In the basement of Merrill Auditorium there is a man cave.
Waiting for their turn to leap across the stage in this year’s performance of “The Nutcracker,” a group of males age 4 to well over 40 gather to play cards, eat popcorn and jockey for space in the dressing room. A few years ago, it wasn’t so crowded.
In the ’70s, “we would be lucky to have a Nutcracker prince,” said Linda Miele, artistic director for Maine State Ballet, who has staged the Christmas classic in Portland for 37 years. “We would have to hire from away.”
Blame it on “Billy Elliot” or “Dancing with the Stars,” but in the past few years boys are plieing their way across stages in record numbers. Ballet, a graceful sport that calls to mind tights and tutus, is no longer a girls’ club.
At the Maine State Ballet School for the Performing Arts in Falmouth, boys are taking to the discipline in droves. This year the number of males dancing in “The Nutcracker” has surged. There are 30 compared with 12 last year and a mere eight in the cast in 2011, said Miele.
“It’s great,” said the former New York City Ballet dancer, who bought the company in 1974 when she moved to Maine. “[Back then] it would be surprising to have a boy try out.”
With more opportunity, more roles and role models, that’s changing.
“These guys are pretty confident in themselves. It helps that there are more of them,” said Miele.
The Maine State Ballet has relied on local dancer Glenn Davis for male dance parts for 20 years. This year, he shares the Nutcracker Prince with 17-year-old Maiki Saito of Scarborough.
To Miele, who danced under famed choreographer George Balanchine, this is significant.
“This $200,000 production is not riding on one man’s shoulders,” she said.
Saito, an athletic-looking youth with dark spiky hair, started ballet at age 7.
“[Ballet] is a good workout, I love the people and it’s a stress reliever,” he said.
Instead of being teased for being a ballet boy, on the contrary, his classmates are impressed and proud of his stagecraft.
“A lot of people congratulate me or support me,” said Saito. “It’s a lot of fun — gets the blood flowing.”
Nick Anderson, 14, of Scarborough has been limbering up at the barre since he was 4. The toy soldier and Mouse King in this year’s “Nutcracker” was introduced to ballet like a lot of boys, through his sister.
“I came home and said, “I could do that,” Anderson said of seeing his sister perform.
His parents signed him up for ballet classes right away.
Ballet, which requires coordination and focus, also helps Anderson with other sports such as soccer. But, he says, it’s less forgiving.
“There is more precision in ballet than there is in soccer,” said Anderson. “You have to be spot on every time and with soccer sometimes you hit a pass sometimes you don’t. It’s really about nailing everything every time in ballet.”
And when the pressures of school and being a teenager start to mount, ballet provides something else — an escape.
“I can come here after school and pretty much forget about everything. When you are dancing you just focus on technique,” said Anderson during a recent rehearsal.
As sports become less gender-specific and more about ability, the walls are coming down.
Supportive parents, including Brian Rahill of Orono, shrug off askance looks when telling people their son takes ballet.
“It’s important as a parent to allow boys to express themselves in lots of ways,” Rahill said.
His son Ben Allan-Rahill, 13, will perform in Robinson Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” for the fourth time this year. The traveling production, with shows in New Hampshire and across the state, settles into the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts Dec. 21 and 22.
Allan-Rahill’s schedule overlaps with ice hockey and that has posed problems socially.
“People have a vision of what boys should be doing. When you are a tough guy hockey player and have to say you will miss games because you have to dance in ‘The Nutcracker,’ … he’s learned that this is who he is and what he is doing,” said Rahill.
Sticking to ballet is the biggest challenge for boys. Blowback from peers starts to set in in middle school. The typical trajectory is for boys to start tap dancing when they are young and “we lose them when they are in high school to sports,” said Miele.
That’s why role models such as Davis are paramount.
“The more we get out in the community the more we perform and boys see it as a viable option” and the more they stay, he said.
Despite the obvious upsides, donning flats and tights is not always easy. No matter how rock solid your confidence is.
“Boys come to a line they have to cross. Are they going to give in to people making fun of them or quit? For some it’s harder than others,” said Davis, who coaches young dancers on the topic of peer pressure.
“You have to take a stand at some point and say, ‘do I care more about what people think of me or do I care more about what I’m doing?’”
Parents say that choice is getting easier.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as girls’ sports and boys’ sports,” said Rahill. “Society has gotten more open, accepting and understanding. People are recognizing you can be masculine in a lot of different ways.”