A new controversy is roiling the world of male ballet after Good Morning America host Lara Spencer made disparaging comments about 6-year-old Prince George’s interest in dance. Her comments prompted criticism from the dance world, including stars like George Takei, Chita Rivera, Calvin Royal III, Robbie Fairchild, and choreographer Arlene Phillips.
It all started Thursday on a Good Morning America segment called “Pop News,” in which Lara Spencer outlined the English monarch’s ambitious curriculum for the year, which reportedly includes religious studies, computer programming, poetry, and, of course, ballet. Spencer could hardly contain her laughter as she reported on the young royal’s planned dance classes, briefly composing herself to note sardonically that “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet,” adding, “I have news for you Prince William, we’ll see how long that lasts.”
The host’s mockery of the 6-year-old’s interest in dance understandably drew ire from the dance community, which made no bones about calling out the host for enforcing negative stereotypes. A short apology posted to Spencer’s Instagram did little to quell the outrage. The widow of dance legend Gene Kelly jumped into the fray on Friday, posting an open letter to her Facebook about the important legacy of her husband and his work to destigmatize the study and practice of dance for men, calling on ABC to “do better.”
In 1958, my late husband, the dancer, director, choreographer Gene Kelly, decided to take on the stigma facing male dancers in an Omnibus television program for NBC that he created and starred in called “Dancing, A Man’s Game.” He hoped that by aligning the great sports stars of the day—Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Vic Seixas, Sugar Ray Robinson, among others—he could challenge and destroy the shame surrounding male dancers once and for all. For Gene it was more than a professional task. It was, in his words, a personal “crusade” to show that dancers are athletes and that it is okay for a man to be graceful. As he says in the special: “What could be more graceful than a football player throwing a pass—what is more excitingly beautiful than the swift movement of a double play? Every motion a good athlete makes is as beautiful as any a dancer makes.”
Sadly, on August 22, 2019, Good Morning America elected to run a disgraceful segment about Prince George and his ballet classes. That host Lara Spencer would mock a boy’s study of ballet in a nationally televised morning show and that her colleagues would join in her derision is both unacceptable and incomprehensible.
Gene was a classically trained ballet dancer and believed that his training was essential to all that he did. He was schooled in Chicago by a woman named Berenice Holmes who had been the student of the great Russian dancer Adolph Bolm. Gene said that Holmes could perform many complicated turns better than a man, including a double tour en l’air, and that she instructed him to dance with great strength, particularly in his arms. He knew that ballet training gave him the long, beautiful line that he sought in his dancing and, later, in his choreography for the camera that led to some of the seminal films of our time, including On the Town; An American in Paris; Singin’ in the Rain; Brigadoon.
Over the years, Gene advised many professional athletes to study ballet, including former wide receivers Willie Gault and Lynn Swann. Both acknowledge that the training improved their performance on the field. Many have followed suit. Gene would be devastated to know that 61 years after his ground-breaking work the issue of boys and men dancing is still the subject of ridicule—and on a national network.
ABC must do better.
Patricia Ward Kelly (Mrs. Gene Kelly)
Things finally came to a head Monday morning as Spencer delivered a formal apology and aired an interview with celebrated male dancers Robbie Fairchild, Travis Wall, and Fabrice Calmels about the stigma that surrounds male dancers. “I screwed up,” Spencer told her co-anchors and audiences on Monday morning. “The comment I made about dance was insensitive, it was stupid, and I am deeply sorry.” She admitted that she had spoken to members of the dance community in the days since her comments and learned about the difficulties facing young boys who pursue dance. “I want more boys to dance,” Wall told Spencer in their interview. “We make such beautiful art and we create such beautiful moments in this world. I wish the world would dance more.”
“I just wish people would be more open-minded,” added Calmels. “Children should be entitled to experience things without being bullied.” The dancers thanked Spencer for her effort to turn the negative situation into a more positive one.
“As a male role model,” Fairchild told Spencer, “mine was Gene Kelly, and I wouldn’t be where I am at without Singin’ in the Rain and the VHS, watching it on TV. That was a pivotal moment when I realized he’s doing what I want to do and he’s making it so cool.” As the apology and interview aired on Monday, 300 dancers gathered in Times Square around the Good Morning America studio to participate in a mass “ballet class” lead by Wall and Alex D. Wong.