With A Leap Across Gender Norms, A Rising Ballet Star Looks To Rewrite Rules Of Dance Ballet student Ashton Edwards is the rare dancer who is expanding his repertoire and his craft by training to dance in en pointe shoes, once worn only by women.

With A Leap Across Gender Norms, A Rising Ballet Star Looks To Rewrite Rules Of Dance

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The way Ashton Edwards leaps through the air is pure art. That he does it in pointe shoes - well, that's a rare feat in all ways. Ballet traditionally has very divided roles for men and women. Men need power to lift their female partners. Women are prized for their delicate precision and daring to defy gravity. But ideas about ballet may be changing.

Ashton Edwards is an 18-year-old ballet student in the elite Professional Division with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. And he is taking both men's and women's classes. He joins us from Seattle. Thanks very much for being with us.

ASHTON EDWARDS: Hi. I was so excited to be here.

SIMON: Well, why did you want to take both men's and women's classes?

EDWARDS: It took a lot of searching within myself, but I think my goals in life and in my career and who I saw myself as a person were much bigger than just one small box I was put in. So I decided to explore, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.

SIMON: We should explain. You started dancing at the age of 4 and training as a male dancer, right?

EDWARDS: Yeah, so I started training as a male dancer. I trained at my home studio in Flint, Mich., until I was 16, when I moved to Seattle and joined PNB in the Professional Division. And I did that for one year as an only-male student. And then this year, I started my pointe training and started taking both classes.

SIMON: So you have the pointe shoes with the wooden blocks in the toes.


SIMON: They're torture devices, you know, I understand.

EDWARDS: That - yeah, they're difficult. They have their challenges. But once you're up and once you start dancing, you're floating, and it's - it feels like flying. It's amazing.

SIMON: These last few months must have been very rough, right?

EDWARDS: Yeah, yeah. Starting this new side of ballet and training was difficult in and of itself. To add COVID was challenging, to say the least.

SIMON: Yeah.

EDWARDS: With ballet, it's so hands-on and so in person. And it needs the connection, the natural flow of going through steps with your friends. A lot of those natural nuances that go on in the school where the girls all get their shoes together and they work on them and they make it perfect for their own feet - I've missed a lot of that, but I found my own way, and I've been learning a lot.

SIMON: What did the school say when you told them what you wanted to do, taking classes in both genders?

EDWARDS: It was remarkable, I think. I was not expecting the school to be so open and accepting. I was very honest about my story and what was going on in my personal life and how I couldn't have one thing and not have the other. They really go hand in hand. I was amazed by Mr. Boal's reaction.

SIMON: Peter Boal is the artistic director, I guess, of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

EDWARDS: Yes, that is correct. He was very open and was ready to help right away. You don't find that in a lot of schools or companies. The culture of ballet is to have a leader and students and the lines never blurred. But Mr. Boal has been very open to conversation.

SIMON: So many of the classic pieces, obviously, in ballet, which we are accustomed to seeing, there are roles for males and roles for females. But choreographers seem to be changing on that score, don't they? There's more diversity.

EDWARDS: It's really exciting to see choreographers nowadays blurring those lines of gender binary and sexuality. We see men dancing with men and women dancing with women. And it doesn't always have to be a love connection. It can just be a partnership, and it's also beautiful. Ballet is - it's evolving. I think we're seeing the world, but onstage.

SIMON: Yeah. And how do you hope choreographers and dance directors are going to see you?

EDWARDS: I think it's not just me. I think there's more dancers out there who are capable of what I'm doing, and I hope they see them, too. I hope this becomes a normal nuance in schools everywhere. We see companies like Trockadero, who've been doing this for years, but we haven't seen this in a professional classical ballet company yet. I just hope artistic directors can see me and put it into their curriculum, into their repertory.

SIMON: Well, I have seen video of you. You're a joy to watch. And you go far when you dance. Let's put it that way.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

SIMON: Ashton Edwards is a ballet student in the Professional Division at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Thank you so much for being with us. Good luck to you.

EDWARDS: Thank you so much for having me.


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