My Enchanté column from June 25, 2015
You won’t find one of the most powerful—and at the same time graceful—14-year-old athletes on the soccer pitch or at the hockey rink.
Cameron Baker spends many hours a week training in ballet. Barely into his teen years, he’s breaking ground for other dancers, young and old.
Cameron didn’t set out to become a pioneer in the world of dance. In fact, as a child, he initially resisted taking dance classes.
Now he’s following the path of Rudolph Nuryev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and pushing the boundaries of dance.
Rudolph Nureyev, born in Russia, was a natural-born rebel in politics and the arts. In a field where the focus was always on the female dancers, the ballerinas, Nureyev created a place for men. He defected from Russia and eventually became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. His rebelliousness helped create an arts world where men were accepted as dancers.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Latvian-born dancer who studied under George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet, helped make ballet more accessible to the masses. Both Nureyev and Baryshnikov became folk heroes in the world of dance.
Several centuries earlier, during ballet’s infancy, men performed the fancy footwork. If women performed on stage at all, they remained in the background. The 15th century saw the introduction of ballet masters. Louis XIV was responsible for the creation of the first ballet school. The centre’s ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, developed the basic foot positions of ballet, which, at the time, was an almost exclusively male-dominated dance form. Around the same time, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who founded the Paris Opera Ballet, started to include women in ballet dances.
Prior to the French Revolution, during the last decade of the 1700s, men ruled the world of dance. They were expected to be both graceful and strong. It was considered unseemly for a woman to dance on stage. One questioned such a women’s femininity and morality.
Ballet was associated with the aristocracy, and, after the French Revolution, it was suddenly considered a disgrace for a man to dance on stage.
Dance is an area of language confusion.
There isn’t a male word-equivalent to the female ballerina, although one might expect ballerino, the Italian male form, to fit. But ballerino is considered arcane, and rarely, if ever used in English, except in slang. Depending on the country, male ballet dancer, danseur or danseur noble are the most common terms for males who dance in ballet performances.
Much of my professional work in photography is in the field of dance. Although I feel like I’m in excellent physical condition, I’m always in awe at the strength, stamina, flexibility and sheer power of dancers. The professional and pre-professional dancers I know are in as good or better shape than most professional sports stars.
Cameron Baker is no exception. He’s strong and agile.
“I’ve always been dancing since I could walk,” he says. “I figured out it was such a cool thing when I would spin on the kitchen floor tiles at home. People would say, ‘Why don’t you take dance?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to.’ Another year later, same thing.”
He finally caved into the idea of dance classes when he was about nine years old.
“I went to hip hop,” he says. “It was like, okay guys, make your own choreography. It seemed like the only thing the guys knew to do was slide across the room. I didn’t go back, but when KSD (Kingston School of Dance) was in the downtown studio, I joined the Bboyz class. It was great. I loved it.”
He kept going to Bboyz classes. Ebon Gage, the school’s Artistic Director, suggested ballet to Cameron.
“He told me it would really help with my strength,” says Cameron. “I tried it and I was one of the only boys in class.”
What’s unique about Cameron is that in ballet, he dances en pointe, something typically associated with female dancers. It is a brutally demanding technique, for which dancers spend years of preparation. Those who are pushed to start too early or who are trained poorly can end up with career-ending injuries. The technique requires intense stamina and strength as well as perfect execution of technique. A dancer has to be developmentally ready and physically able to handle the grueling work.
When Cameron told his dance teachers he wanted to work en pointe, they fully supported his decision.
“I deeply admire his willingness to blaze new trails by taking on something as difficult and non-traditional as pointe work, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity as a teacher to work with him on this exciting new path, ” says Melissa Mahady Wilton, one of Cameron’s ballet instructors at Kingston School of Dance and the Dance Engagement Coordinator for the City of Kingston.
After Cameron achieved the milestone of being ready for en pointe, he traveled to Ottawa for a fitting for the proper shoes. You can’t walk into a store and buy a pair of generic pointe shoes. As important as technique, a dancer’s pointe shoes have to be carefully fitted by a master fitter who crafts the shoes to an individual dancer’s feet. Failure to do this, as much as poor technique, can lead to a devastating injury.
But Cameron wasn’t pleased that he could only get pink shoes. So, calling on his creativity, he took a black magnum Sharpie marker and colored his pink pointe shoes black.
With that little bit of ink, Cameron Baker claimed his place as a danseur in the world of ballet.
“It’s kind of scary at first,” says Cameron. “You’re the only guy in your school doing pointe and think, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I’m doing something wrong and they think that’s how all boys will work en pointe and maybe guys shouldn’t do it.’ But after doing pointe a bit, I know I’m doing something different. That makes it cool.”
Cameron currently trains in hip hop and several forms of ballet specialties, including jumps and turns, pas de deux and en pointe. He has some wise words for others who want to follow in his footsteps, or, pointe steps.
“For boys who want to do ballet and don’t think they can, that mindset has changed,” says Cameron. “Ballet definitely makes you stronger. You’ll feel more confident. Now, rather than just saying I do dance, or I do breakdancing, because that’s what boys do, I say, ‘I do ballet.'”
His teachers have watched Cameron’s skills excel.
“Cameron has grown tremendously in his technique as a dancer over the past year, but the most wonderful thing has been watching his confidence grow,” says Mahady Wilton. “He has a self-assurance now that contributes to his stage performance, his partnering skills and his willingness to take risks and tackle new challenges.”
Dance is supposed to be about expressing yourself, not expressing the mindset of a group, explains Cameron.
“That’s what I think is the coolest thing about guys doing dance,” he says. “It’s about being yourself and expressing yourself.”
He says he thinks there may be one other boy in the region rehearsing en pointe, and two others who have been fitted for shoes.
This summer, Cameron will be participating in a Ballet Jörgen intensive training program in Toronto. He’ll be involved with ballet with every breath he takes during the day. He’d also like to work with Melissa Mahady Wilton on his ballet skills, particularly en pointe technique.
Mahady Wilton says that, despite Cameron’s young age, he serves as a mentor to others:
“I think that he is a wonderful role model for our younger male dancers, who can see, via Cameron, endless artistic possibilities for themselves.”
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin