I hate to be the gay weighing in on the controversy surrounding Lara Spencer’s joking about men who dance ballet Friday on Good Morning America, but apparently we’re still pirouetting around cliches, even now in 2019. So here I am.
So, too, were male ballet dancers Robbie Fairchild, Travis Wall, and Fabrice Calmels. Besides Wall, who is outspoken about his sexuality and involved in LGBTQ+ activism, I don’t know the sexual orientations of the dancers. But I do know that they have a shared experience of bullying and shame because of their passion for something that, to a larger heteronormative, mainstream culture, isn’t considered traditionally masculine.
I know that because that’s precisely what they told Spencer Monday morning on GMA.
The dancers were part of a combination apology package and teachable moment that was orchestrated following Friday’s controversy. During a segment on the courses that Prince George will be enrolled in when he begins school, Spencer outwardly laughed as she explained that he will be taking ballet, and ad libbed jokes at the expense of the six-year-old and his parents until her co-hosts and the GMA studio audience joined her in laughter.
After a breezy, anodyne Instagram apology over the weekend, she returned to GMA Monday morning earnestly contrite as she introduced her conversation with the trio of dancers. It was a segment that got many things right—after it aired Monday morning, Wall and Fairchild were in Times Square teaching dance to both young girls and boys—but still got some very key things wrong. The same thing that these “teachable moments” tend to always get wrong.
“I screwed up. I did,” Spencer said Monday morning. “The comment I made about dance was insensitive, it was stupid, and I am deeply sorry. I have spoken to several members of the dance community in the last few days. I have listened. I have learned about the bravery it takes for a young boy to pursue a career in dance.”
Fairchild, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who will be starring alongside Taylor Swift and Judi Dench in the Cats movie, spoke about being in middle school when his schoolmates discovered that he was taking a dance class down the street, showed up at the window of the studio, and pointed and laughed. “I can’t tell you how much that hurt,” he said.
Calmels, a French ballet dancer who is the lead dancer at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, spoke about how he teaches dance to young kids, and has seen “boys just drop out because of the stigma around the form.” He continued, “Children should be entitled to experience things without being bullied.”
And Wall, who became famous as a contestant on the TV series So You Think You Can Dance and has won two Emmy Awards for his choreography on the show, spoke about the power of visibility a mainstream series can have. “How many boys have started to dance because of that show makes me so proud to represent that show.”
Spencer ended it all by thanking them for participating in the conversation: “For me, the lesson is words hurt. It was not my intention. But it was insensitive, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to apologize personally to you.”
It was everything you could have hoped for in the aftermath of an incident that so cruelly reminded us that boorish gay-shaming and the crushing judgment of gender norms are still intrinsically woven into the fabric of our culture. It was eye-opening to see that such harmful judgment can be espoused with casual sunniness on a popular morning show, perhaps the baseline at any given moment for our own cultural mores, for better or worse.
Spencer delivered a humbled, educated, clear apology, coupled with the understanding that the incident needed to spark a conversation with those who felt wronged. But the truth is, the conversation only involved a segment of those who felt wronged.
While it was an admirable exploration of what a male dancer must overcome to keep on through childhood lessons into a career in the discipline, as well as the need to break the stigma against boys who dance, the segment failed to explore what necessitated the conversation in the first place.
Even for someone who should be considered an ally—I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks Lara Spencer is truly homophobic, in the sense of how we typically view that word—her words were a reminder that there is a switch waiting to be flipped that reveals how embedded these hurtful clichés about gender and sexuality are.
What if a major morning show like GMA, in the wake of a viral controversy like this one, actually addressed that? What if it finally brought in, alongside the straight-passing, studly male ballet dancer success stories, LGBT schoolkids and experts on the tangible effects of this latent societal bullying?
“Cancel culture”—the impulse to fire anyone who makes a public misstep or says something offensive, mistakenly or otherwise—has grown too rabid, voracious, and unforgiving to be effective. What is gained when, instead of conversation or contrition, all discourse and education stops? It’s opportunity wasted not just for the person in question to grow, but for the entire culture to consider, debate, and evolve.
In the wake of Spencer mocking Prince George and male dancers, Broadway stars, celebrities, and dance icons posted on social media to admonish her comments on a sliding scale of vitriol, and to defend the dedication, strength, and athleticism it takes to become a dancer—all attributes that fly in the face of this elemental misconception that dance is exclusively flouncy, fey, and weak.
It is admirable that Spencer seemed to internalize all those comments—at least in her public-facing, televised life—and consider the value of translating her own education to her show’s audience.
With so many of these controversies, the most that the offended hope for or desire is a conversation about it, one that almost never happens. The most infuriating aspect of the Kevin Hart Oscars hosting scandal, at least for me, was the insinuation that anyone angered or disappointed by his past homophobic jokes wanted him to be fired, no questions asked, no chance for remorse. It’s myopic—and, to my eye, a recent and unhealthy development in our culture—to not see opportunity in outrage.
Critics wanted to know what Hart had learned about why his past jokes could still trigger such hurt, even though they were in the past. They wanted to understand how he feels his platform could be used for the better. They wanted to understand a mindset that could lead someone away from views like the ones he had articulated in the past to a more evolved perspective today. They wanted a conversation.
But Hart’s defensive dismissal of the criticism silenced that potential discourse. His petulant martyrdom was maybe more telling than what he said in the first place. Spencer’s segment Monday may reflect her genuine education, or it may just be damage control. But it did give space to the conversation; it’s just time for that conversation to be taken deeper.
It’s ridiculous that the idea that ballet is for sissies still exists. Men who train in ballet arguably rank among the most physically fit, strongest, disciplined athletes in the world. What they are able to accomplish with their bodies is as astounding, often more so, than anything someone might witness while watching sports.
Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, hell, even Channing Tatum or Hugh Jackman: How many strapping leading men will we see become major stars because of their talent for dance, while still perpetuating the idea that real men don’t dance? (Oh, and if you’re a talented male dancer without biceps as big as your head and a square jaw to fill a movie screen? THAT’S OK, TOO!)
But, ridiculous or not, that notion does still exist. What’s maybe more surprising is that we allow ourselves to forget it does.
When there’s progress of any kind when it comes to gender representation, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and the celebration of identity, we forget how surface-level that can be. We forget how much deeper our feelings, conversations, and self-reflection have to burrow for change, real change, to happen.
Just look how easy it was for every single person on screen, from Spencer to her co-hosts to the audience behind her, to laugh at a little boy taking ballet class, like it was a reflex to do so. Maybe because it still is.
How many of us are “woke” but, when it comes down to it, are uncomfortable around anything that doesn’t conform to the gender roles we’ve been conditioned to accept? How many of us think we are understanding, until we’re faced with the opportunity to prove it? How many people are there who love their gay friends, love their gender non-conforming hair dressers, love going to Broadway shows, and love marching in Pride parades who might still blanch at the idea of their own sons taking ballet, or, to take the hypothetical further, being gay?
I’m not sure these are topics that could be properly delved into in a five-minute Good Morning America segment. I’m glad that the small spotlight on the shame and stigma faced by male dancers, at the very least, was. But what if, this time, we can wring from the knee-jerk outrage just a little bit more?