Student spurs gender-fluid practices in ballet at George Brown Dance

Dance student Bebe Brunjes

A student’s pursuit of dancing on pointe has helped to spur more gender-fluid practices in ballet training at George Brown Dance.   

Ballet tends to follow conventional gender roles in performance and in the types of training female and male dancers pursue, with women in pointe class and men in another group. Dance Performance Preparation student Bebe Brunjes wanted to join a pointe class — a first according to Associate Director Derek Sangster — and there were no questions asked.  

Dance student Bebe Brunjes on pointe

The request sparked another important change at George Brown Dance. In repertoire, a class where students learn choreography from Ballet Jörgen, roles used to be assigned based on gender identity. Now, students can learn all roles.  

“Times are changing, and we are changing with them,” Sangster said.  

After performing in musical theatre productions and working backstage, Bebe decided to pursue formal dance training in 2020 in the Dance Performance Preparation program.  

“Nobody gave it a second thought when I said I wanted to do pointe class, and as an emerging artist, to be taken seriously and get that respect right off the bat was so refreshing,” Bebe said. “It gave me that encouragement that this was the right thing, this is the place that you belong, and I could not be happier.”  

Ballet Jörgen is an official partner of George Brown College and delivers dance programs. We’re thrilled to share Bebe’s story as the George Brown community and the city of Toronto celebrate Pride Month.  

"I’ve been embracing my femininity in dance and that’s specifically what I wanted to do with George Brown," Bebe said. “I’ve spent so much time suppressing that feminine aspect of my dancing and myself. Going back to school and saying this is my intention, and at the end of it, I want to play with gender because that’s art.” 

George Brown Dance graduate Elise Tigges of Ballet Jörgen spoke with Bebe about training at George Brown, discovering pointe and what Instagram and TikTok mean for dance.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

How did you get your start in ballet and dance?  

I’ve been dancing for about 18 years, but I didn’t start ballet until about 2013 when I was cast in a production of Carousel with Orpheus Musical Theatre Society in Ottawa. Carousel features a lot of ballet, particularly in the second act, so as a featured dancer I had to pull my bootstraps up and jump into ballet quickly. Since then, I’ve mainly been taking drop-in classes and workshops.   

I also participated in the Broadway Experience program through Broadway Dance Centre in New York. It was two weeks of intense musical theatre training with Broadway professionals. Those workshops, specifically, helped me really define myself as a dancer before coming to George Brown.  

So, you’d had previous dance and theatre training before coming to George Brown?  

Yes, specifically in acting and theatre before I moved to Ottawa for university in 2009. I had ambitions to be a musical theatre performer. When I started working with Orpheus Musical Theatre, I began my more focused technical dance training. You’re thrown into the deep end at that point.   

What brought you to George Brown?  

When COVID happened, I was working backstage with Kinky Boots and Drayton Entertainment. It was really inspiring to see professional performers giving it their all and when COVID happened the industry was devastated. Everything shut down. I really wanted to focus on progressing throughout this time and all signs were pointing to me going back to school. I thought, “take some time for yourself, focus, everything is so manic outside in the world right now. When COVID’s over you can come out better than you were before.”   

In my search for university and college programs, I stumbled across George Brown. I had more training in acting and music, I knew George Brown’s dance program would help fill in the gaps of what I didn’t know and then complement what I already did know.  

You’re currently in the Dance Performance Preparation program?  

Yes. I auditioned for the Commercial Dance program. Because of COVID, not to say that I bombed the class, but it was one of those moments where the switch from being in-person to being on a Zoom call dance class was hard. I didn’t have other people around me and realized I didn’t know the terminology and I was lacking confidence.   

In the conversation with Derek and Clea from the department, we decided that it was probably better for me to go into Dance Performance Preparation because I was still missing that foundation that I would have received had I been in dance classes since I was 12 or 13 years old. It feels like it was the right decision. I’m already seeing progress so it’s exciting!  

You’re taking pointe class at George Brown. Had you done pointe before you started?  

Yes — not in class but on my own.   

Funny story. So, as I said before, I work backstage on a lot of touring ballets, with Royal Winnipeg, National Ballet of Canada, as well as the Bolshoi and a couple of other Russian companies. During one loadout as a wardrobe person, I noticed that one dancer had thrown out her pointe shoes. So, me being the person that I am, I swiped them out of the garbage can, took them home and cleaned them thoroughly (you know dancers’ feet). I didn't intend to use them but after I cleaned them, I tried them on and they magically fit. From then on, I was like, you know, I really love this feeling. I want to be a dancer on pointe now. I used those shoes up until the beginning of my classes to train myself. Now, having the pointe shoes that I have, I know they did not fit. The original ones were a mess, probably for a shoe size that is three or four sizes smaller than mine.   

Had you taken any pointe classes before starting pointe at George Brown, or was it just you messing around at home trying to figure it out?  

It was very much messing around at home watching YouTube videos because it was terrifying to think about going to a class. I wasn’t primarily a ballet dancer so the idea of taking a pointe class with dancers who had probably been experienced dancing on pointe from their adolescence was scary. I kept a lot to myself and tried to keep it private so that miraculously, one day if I was ever going to pull out pointe, it was going to be a surprise. When I got into the program and I saw my schedule, it said pointe and I was so excited. I was over the moon. It was a moment where I thought, I get to do this and finally live one of the dreams I’ve always had!  

What was it like to finally join the pointe class?  

Over the moon happiness! It was one of those satisfying moments where I had anticipated the worst based on previous experiences. I expected so many challenges and an uphill climb to get into this pointe class but then they made it so easy and effortless. Nobody gave it a second thought when I said I wanted to do pointe class, and as an emerging artist, to be taken seriously and get that respect right off the bat was so refreshing. It gave me that encouragement that this was the right thing, this is the place that you belong, and I could not be happier.  

That makes me so happy that you found a supportive place. Ballet, and dance in general, can really stick to certain norms. I’m glad we’re moving in that direction.  

Has your pointe training helped with other areas of your dance training?   

Pointe training has taken my dance training to a new level. When you think about the physical aspect of it, the strengthening exercises we practice are transferable to so many different styles of dance. It feels like I have breakthroughs in my pointe class that I wouldn’t necessarily have in my other classes. You can get so hard on yourself, so focused on the perfectionism of it all. For me, in pointe class, I’m just happy to be there so I’m focusing on embracing the power, seeing what it’s like to stand on pointe and finding the muscles. It makes me feel more confident in what I’m doing. I can’t wait for a tutu.   

Are you Team Pancake Tutu or Team Romantic Tutu?  

I love a pancake tutu because, as someone who works backstage, I’ve seen the stacks of them. I also have a side of design in me and so it would be so interesting to build a dress made out of 100 tutus, just layered up and down, and see how that would go.   

Let’s discuss the stigmas around men in dance in general. How do you feel about that and what was your experience growing up?  

My experience with dance was very much, if you’re a male dancer, then you’re either queer or you’re feminine. Then, as I grew older, I learned that you’re either queer and feminine or you are hyper-chauvinistic, which is also a weird place to be when you’re thinking of the spectrum of people. That was my mentality for the longest time, which is why I hesitated to be more public about my dance. As I grew older, I found that all the stigmas and all the stereotypes about male dancers were completely unfounded. Yes, you’re dancing. Yes, dancing is often seen as something artistic and poetic and lyrical and very majestic. But at the same time, it takes so much power, strength, detail, and focus. As a dancer, I homed in on my masculinity. When you’re in the ensemble, as a male dancer, like myself, a lot of the time you’re over-compensating for any of the femininity that you may portray. That was also very dominant in my acting school. To make you more commercial, more usable for lack of a better word, you need to almost squash that femininity. In dance, it was a lot easier because a lot of my teachers could convey how to be more masculine without saying words like “dance like you like women” or “dance less gay.” That’s very common to hear.  

In dance or in acting?  

Both. In dance, you get it a lot more than you would think because a large portion of male dancers tends to lean toward a queer spectrum. You get a hip-pop here or a shoulder and some choreographers just don’t know how to communicate so you get a “stop moving around so gay,” which is very detrimental – how does this convey as gay? At the end of the day, me popping my hip doesn’t have anything to do with my attraction towards men.   

As I grew older, I started to resent that mindset and became a social justice warrior against everything that was expected as a masculine dancer and pushed toward the other direction. Someone once said that women are the picture and men are the frame when it comes to dancing. I am not a frame. I am the picture and the frame and the hook that holds the picture on the wall. I never wanted to be in that scenario where I was just highlighting someone else as a dancer. I wanted to be highlighted myself. More recently, within the past three to five years, I’ve been embracing my femininity in dance and that’s specifically what I wanted to do with George Brown. I’ve spent so much time suppressing that feminine aspect of my dancing and myself. Going back to school and saying this is my intention, and at the end of it, I want to play with gender because that’s art. It’s way more fun to see.  

Can you talk a little about the stigmas of men dancing on pointe?  

I think that I thought that it was unavailable to me. I thought it was something to do with science — something to do with the idea that women are slenderer, and pointe was going to be specifically for people of certain statures. I thought there had to be some other reason aside from me just being male that said I can’t do pointe. Social media platforms like Instagram have become such assets to dance. I can go look up a hashtag like male pointe dancers and see examples of everyone and their mother who’s decided to take a video of themselves doing pointe. Seeing videos gives me a little bit more motivation and excitement to see that pointe could become very gender-fluid moving forward. Obviously, I’m in a pointe class and I see that I’m the only male-presenting performer there, but I think if people knew more about how pointe strengthens you it would break down the stigma that it’s only for feminine people. If anything, I feel more masculine when I’m on pointe because growing up I’ve associated things like physical strength and tonality with masculinity.  

Do you think ballet is changing in terms of gender fluidity and acceptance onstage as well?  

Absolutely! I think it’s an exciting time for the arts community in general because representation is being pushed forward into a light where people are recognizing that it is so incredible. Representation is so important to shed light on marginalized communities.   

Can you share why representation is important to you?  

Well, for example, trans representation is important in mainstream media because there is the statistic that trans people are attacked more than any other population or community because aspects of their lives are foreign. There are depictions of transgender characters onscreen where in their "real life" they’re a different person. Take Mrs. Doubtfire, where people know Robin Williams as this very hilarious person who’s seemingly very innocent, and then becomes incredibly deceitful. You associate trans people with people who are just trying to get a joke out of you, so when someone has a genuine attraction to a transgender person, suddenly, they’re ashamed because they associate being with a transgender person with aspects of comedy. In shedding light on stories of transgender and non-binary people, you’re helping expose people to the realities of transgender and non-binary people. Often, we are faced with the standard hetero, cis-lifestyle and anything outside of that seems weird or different. So, what we as a community need to do is focus on giving that exposure to people so the stories of transgender or non-binary people, or anyone on the spectrum really, get told. The more you hear the less it’s foreign, the more desensitized you are to it so that it’s normal.   

We must normalize these things, so people aren’t walking down the street thinking they’re going to get attacked because someone thinks they’re a joke.   

As I said before, social media has been a huge factor in representation and with dance specifically. Everyone is dancing online. It is a huge thing for people to create and perform dances on TikTok. It’s fantastic!  

I think often of what stories companies are putting on stage. In my mind, I just think we don’t need to see another Swan Lake. We need to see someone else’s story on stage, and so, do you think that’s possible and that that’s coming for ballet? 

I’m optimistic. Gender fluidity has just really taken over. While ballet may be taking a long time to jump on the bandwagon there are still moments where you can find that break from the tradition. I’m just really excited about the idea that more companies will be producing things that aren’t necessarily standard. Yes, you could do a thousand productions of Swan Lake, but nobody really wants to see the same story repeatedly. When you stick to gender norms, you’re only getting one side of the story. Personally, I identify with the prima donna or a diva character so I’m not going to find that without bending a character to my non-binary requirements. As artists and performers, we’re storytellers, so when you restrict things based on gender guidelines, you’re missing out on so many beautiful stories that could be told from so many different angles. You never know who’s going to be in the audience.   

I think that what ballet is waiting for is that moment where someone’s bringing something new to the table that says this is how it should be. For lack of better words, we’re looking at Hamilton of the ballet world. There are so many stories that could be told through ballet. If we move into an area that is more gender-diverse and more fluid, we will get so many more stories that are enlightening and will bring light to so many more people and communities that we haven’t seen before. And it doesn’t always have to be about sexuality. It can just be a story that’s changed. I think that’s what anyone really wants to see. I will go see The Nutcracker regardless of how it's performed, but what’s going to sit with me is something that breaks the boundaries, something that says we’re artists, we don’t have to stick into a box. We can just play, we can fail, but we can also succeed and make the world better. To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s making the world better for the people who aren’t represented well enough now.   

I mean, at risk of sounding moderately bitter, there have been times where I have felt ‘sidelined’ because of my sexuality and gender fluidity. I’m optimistic about how gender fluidity is going to be integrated into ballet because there are so many opportunities.  

Absolutely! And I think that that is a wonderful place to leave it. Do you have anything else you’d like to share?  

I think that it’s very interesting to see how ballet has become much kinder than it used to be. Stereotypically the media portrays it in one image, but people are working so hard to make it inclusive, to make it positive, to make it more than what it was. It’s not just frilly dancing. It’s a sport. It’s about being an Olympian; it’s about finding your passion in dance and then expressing it. I don’t think that that has a gender.