How it started: The movie ‘Billy Elliot’ addresses boys and ballet

There are some people meant to dance. They know they are dancers from the minute they are born. Their parents may know as well. But not all dancers are lucky enough to have the money, the means or, in the case of Billy Elliot, the protagonist of the movie, the right teacher, to make it. This 2000 movie, starring Jamie Bell, as the title character, looks at the tensions in a middle-class family when a young boy discovers he’s a ballet dancer in his soul.

Bell was 12 when the movie came out so 11 when the movie was being filmed. He has not gone on to be a dancer, but was chosen over 2,000 other boys to play the part. Bell has spunk as the young Billy. He isn’t sure of himself, he waffles, and he squints with concentration. While Bell has grown up to be handsome, at 11, his ears stuck out. He is slim and awkward in his body with a gawky enthusiasm in his movements.

The movie begins with Billy listening to music. He lives in a garishly bright green apartment, looking after his grandmother (Jean Heywood) who has grown senile and taken to wandering. His widowed father, Jackie (Gary Lewis), and his older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), are both miners on strike and the movie takes place during the 1984-1985 Great Britain miners’ strike in the fictional mining town of Everington Village. The miners are in conflict with the police, making the village like a civil war zone, with skirmish after skirmish.

The wounds left by his mother’s death are still fresh. She died in 1983. Yet there are touches of her and many photos of the whole family around the house and she (Janine Birkett) sometimes appears to Billy in his imagination.

Billy is being sent to a a boxing class. The gym is also being used by a ballet class that has been temporarily displaced because their studio is now being used for a soup kitchen for the striking miners. Billy doesn’t have the fighting spirit and after a particularly dispiriting bout in the ring, Billy stays for the class. He’s befriended by the teacher’s daughter, Debbie (Nicola Blackwell).

The dance teacher, Sandra Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees something in Billy. When Jackie hears that Billy hasn’t been going to boxing class although he has always pretended to do so, Jackie shows up at the gym, only to discover Billy dancing among the girls. Jackie forbids Billy from both ballet and boxing, but Sandra gives Billy lessons and tells him she believes he should audition for the Royal Ballet in Newcastle.

While his father and brother are angry over the idea of Billy dancing, his friend Michael (Stuart Wells)is unexpectedly excited. Billy later learns that Michael likes dressing up in women’s clothes. While that’s not exactly Billy’s thing, he does feel free to express himself with Michael.

On the day of the audition, Billy’s brother is arrested, preventing Billy from covertly going with Sandra to Newcastle. When Sandra confronts Billy about this, his father and brother learn that Billy has potential.  It isn’t until later, that Jackie realizes just how much Billy loves dancing.

After talking with Sandra, Jackie decides to send Billy to the audition in London and struggles with finding the money necessary.  This film does ultimately have a happy ending, but one that requires sacrifice. In the end, we see a 25-year-old Billy (played by former Royal Ballet dancer Adam Cooper) performing as the lead in Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” as Michael (Merryn Owen), Jackie and Tony watch from the audience.

The movie is gritty and at times funny, but never corny. The harsh problems of the miners aren’t overlooked and the differences of class are subtly shown. The continual presence of the police in riot gear is illustrated humorously as Billy’s friend Debbie goes from running a stick on posts to running them off the shields of the police as if they were inanimate objects. Yet later, we see Billy’s brother getting caught and beaten by them.

This is well-worth watching for ballet fans and all people who have ever wanted to dance and still want to dance. I remember wanting dance lessons so desperately as a child and only as an adult did my inner dancer get released and that began in high school with the encouragement of one particular friend and a few teachers. Hooray for teachers. “Billy Elliot” is currently available on Amazon Instant.


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