There’s no shortage of books on dance for girls, fiction and nonfiction alike. But far fewer books exist in which boys who are drawn to dance can see themselves. This season sees an addition to the collection of dance books for boys with the publication of Boys Dance!, one of two titles (along with the alphabet book B Is for Ballet) from the new publishing partnership between Random House Children’s Books and American Ballet Theatre this fall, marking the dance company’s 80th anniversary. Boys Dance!, by John Robert Allman with illustrations by Luciano Lozano, addresses and encourages boys who are curious about ballet and other dance forms.
In August 2019, soon after the formation of the RHCB/ABT partnership, members of the team—including Frances Gilbert, Doubleday’s editor-in-chief—were brainstorming book ideas when Good Morning America host Lara Spencer made a huge on-air faux pas. She announced, in a disbelieving tone, accompanied by a derogatory laugh and comments, that England’s then-six-year-old Prince George was taking ballet lessons. Public outrage about Spencer’s remarks sparked the #BoysDanceToo movement, leading the chastened Spencer to offer an apology and to air an interview with three high-profile dancers: Robert Fairchild, former principal at the New York City Ballet; Fabrice Calmels of the Joffrey Ballet; and Travis Wall, known for his work on the television show So You Think You Can Dance. In the interview, the dancers spoke about the prejudices against boys and ballet, and the need for male role models in the world of dance.
Gilbert, now working with ABT on the book program, was aware of the company’s stellar male dancers and the company’s commitment to make ballet open to as many people as possible, and was moved by the interview. “We saw the passion behind their comments and knew it would be a perfect topic to launch our ABT book program,” she recalled. She and her colleagues pitched the idea of a book on boys and dance to ABT and received an immediate enthusiastic response.
And she had an author in mind: as luck would have it, she was in the midst of preparations for the launch of A Is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z by John Robert Allman, illustrated by Peter Emmerich, an alphabet book in verse about iconic female Broadway stars. She knew that Allman was a longtime lover of musical theatre and dance; what she didn’t know was that he had taken dance classes, including ballet, as a child in Houston—often the only boy in class. “This made him doubly perfect for the project,” Gilbert said. For his part, Allman said he was thrilled to be approached to write the book. “I wish that I had had a book like this as a kid,” he noted. As a boy, Allman had worshipped dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, so he suggested featuring not only ballet, but other dance styles, too.
Illustrator Lozano, a dance lover who debuted as an author-illustrator with Diana Dances in 2017, was equally delighted to be part of the project. “I find it very poetic when the human body moves with grace,” he said. “I love contemporary dance above all, but I also like classical ballet and I learned a lot about ballet working on this project.”
Written in rhyming couplets, the book features boys of a variety of ethnicities persevering in their early ballet studies, dreaming of the day they will take on historic roles and looking up to celebrated male dancers of ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance. Eight male dancers from ABT contributed brief bios and photos of themselves today and as young dancers for the afterword. Among the contributors was soloist Calvin Royal III, one of the ABT dancers who approved the final pages. Royal lauded the book for helping to “normalize the cool factor of young guys in ballet. There’s a real sense of brotherhood,” he commented. He is looking forward to helping amplify the book’s message that “regardless of gender, race or class, ballet is for everyone.”
Early in the book’s development process, Gilbert and Allman spent an evening sharing pizza and beer with some of the ABT male dancers in their dancers’ lounge—an evening Gilbert described as “the single best moment in my 26-year publishing career.” The dancers shared their “moving and inspiring stories about dancing as boys and where dance has taken them,” she said. These stories became the basis for Allman’s text; incorporating them into the verse and images was one of the challenges of the project.
“For example,” Allman said, “we heard that for all of them being able to do a tour en l’air was a big milestone in their training, so that made its way into the text. And hearing about the canonical male roles they aspired to dance led us to know that we wanted to include a spread of the little boys imagining dancing all those roles.”
The decision to write the book in verse (both A Is for Audra and B Is for Ballet are also in verse) was made at the start. “Dance is so rhythmic and musical,” Allman said, “so the elements of the rhyme, along with the alliteration, pull the readers along. I wanted the text to be percussive,” he added.
For Lozano, illustrating the book was filled with challenges, starting with the characters. “They’re not realistic, but their movements had to be very accurate as far as the ballet positions are concerned. They had to look like an average bunch of boys with different body complexions, ethnicities and backgrounds. Most of my time with this book was spent drawing characters in movement.” ABT dancers sent videos via Instagram, which Lozano spent a lot of time watching to help ensure that the positions were accurate. Gilbert confirmed how thoughtful and thorough ABT was in terms of getting the positions correct, recalling that in the early days of the pandemic, one dancer, Connor Holloway, made a video explaining one particular pose. “He was holding onto the fireplace mantel at home,” she recalled. “It was so beautiful and especially moving as we’d just been told to stay indoors. It was a bright moment in a scary time.”
Gilbert invited Lozano to illustrate the book because “his human figures have a bouncy, kinetic energy. We knew that he’d be great at drawing dancers flying through the air.” She described Lozano’s figures as “warm and kid-friendly, but also having an artfulness and a very distinct and stylish flair.” Lozano drew the boys, their teacher, and their role models in a range of skin and hair colors, which is an important aspect of the book for ABT’s Royal, who said he couldn’t understand, as a young Black dancer, “why I saw so few examples of myself represented on stage and in ballet storytelling. As I got older I learned more about this art form: classical ballet was created in the European courts and mirrored the society of the time it was brought to the forefront. Most Black people were not there.”
Royal hopes that the book will help him in his goal “to inspire the next generation, especially those who are Black and brown, who may see themselves in me. My hope is that my presence and my art will allow them to dream and make their own dreams a reality.” Lozano is proud to be part of a project that fights gender stereotypes, and points to the closing autobiographical notes from the male dancers as particularly inspirational. For Allman, the response of the ABT dancers who have seen the book has been especially meaningful. “They say it’s been an emotional experience to see something that encapsulates their experiences so clearly.” As to his hopes for Boys Dance!, he says, “for those kids who’ve been wanting to take dance but have been nervous—well, I hope it’s a nudge towards actually taking a dance class.”
Gilbert, too, hopes that boys who read it will be inspired to try dancing. “And, one day,” she said, “one of those boys might become a professional dancer and think back about how a picture book got him started on his journey.”
Boys Dance! by John Robert Allman, illus. by Luciano Lozano. Doubleday, $17.99 Sept. 22 ISBN 978-0-593-18114-0