When someone hears “ballet dancer”, what one imagines is a possibly petit and elegant and mostly feminine and female.
I think it is safe to say, that what one does not necessarily imagine is that the ballet dancer is a bearded, 1.8 metre tall, 117kg middle-aged man. But they exist. I am one of them. And it has been a journey in self-acceptance and overcoming stereotypes and stigmas, mostly in my own head and some very real ones as well.
As a little boy I had a flair for art, and certainly for amateur theatrics. I used to skip, dance, climb, float and in some ways was a very atypical boy of the 1980s.
By the time I started high-school at 13 years old on South Africa’s East Coast, it was 1991. An exciting time of change, and new freedoms for both me and this ‘New South Africa’.
I was tall, quite athletic and had started growing beefy and muscular. I was shy. But my height and structure, and upbringing provided me with a certain confidence. But certainly, nowhere near enough to announce my passions and interests aloud.
I wanted to do ballet. As a boy I had worn my sister’s ballet shoes and wore her “Prince Charming” costume which she had danced in for a pantomime. In my largely conservative family these ‘antics’, by me, the little tyke who liked to make people laugh were seen as exactly that. Laughable. The idea that I could go to ballet lessons was impossible. Boys did not do ballet.
As a teenager, the desire to express myself, as like with all teenagers, rose to a fever pitch. I was however at high school from 1991 to 1995, and at a bastion of post-colonial education. We had a cenotaph on the school grounds for “All the Boys Who Died” in the Great and Second World Wars. Our school churned out soldiers, leaders of communities and industry, rugby and cricket stars. It did not churn out dancers.
I was self-conscious, and I didn’t want to attract too much attention to myself. I was already treading on dangerous ground by excelling in art, and had I put my hand up for speech and drama, with a desire to go to the barre (the ballet bar), I would have willingly walked into the category of boys who had their heads dunked in toilets, or were tripped head and hands first into large stainless steel communal urinals. Or be slapped, kicked, punched, menaced and generally caused a soul-destroying time at the hands of bullies and abusers. Our peers.
So, the rugby field, swimming pool and student politics it was for me. I ‘hung up my ballet shoe dreams’ and got on with growing up, and becoming a man.
Fast forward to 2010. I was then 32. For me, my life began at 30. I was for the first time comfortable in my own skin. I had overcome many of the teenage teething problems and early adult issues. And as I felt this new confidence manifest, I started to make many big decisions.
The one that had a great deal of impact, and was a truly liberating experience was signing up for adult beginner ballet lessons at a ballet school on the East Coast.
However, in 2011 I left for London and would only take up my dancing shoes again until 2018, as too many things distracted me and I always had a reason for not calling, making contact and signing up. One of them was the old spectre of being laughed at, mocked and derided.
Then I decided, at 40, that the time to do what I enjoy, to carve out some time for myself, where the stresses of career and life, in general, could be forgotten for one glorious hour; where I am forced to live in the present and not the past or future, where you have to become aware of muscles and joints, and you need to surrender to the instructions of the ballet mistress all just proved too appealing.
This year began with me receiving a message from the Swiss Ballet Mistress who owns the school I train at in Cape Town. She informed me that she had been watching me toward the end of last year, and she felt it was time for me to move up from absolute beginners to beginners classes.
As much as that doesn’t sound like an achievement, for me, the 42-year-old man weighing 117kg with a size 11 ballet shoe, the boy who had always wished he could but couldn’t and wouldn’t, it has ranked as highly as some of my life’s greatest achievements in terms of a sense of joy, pride and gratitude.
The effects have been a certain spring in my step, I am more conscious of what I am eating, and I am exercising more, in an effort to bring my weight down and raise my fitness levels so that it doesn’t take a year for me to advance to Intermediary Classes.
My sense of accomplishment, self-worth and the all-round support and acceptance I have received by many of my colleagues and friends after posting briefly of this journey on social media, have made me even more determined.
What would my advice be? I suppose to a young person, it would be to follow your passion, don’t wait and don’t be afraid, you will likely regret it far more than you will regret having tried.
To an older bugger like myself, I would say that you’re never too old, too fat, too anything you have imagined as a reason to hold yourself back. Follow your passion. You won’t regret anything other than having waited so long to do so.
Rob Quintas is a ward councillor at the City of Cape Town, the DA Metro LGBTQIA+ chairperson and an amateur Ballerino.