By Jennifer Mayer
Growing up, Richie Franklin never dreamed of a career in musical theater.
Even though he had worn colorful costumes since he was six, he never considered that the white pants, neon orange shirt and yellow sequin suspenders would be part of his forte. He always imagined he would graduate with a technical degree and work 9 to 5 for the rest of his life.
Then his senior year of high school came.
With Franklin”s experience in gymnastics and vocal performances, a girlfriend needed a strong partner to do dance lifts in a class. While he was attending the class, he was invited to perform in a production of West Side Story.
At the time, he had never considered dancing as part of his career choice.
Now at BYU, Franklin, a senior from Houston, Texas, is spending six hours a week in ballet shoes and tights.
Although the idea may not appeal to many men, ballet is a key to standing-out in professional acting. With few men as music dance theater majors, ballet classes are a mere steppingstone to the profession.
Unlike most colleges that only have music theater majors, the addition of dance to BYU”s music dance theater curriculum adds experience in choreography and dance, as well as music and theater, giving students a triple edge.
Already with a hefty resume with roles like Blink in “Crazy For You at BYU,” Franklin sees the dance class as a segue into his career.
The stigma of men in dance classes doesn”t bother Franklin; even though he used to tell his friends he was rock climbing, rather than ballet dancing, Franklin said. The ballet regimen is like climbing over the mountain to obtaining his dream. He said the class helps make him a better actor overall.
“Ballet is a necessary evil,” Franklin said, “because it is really hard. It is the busy-work of dance. It is the grueling stuff in order to achieve perfection.”
Last summer, Franklin auditioned in New York. During the tryouts, ballet”s difficulty was obvious. Long languid arms and legs typify most ballet dancers, neither of which Franklin possesses.
“It doesn”t matter how hard I work and learn moves,” Franklin said. “I don”t have the body type.”
Franklin said ballet is a necessary part of his major, because it”s the foundation for all other dances.
“Ballet is so amazingly helpful to any other dance form as far as technique, strength and flexibility,” Franklin said.
According to Franklin, the ballet moves come in handy. Recently while auditioning for a low budget kung fu movie, the director asked to see Franklin”s flexibility in high kicks and extension – skills he learned in ballet class.
“It lays the groundwork for when you aren”t just at the bar,” Franklin said of ballet moves.
Unlike most ballet classes, where usually women outnumber the men 30 to 1, 15 men line the back row in dance 291R.
Wearing tights is not really an option for these men. Most are music dance theater majors, and the intermediate ballet class is just another requirement to graduate.
Ballet is one of twelve dance classes required to complete the music dance theater curriculum, including jazz, tap and modern.
Dance 291R instructor Marsha Russell, who has danced for 17 years and taught for the last several, said it is a rare oddity to have 15 men enrolled in the same class.
Most men struggle to perfect basic steps, because pirouettes and pli?s don”t naturally come to males, Russell said.
The intermediate ballet class is designed to enhance students” ability to jump higher and move quicker, Russell said. It is a segue course to the advanced curriculum.
“Ballet is the basis for all dance movement,” Russell said. “It is not just the barebones. They are steps they will actually use on stage.”
The female competition relaxes with men in class, Russell said. Men aren”t afraid to make mistakes and adjust to changes in dance moves quicker.
“Men are different,” Russell said. “They are more aggressive and try new things. Men will push themselves while girls are more sensitive to critique.”
Another MDT major, Natalie Wheeler, 23, from Idaho Falls, Idaho, is taking dance 291R to keep up with her ballet training. According to Wheeler, the men in the class actually keep it well balanced.
“Everyone is usually tense,” Wheeler said. “Guys usually loosen up the atmosphere.”
Unlike Franklin, Matt Cloward, who is also taking dance 291R and majoring in MDT, has only been studying dance for the past three years.
As a little kid, Cloward, now 24, imagined himself playing basketball and football professionally.
His idea of a dream job changed after Cloward auditioned for a musical in college and landed the lead role.
“We as actors can evoke and teach vital lessons in life,” Cloward said. “I have actually seen people change through a performance.”
Cloward takes the dance classes in stride, seeing it just as part of accomplishing the triple edge. Because the class is mandatory, it does not necessarily bother him.
The emphasis isn”t on the dance moves, but actually perfecting skills for the stage, Franklin said.
Although Franklin said he could never make it in dance, he believes he can make it as a professional performer.
“It”s something I can do a lot in life and not get fed up with it,” Franklin said. “It fulfills everything I need in life.”
Although his grandmother was the only one to object to Franklin”s career choice, his parents have been supportive of his decisions. Franklin said he hopes to perform at the Tuchanan in St. George this summer.
In retrospect, Franklin said the lifestyle in the music, acting and dancing business is unique. Only one out of five BYU graduates make it professionally.
For the most part, the acting environment plays a major role in success, Franklin said. But it”s like any business degree, if an actor works hard at perfecting his dance, theater and musical skills, he or she will succeed.