It's a typical scene at 5:30 p.m. on a cold Monday: Parents are hanging out around the New Studio of Dance, the school component of the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre. They're waiting on their daughters, who, clad in leotards, complete a string of cartwheels. Instructor Giles Collard counts for each girl ("One, two, three, four") as the young dancers spin off the "stage" -- a row of blue and yellow mats laid across the floor of the tiny Be Be Theatre-turned-dance-studio.
I, too, was a ballerina wannabe when I was in elementary school. On Mondays I wore my pink tights under my clothes and hurried off to Mrs. Sebesta's ballet class at the community center when school let out. Most of my friends also took ballet -- girlfriends, that is. Like Collard's Monday class, dance was -- and still is -- dominated by girls.
Which is most of the reason why Collard's brainchild, "Men Dancing, A Festival of Dance: Choreography by Men Performed by Men," came to be.
"The idea is to have a dance event where men are the majority," Collard explains. "Often, when men are dancing, a woman has choreographed the work, putting feminine movements in the dance." He demonstrates an arabesque with pointed toes and supple hands. "The power of dance by men in [classical] ballet lacks a lot," he stresses.
It may be that lack of power that sends out mixed signals (and the idea that dance is for sissies), but Collard attempts to set the record straight.
"I used to be a rugby player," he says with a laugh. "Dancing is way harder."
Collard started dancing -- social dancing, that is -- as a teenager in France. Dancing was the way to get close to the opposite sex.
"I was too shy to talk to girls," he admits.
For the next decade, he burned a lot of calories on the dance floor, often hitting the nightclubs. In fact, when he moved to Asheville he signed up for a modern-dance class, hoping to pick up some new moves. It was that class, taught at the New Studio, which sealed his fate. At age 28 he began a professional dance career, training in ballet, tap, butoh (a Japanese form), mime and fencing.
"Last year I did 70 performances," Collard says.
While he's happy to be making a living as a dancer (and dance instructor), he's quick to point out that the glut of performing opportunities is due to a lack of men to fill those roles. Local ballet dancer Brad Parquette, for instance, wasn't able to perform in Men Dancing because he spends the entire holiday season on the road dancing male characters in The Nutcracker. While every city has a Nutcracker show, there aren't enough guys to go around -- so male dancers are at a premium.
In fact, Parquette earns the bulk of his salary from Nutcracker performances alone.
ACDT's exchange program with French school L'ecole de Dance Blagnac highlights the gender disparity in dance. The school has 700 female dancers -- and one male, Collard points out.
"Many dance companies import men, but in Asheville it's different," he adds. "There are a lot of guy dancers. At our big show at the end of the year, the cast was one-third guys, and that's unusual."
The boys and adult men who dance in Asheville are a varied and dedicated group, pursuing every aspect of the art form, from step dancing and swing to fencing and hip-hop. "At the New School, we have a lot of guys because I teach," Collard explains. "Even the Friday-night class is packed."
He's not being vain -- he's learned that guys like to learn guy dancing from male instructors.
"I realized one day, talking to Jim Curtis [a 76-year-old local dancer], that male dancing is supposed to be about power and strength," Collard reveals.
He refers to the dramatic and dangerous Rooster Fight piece created by Mexican dancer/choreographer Jose Limon, a major player in the modern-dance world who brought masculine dance into the spotlight. Following Limon's lead, Collard quit teaching boys the typical feminine movements and embarked on a new path.
"Now the boys in my class do truck dances and death-of-the-Roman-legionary dances," he explains. "Their dances are based on their own vocabulary. They don't wear tutus or tights ... they might wear a helmet or goggles."
Collard starts boy dancers as young as age 6 and as old as they're willing and able. "I actually prefer to teach people who don't have classical training," he admits. "When they've had training, they get stuck; they're not open to experimenting."
Experimentation is the name of the game in the men's class, too. There, dancers choreograph works about shoes, the Italian Vespa motorcycle and Beatles songs.
Perhaps the freedom of expression or the sheer fun of it all -- who wouldn't want to perform a dance about a Vespa? -- lures men onto the dance floor. Or maybe Asheville's cultural climate is right for men to discover their inner Gregory Hines. Whatever the reason, when Collard scoped out the situation, he realized there were enough men on the local scene to create a full evening of dance solely choreographed and performed by men.
Dancers range from professionals to those who kept their day jobs but still pour their hearts into their art. Swing dancer Sosh Howell will show off a solo version of the 1920s-era Charleston; Mark Small will share his traditional Chinese Lion Dance; Joe Mohar will tap dance while playing guitar; modern dancer Lawrence Hines will debut a new creation; Corey Finneron will fuse classical ballet with hip-hop; members from avant-garde troupes Surreal Sirkus and Transform Venus will perform; and Collard will dance a spoof on spy movies.
"Men Dancing" also includes work by Nelson Reyes, lead dancer and choreographer of the National Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba, who just arrived at ACDT from Havana.
"ACDT went to Cuba three times, and we met Nelson then," Collard explains.
Reyes' work is modern dance infused with action, humor and the use of voice. He'll be teaching classes at the New School through July, and Collard happily welcomes the male addition to the school -- and to the dance festival.
"I want this to be inspirational for the adult performers who make their living as dancers," Collard insists, noting that, all too often, male dancers find themselves in the role of the token guy.