How this Ontario teen is dancing up a storm

TVO.org speaks with National Ballet School student Ewan Hartman about the mental and physical challenges of dance
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 25, 2019
Ewan Hartman is a Grade 10 student at the National Ballet school, in Toronto. (Henry Mendel)

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Ewan Hartman’s school week starts late Sunday afternoon when he waves goodbye to his mom at London’s VIA Rail station and climbs aboard a Toronto-bound train. The 15-year-old has an 8:15 a.m. start the following day at the National Ballet School, where he has studied for the past three years. “Dance is my life,” he says. “It’s everything to me.”

Hartman is just one of a growing number of boys who are setting their sights on a professional-dance career. This year, boys outnumber girls in the National Ballet School’s Grade 12 class for the first time in the Toronto school’s 60-year history — 14 of the 27 students in Hartman’s Grade 10 class are boys.

Each week, Hartman spends 15 to 20 hours working in the studio before catching the train back to London on Saturday. There, he often stops by the local studio where he started dancing as a toddler — practising jazz, tap, acro, and contemporary lyrical routines he’ll perform at competitions such as Dance Masters of America, which is organized by a non-profit of the same name that represents dance teachers and schools across North America. In July, he was runner-up in the Teen Mister Dance of America class (he’s earned titles in the competition’s Junior and Master classes in previous years).

TVO.org spoke with Hartman and his mother, Allison, last month about being a boy in ballet and the mental and physical challenges of dance. 

TVO.org: How old was Ewen when he first started to dance?

Allison Hartman: As soon as he could walk. He always danced — there was a gallop, or a turn, or a twist, or something. We called it "the move.”

Ewan Hartman: It's like a needle. I went down on the ground and put my leg up.

TVO.org: Did or does anyone else in your family dance?

EH: My two younger sisters. And then my older sister also danced.

AH: I left dance to go to join a bowling group. All my kids are into the arts, which is totally opposite from both my husband and me.

TVO.org: Ewan, how did you land a spot at the National Ballet School?

EH: The National Ballet School accepted me for their summer school after Grade 5. They have an audition tour — they'll stop in different cities [across Canada]. From that, they'll pick kids to go to their summer school. That's when you audition.

AH: He was accepted, and we deferred it for a year. We thought he was young. I mean, you're 11 at the time and living in Toronto full time; we were just apprehensive.

TVO.org: What's it like to have school and home so far apart?

EH: It's tiring but exciting at the same time, I'd say. I'm definitely a lot closer to my friends here [in London] because I've known them since I was two. But I see everybody at the school every day; I'm very close with them. I always thought, Oh, would I act different in different places? But I found I never really had that issue, which is nice.

TVO.org: We're seeing a greater appreciation of dance as sport — on ice, for instance, there’s the example of Olympic figure skaters Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, also from the London region. What’s your biggest challenge in the sport of dancing?

EH: Not only is there endurance and physical-sport aspects, there is that artistic aspect, too. You have to put your soul in, and you have to have the artistry and passion. You have to tell a story. You're trying to make the whole thing look effortless while you lift a girl above your head and spin her around, or while you hold your leg up to your head for 64 counts and just make it seem like it's nothing when it is super hard.

Hockey, soccer, or football are very athletically challenging, but you don't have to look graceful. You don't have to worry about engaging the audience.

TVO.org: Are there any mental challenges?

EH: If you ever meet somebody who takes dance super seriously, you will, nine times out of 10, notice that they have a hard time in the mirror. We're just so judgmental of ourselves because we strive for perfection. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, “Okay, how do I get this to be perfect? What can I do?” or “Okay that didn't work out. How do I fix it?” it's just, “Oh, that didn't work out — I'm bad; I need to stop.”

I've seen people in my class, their anxiety has gone up and their stress has gone up because it's so hard for them. The school is really good about knowing what to do, and a lot of the time it's [telling students to] take a year off, not of dance, but of this school — to rehabilitate and make sure you are prepared.

TVO.org: According to choreographer Robert Binet, ballet is “the most gendered of all art forms.” Have you encountered issues related to that?

AH: Ewan used to have several female choreographers. We talked to Rebecca, our studio owner [in London], about using a male choreographer. It was a huge change for Ewan. The male choreographer was able to be more in touch with him in a different way than a female could — just how to hold your body, how to carry yourself, different little things like that.

EH: They just understood better the process of going through being a dancer as a male. With the female choreographers, a lot of the time I found that I got stuck doing some of the same stuff over again in pieces, like crossed arms and head nods, and there wasn't much variety. But then, when I got to dancing with male choreographers, they had more of a variety in terms of what movements look masculine for a piece.

TVO.org: How long could your career be?

EH: If I do everything perfectly right and I treat my body well, I could probably go to 40, maybe. It's a very short career.

TVO.org: Last summer, Good Morning America host Lara Spencer mocked Prince George for taking ballet (she later apologized). How did you react?

EH: We made a post on my Facebook, and I posted on my Instagram saying, “It's sad to see not just her, but the people with her, laugh.”

AH: We said, “You should go stop by your local dance studio and see how many boys are actually dancing.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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