Bias at the Ballet? Not so much.

In which Valerie Catrow publicly shames herself to prove a point—and to clear up something about the School of Richmond Ballet.

I got a text last week that sent me sputtering.

My husband sent me to a link to a thread on the RVA subreddit about Richmond Ballet’s Children’s Division course offerings for the fall. The gist of the conversation was this: the parent of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy wanted to enroll his/her dance-loving child into a ballet class. Upon looking into the options (PDF) offered by Richmond Ballet, the parent discovered that introductory classes are offered to girls as young as three, but boys cannot enroll until age five.

As you might expect, the Richmond redditors were all, “Say whaaaaaa?” And then there was much speculating.

The majority of the commenters decided that this was likely a case of gender bias–as suggested by the title of the original post: “So my kid wants to learn dance, but can’t due to gender bias at Richmond Ballet. Anyone know what to do here?” Richmond Ballet must be operating under the widely accepted theory that girls mature faster than boys. We all (yes, myself very much included…more on that in a minute) assumed that the Ballet assumed that boys are just too impulsive and lack the self-control needed for something as disciplined as ballet.

That’s when the sputtering started.

“Well, I mean, I get that some boys are squirrelly longer than girls, but not all. That’s a ridiculous rule,” I texted back to my husband. “That would be like cutting off dance instruction to girls at 12 because they become awful people.”1

The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. I began mentally composing a finger-wagging Facebook post2. My outrage felt good because it felt justified. I was on a roll. When I’m on a roll, I mutter to myself…

How dare Richmond Ballet make such assumptions about kids?

Shouldn’t they be encouraging interested dancers at any of age of any gender?

Wouldn’t starting boys in ballet earlier help get rid of the ridiculous stigma (and subsequent bullying) many young male dancers face?

What does Richmond Ballet have to say for itself?

Then I noticed that nowhere on the reddit thread had anyone posted what Richmond Ballet had to say for itself, straight from the horse’s mouth–because, as far as I can tell, no one asked3. A few people suggested the post’s author reach out to the Ballet for clarification on class policies, but they didn’t make enough noise to sway the conversation. Regardless of the absence of any information beyond one parent’s experience, the majority did what it does: it ruled. As I realized this, my outrage fizzed out. I could feel embarrassment creeping up my shoulders and neck, prickling my face.

(Look, it’s a sobering feeling when you realize how easily one can get swept up in an emotional online conversation–especially if you consider yourself pretty savvy at the whole Internet thing.)

So I went to the horse’s mouth. When I got home, I emailed Kate Crowder4, Richmond Ballet’s PR manager, linking the reddit conversation and asking for an explanation for the discrepancies in course offerings for girls and boys. She responded within 30 minutes with a promise to get back to me ASAP with word from the Ballet’s School Director, Judy Jacob.

Before close of business on that same day, I had my answer–and Ms. Crowder couldn’t have been more gracious in her response. Here’s her reply, quoted with her permission…

“It is very important to us, at The School of Richmond Ballet, to provide the very best experience for the student. Through experimentation over the years, we have found that boys take to ballet under different circumstances than girls–having their own class and a great role model (the right, male teacher) both being tremendously importantly in the early years. At this time, the School is restricted by personnel and scheduling, much as we are restricted by the lack of demand for a little boys class–but hopefully that is only a reality of this moment. We would LOVE to have younger boys, and would welcome them if there was sufficient interest. It’s really quite simple–we want to ensure the very best experience for the student in the classroom, and especially for young boys who are such a rarity in our world. But urge those interested to call, and if we get enough interest, we’ll do what we can to make it work!”

Later on in our email exchange she added, “It’s just important to us that people know that our reasons are to ensure the very best experience for the student, and we’ve arrived at these reasons because of trial and error–meaning, we have had [few] little boys before.”

TL;DR: They’d love to have a class for little boys, but they can’t justify hiring the ideal teacher for that class for little boys because not enough people are asking for a class for little boys.

Mmmm, this crow is delicious!

So, what do I (and we) learn from this? Three things, I hope…

  1. You’re probably not going to get something you don’t ask for. Give the potential giver of the thing you want the chance to pony up! And we Richmonders get something practical out of this as well: it turns out the School of Richmond Ballet Team does want to teach ballet to little boys. Call them (804.344.0906), email them (, let them know that your tiny dude dancers are ready to pirouette their little hearts out! Be the change you want to see in your city’s most respected ballet company, etc.
  2. Despite what the saying suggests, when you “assume,” you really  just make an ass of yourself and yourself alone, as I did; the other person ultimately gets to just shrug and go about his/her non-ass-ish business. 
  3. Just because lots of people are saying something doesn’t make it true. Before you pick up your pitchfork, pick up your phone (or laptop) and get the whole story.

Now start making those requests, parents! Don’t let my self-inflicted public shaming be for nothing!

  1. I don’t really think 12-year-old girls are, as a rule, awful people, but it’s a widely held belief that they are by default. I was attempting to point out the absurdity of one assumption by invoking one of equal absurdity. 
  2. That’ll show ’em! 
  3. Or if they did ask, they didn’t head back over to the thread to share what they learned–at least not as of this writing. 
  4. Who, by the way, looks nothing like a horse’s mouth. She’s quite lovely, actually. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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