boal. PNB faculty member Marjorie Thompson noted that while some male students borrow friends’ pointe shoes to play around, Edwards is different. “Ashton is a serious young person, and he has a serious desire and he is totally supported at PNB,” she said.
He’s not the only man at PNB who’s comfortable in a pair of pointe shoes. Joshua Grant, a soloist with the company, is a former member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. As a Trock, Grant performed for five years on pointe, fascinated by what he saw as the company’s mission to “blur the lines of what is masculine and what is feminine.”
He’s currently choreographing a new work, called “Bright Young Things,” that will debut in June and feature Edwards on pointe — and that reflects his own love of the technique. For that work, he said, his thought process was simple. “I just wanted to put a boy on pointe! Why is it that women get to have all the fun, why don’t boys get all the fun, too?”
Pointe shoes have been around for a couple of centuries, originally born as a stunt. In her book “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet,” dance historian Jennifer Homans explains that pointe work was first performed by early-19th-century Italian dancers — the first was said to be Amalia Brugnoli — who “blithely hiked themselves onto the tips of their toes and perched there for all to see.” The technique was soon refined by ballet pioneer Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) who smoothed the stunt into something more refined and elegant, darning the toes of her soft slippers to give support.
Later in the century, Italian shoemakers devised the pointe shoe with a hard toe box, made from layers of glue, paper and fabric; it was revised further in the early 20th century, with legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova credited with popularizing a more modern pointe shoe with additional support at the toes and a hard leather sole. But it was nearly always women who wore them, achieving that magical elongating effect.
Grant remembers being fascinated by the soft thump of pointe shoes when attending ballets as a child. “I loved the sound the shoe made when it hit the floor,” he said. In his youth, he remembered watching ballets and feeling that “men always looked frumpy and dowdy, whereas women looked long and ethereal and weightless.”
When he finally saw his own foot in a pointe shoe, “it just took my breath away,” he said. “There’s something about putting on a pair of pointe shoes that gives me goose bumps.”
Men who want to dance on pointe face some challenges, the most significant of which is finding shoes that fit; men’s feet tend to be proportioned differently, and a woman’s shoe in a bigger size might not work. (It might be a bit easier these days: Two years ago, the first pointe shoe designed specifically for men became available, from the Russian company Siberian Swan.) And a taller, broader body might have more balancing issues — though, as Grant notes, there’s nothing natural about dancing on pointe, no matter what size you are.
Male students taking pointe class is new to PNB’s School, Thompson said, but a young man wanting to go on pointe would have been indirectly trained to do so through regular classes. The challenge is the structure of the feet, the ability to balance, to fully straighten the leg on pointe, to have enough abdominal strength to pull up rather than “sitting into the shoe.” All of these, Thompson said, apply as well to men as to women; some female students struggle with pointe due to issues with their feet.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions, that men are not flexible and can’t get on pointe,” said Theresa Knudson, executive director of Ballet22. She noted that in their company, “most of the men have better feet than I do.” At a high professional level, she said, “men and women are equal when it comes to taking class; the split is that the men are lifting and the women are on pointe.”
Edwards, who performed with Ballet22 for a digital show last year, was thrilled by the experience of being able to both dance traditionally female roles and contemporary new work. “It was just men, dancing equally as men on pointe, not trying to be women or trying to fit into any binary standard.”
Might ballet be headed toward a future in which roles aren’t necessarily dictated by gender? Tiny steps are being taken: At the English National Ballet in 2018, male dancer Chase Johnsey (a veteran of the Trocks) made history by performing female roles in the ensemble. Wendy Whelan, now co-head of New York City Ballet, commented at the time that “I don’t care what the body parts are, as long as artistically the dancer makes the choreography shine.” In that same New York Times article, she also expressed concern that ballet is already profoundly competitive for women, with men performing in traditionally female specialties presenting another hurdle.
But along with men dancing on pointe, women can learn what was traditionally called “men’s technique” — powerful jumps and leaps. American Ballet Theatre recently changed the names of its classes from “men’s” and “women’s” to simply “technique” and “technique with pointe,” to facilitate inclusivity, said ABT rep Kelly Ryan. Boal remembered a “legendary” men’s class taught at the School of American Ballet (New York City Ballet’s school) in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, regularly attended by the company’s ballerinas.
And PNB School managing director Denise Bolstad said in an email that female professional division students who request to take men’s technique classes will be allowed to do so, and noted that the school is “talking about mixing up the instructors going forward, men teaching women and women teaching men.”
Looking to the future, Grant thinks it might be a while before we would see gender-fluid casting in traditional ballets, but said it’s already happening in contemporary, nonstory ballets — “say, a plotless ballet with eight dancers, and you go on Friday night and it’s eight women, and on Saturday night it’s eight men.” He believes it’s the job of art to push boundaries, to get audiences a bit uncomfortable, “and then they can ask themselves why they feel uncomfortable. We’ve done our job by making them feel something. I think we’ll get there, eventually. It’ll be an interesting, turbulent flight.”
Meanwhile, Edwards keeps rehearsing, appreciating the support he’s receiving from teachers and fellow students — “all the girls are eager to help me!” And he’s imagining a future in which he might be able to dance “all my dream roles. I want to do Oberon and Titania [in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”]. I would love to explore all of the movement I can do, with no limits or restrictions. In a company, hopefully. Someday.”