Soloist Eric Underwood on a mission to break ballet stigma: Principal dancer wants to encourage boys to dance

Eric Underwood at Berger School

Eric Underwood at Berger School - Credit: Archant

A world-renowned soloist from The Royal Ballet is on a mission to persuade soccer-mad boys from Hackney to swap their football boots for ballet pumps.

Eric Underwood

Eric Underwood - Credit: Archant

The BBC tracked American dancer Eric Underwood as he went into Berger School in Homerton to inspire the students.

He wants to see more kids from less affluent backgrounds – and in particular more boys – give classical dance a whirl.

He was filmed by regional London current affairs programme Inside Out as he visited the Anderson Road school.

Mr Underwood told the Gazette: “Ballet has a stigma, especially to children, that it’s primarily all about girls dancing around on their toes.

“Since the beginning of time all little boys think that just girls dance. It’s difficult for boys to say: ‘I want to be a male ballet dancer.’ They are shunned.

“I want to make being a ballet dancer as popular as being a soccer player, and that’s all about having role models you can relate to.”

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The 31-year-old grew up in a poor suburb of Washington DC and only started dancing ballet aged 14 when he “accidentally ended up in a dance class”.

He later won a scholarship for New York’s School of American Ballet.

Mr Underwood, who moved to Shoreditch two years ago, showed the youngsters clips of ballet dancers and talked about his life before putting them through their paces, demonstrating spins, splits and stretches.

He picked out two boys he felt had the potential to take on ballet as a career and returned to the school with ballet pumps for them.

He found the youngsters at Berger “really receptive”, and “a lot more open minded than adults”.

“I’m fortunate that someone introduced me to ballet,” he said. “I feel a bit of an obligation to return that favour to other boys.

“I was like them at their age – I didn’t come from a family that was super arts-inclined.

“Ballet has given me a chance to see the world, I can provide for my family; it’s given me a chance to work with photographers and as a model.

“I definitely think I made a break through. If not dancers, they may become future audience members – posh people go to the ballet whether they are in America or in England, and I’m trying to get it a little bit more acceptable for other people to go, too.

“When I come to a school like this and I see so many children who are just like me, I think: ballet changed my life, why not yours?”