Wednesday, November 20, 2019

In Conversation with Firefighter-Ballerina Duncan McDougall

Through grueling hours of rehearsing and performing, injuries, setbacks and pushing their bodies and creative minds to the limit, dancers stick together. They support each other, emotionally and physically. To be part of a cohesive group where you’re one of many, moving and breathing in connection with everyone around you, is an amazing experience. You’re not alone; you’re in a community, surrounded by others with the same love and passion for music and movement.

I like to think that’s why a large group of dancers is called an ‘ensemble’, the French term for ‘together’.

The boy in question was Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While reporting on the many subjects the 6 year old prince would be taking this year at school, Spencer pulled a face when she mentioned Prince George “loves ballet” and told a laughing audience, while laughing along with them: “Prince William, we’ll see how long that lasts.”

That’s right: a grown woman with a huge public platform made fun of a little boy for enjoying a dance class. Her derision insinuated it’s wrong for a boy to love dancing and her laughter perpetuated the attitude that it’s okay to mock and make fun of boys who dance. In 2019, an era that’s post-Glee, post-Billy Elliot, where films like La La Land and Bohemian Rhapsody feature male leads that sing and dance, it’s disappointing this kind of backward-thinking, ignorant behavior is still prevalent.

So it’s not surprising Spencer’s comments raised an even bigger stink than unwashed tights at the bottom on your dance bag and the response from the dance world was as swift as the grandest grand-battement. Dancers from across the ballet world took to social media to both defend Prince George from those insensitive comments and condemn Lara Spencer for making them:

New York City Ballet Principal Ashley Bouder, a mom to daughter Violet and fierce champion of gender equality in dance and beyond wrote:  “I am outraged by Lara Spencer’s comments…you’ve just bullied thousands of boys around the world.”

Actor Dulé Hill credited his roles in The West Wing and Suits to his dance training, and voiced his support for young boys who dance: “Dare to dream, dare to dance…and you know what? Boys dance too.”

Former So You Think You Can Dance and current Shaping Sound dancer and choreographer Travis Wall posted a video to his Instagram where he called out Spencer for “bullying a child and being a bully” and captioned it with “Wake up. It’s 2019”. It has over a million views. 

Former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Robbie Fairchild also joined in online, telling Prince George “I hope your love of ballet lasts forever”.

Remember when I said dancers stick together?

Wall and Fairchild then partnered up and taught a huge master ballet class in Times Square, in full view of the GMA studio, to over 300 dancers. Spencer eventually reached out to them and they were joined instudio by Joffrey Ballet dancer Fabrice Calmels, where they all shared their experiences growing up as dancers with the outdated, narrow views Spencer expressed regarding boys and dance. In the end, Lara Spencer apologized for her remarks, those great male dancers accepted and hopefully, the message that it’s NOT okay to belittle and make fun of anyone who dances will finally sink into the greater societal conscience.

To me, the most positive thing to come out of all this was the opportunity to keep these conversations about gender expectations/bias and dance going. I recently caught up with my cousin, Duncan McDougall, via WhatsApp and he shared his own perspectives on being a male dancer and balancing all the different sides of himself.

Duncan dancing in Paris.
Photo credit: Duncan McDougall, Facebook

EM: Let’s start from the top: How old were you when you started dancing?

DM: I was 8 years old. I remember my Dad made it sound really fun and he also said something like,  ‘do it, girls will love it/you!’, which in hindsight, is interesting that he felt he had to ‘spin it’ that way to get me to buy into it…I started with tap, ballet and hip hop.

EM: Why did you start dancing?

DM: Well, I was already taking gymnastics, so it was just another way to blow off energy. We’re a performing arts/artistic family: my dad (Dave McDougall), is a drama teacher and an actor/director with community theatre here in Camrose, my mom used to do the costumes for the shows. Musical theatre is a familiar world to me.

EM: I remember one time when I was about 16/17 years old and I showed your dad a video of one of my solo performances from competition and you were super jealous! And then not long after that, you started dancing.

Dancing at 'That Tower'. Keeping it in the family.
Photo credit: Duncan McDougall, Facebook

DM: Oh yeah? That’s funny! Well, I guess there was an element of competition or “spite”: my cousins did it, so I wanted to do it and do it better! (Laughs) I think I wanted to rebel a bit too, get attention, be a different kind of boy, not a jock.

EM: Did you have a favorite style when you younger/getting started?

DM: Well, I didn’t love tap, I only did it for about two years. And it felt like I just had too much energy for ballet…for me, it was always hip hop, and then modern too.

EM: Why those styles?

DM: I think they’re the most versatile; the styles that are big crowd pleasers, which is a lot of fun, the entertainment aspect. For me, Hip hop is the best for working off steam, just letting it all out: anger, joy, etc. It’s where I feel it’s the most important to be aware, to be moving in space with other people. It’s a release. And I love the music of hip hop. It’s just fun; it’s the most freedom in dance.

EM: Now to get down to the serious stuff: what was it like to be a male dancer in Camrose, Alberta?

DM: Well…Camrose is a small town with a really strong hockey culture… there were definitely people who just didn’t understand why I liked dancing. But it wasn’t an issue to the people who really knew me. I did hear stuff, I put up with a lot of homophobic comments because people can be ignorant and they don’t understand, or try to understand and it made me angry for sure…there were anti-bullying programs in school but honestly, I just had more friends who were girls. I didn’t hang out with a lot of other guys because of that close-minded mentality/toxic masculinity.

EM: What did you think about Lara Spencer’s comments about Prince George and ballet?

DM: I was annoyed, like when I heard about it, I was like “Seriously? This is still a thing?” It was big on social media.

EM: Why did you stop dancing?

DM: Honestly, Erin, I was just tired of the dance studio politics. I just wasn’t fun anymore, so I quit when I was in Grade 10.

EM: What brought you back to the dance studio?

DM: Well, I realized I’d missed it for some time. I went through some stuff, I lost my good friend PJ in 2011 who I danced with, I needed to deal with other losses: like Grandma Ar [our grandma took her own life in 2011], my aunt Cheryl died in a car accident, my parents got divorced. I also got into firefighting, which can be super intense…So I went back to dancing in 2015. I was post-break up. I just went to St. Albert for a class at 3rd Street Beat with a teacher who taught PJ and I connected with Luke, the teacher after class. We talked for a long time afterwards and it was like everything just made sense. I even got back into competing; and I got back on stage at the Jubilee Auditorium, which was just awesome.
I just had to find a way to let out my emotions/feelings. I needed a way to express myself, work stuff out.

EM: What’s your greatest strength as a dancer?

DM: Stage presence, charisma. I know how to “sell it”. My confidence.

EM: What’s your greatest challenge?

DM: Um…patience, definitely…everyone learns at different speeds. That kind of thing.

EM:Tell me about your Instagram account, firefighter_ballerina. Why that name?

DM: Well, it’s two things that are important to me. I’ve given a talk at the U of A about masculinity and  masculine ideals. There are positives to both for sure. It’s about how to balance strength and vulnerability. For me, dance is an outlet to express vulnerability.

I think “be a man” are the three scariest words anyone can say to a boy. They just squash those feelings, that vulnerability. It makes them feel wrong; like they’re not good enough. We need a better balance. Firefighter-Ballerina is who I am: both things balance each other. Firefighting is a super masculine profession; dance makes me an artist, someone who expresses himself.

EM: How is dance part of your life today? Goals for the future?

DM : I teach drop in classes in Camrose, which are so fun. I’ve also done choreography for The Church Mice Theatre productions and I’ve worked with people with special needs with the Centra Cam Vocational Training Association. I’m a proud almun of the Esks Force [the dance troupe for the CFL Edmonton Eskimos], I’m doing some dance/animation classes in Edmonton. I want to get involved with dance in the Netherlands, where my girlfriend lives. She’s a ballet dancer.

EM: Last question: what would you say to a younger version of yourself or to other young male dancers, ones who might be struggling with outside comments/expectations?

DM: Well, first I’d like to think I wouldn’t say much because I’d want to listen to what they have to say. I guess I’d want to tell them they should dance because they want to; the rewards of it pay off; you’ll learn so much/how to take in information. Don’t listen to the ignorance; do what you want.

EM: Thank you so much, Duncan! I’m so proud of you!

DM: Thanks, Cousin. I’m proud of you too.

Original Duncan McDougall choreography
 Posted with permission from Duncan McDougall


Proud is an understatement.

Dancers stand together and dance brings people together. 

To any young dancers, especially young boys, reading this post, you are part of a beautiful art form and it is made better because you are part of it. Remember the love when you're up against adversity. Remember Travis Wall, Robbie Fairchild and Fabrice Calmels once stood where you are are. Remember Duncan McDougall is standing among the many great male dancers you can look up to on your journey. 

Dance on, Dancers Abroad!

You can check out more of Duncan’s dancing and choreography on his Instagram, firefighter-ballerina.


  1. I would like to say that this blog really convinced me to do it! Thanks, very
    good fire extinguisher for home

  2. Searching for the best headphones sound experience Worry No More! With our guide here, choosing the right one will be easy for you Read cheap headphones