Real Men Love Ballet

L to R: Kikuls, McCormick, Zaharia

(This article orginally appeared in Jersey Man Magazine)

by Andrea Hartley

It’s Friday night. You and your wife are seated at a formal, fundraising dinner for a cure for breast cancer. They announce that the Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre will be performing. You wince. You stoically sit back in your chair, preparing to be bored. After all, ballet is for women, just like the fundraiser. You look at your watch, hoping this will be brief and mentally replay that great pass that Michael Vick threw in yesterday’s game. Your mind comes back to the present as you admire that pretty ballerina’s legs. Then you see that male ballet dancer hold her over his head without flinching, as he spins and does some other complicated moves. “Wow, I guess he’s in pretty good shape to be able to do that,” you think. As you continue watching, you feel quite surprised, almost mesmerized, by the athletic ability demonstrated by these male dancers. Ballet isn’t what you thought it was at all.

This was the actual experience of several gentlemen who attended a recent fundraiser, according to Phyllis Papa, founder and director of Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre. “I heard them speaking after the performance about how surprised they were and how tough the dancers were. One gentleman was so impressed, he donated $2500 to the company,” she said. “I heard them saying that they couldn’t believe that there was so much athletic ability required to do what these dancers do.”

Christopher Stanchina, a Northfield attorney, said that he had never been “into” ballet; but when he saw the Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre perform, he changed his mind. “My wife and I were impressed with the quality of the production,” he said. “This is a small, tour de force group, with resident, professional dancers from all over the world.” Stanchina was so impressed with the company that he is now on their board of directors.

Papa believes that many American men just aren’t aware of the athletic ability required of a male ballet dancer. She explained that at The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, located in Philadelphia, various physical activities were studied to determine which activities best developed coordination, balance and respiration, for rehabilitation programs to help brain injured children. They found that ballet was more effective than faster sports such as football or baseball. “Slow movements are very difficult to perform and require great precision,” said Douglas Dorman, Vice Director for the Institutes.

Papa explained that American men are not usually exposed to ballet while growing up, so they have developed misconceptions about it. “It’s different in Europe,” she said. “For example, it is considered to be quite an honor to have a subscription to the Royal Danish Ballet handed down from one’s family.”

This was true for Mark McCormick, from Australia, Kristaps Kikulis, from North Latvia and John Zaharia, from Romania, who are all resident dancers for Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre.

McCormick, 26, has been dancing since he was seven years old. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. McCormick spends an average of six hours a day, six days a week, dancing. When preparing for a performance he puts in 12 hour days. He says he plans to continue dancing, “until the body gives out”. His advice for American men who are unfamiliar with ballet? “Give it a chance, come see one before you judge.”

Zaharia, 24, experienced a knee injury during a performance because he had no time for warm-up. Though he needs surgery which he can’t afford, he continues to dance. “I love ballet and will continue to dance as long as I can, despite the pain,” he said.

Kikulis, 27, was also a basketball player in North Latvia for 8 years. “Where I come from, ballet dancers are a normal, everyday thing. Everybody goes to the ballet,” he said. “Ballet requires much physical work, just like sports.”

All of the dancers remember attending school for many years where they trained for at least 6 hours a day before they came to Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre.

So guys, have you decided to give ballet a whirl? How about starting out with a performance which includes “show girls” as well as ballet dancers? “Caught Up in the Swing,” choreographed by Papa, is a comedy set in a 1920’s Atlantic City Hotel. Remember “The Boardwalk Empire”? The company will be doing that performance at Resorts in June to celebrate their 30th anniversary. It will also be performed later in the year at Rowan University and Richard Stockton College. For a complete performance schedule, check out their website at or call 609-804-1995.

Atlantic City Ballet                
713 West Moss Mill Rd.                
Egg Harbor City, N.J.