Terrell Rogers, 16, Baltimore, gets help from Meredith Rainey,… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
In 2000, the British film "Billy Elliot" generated a flurry of admiration on both sides of the Atlantic. Something about this story of an 11-year-old boy, who decides to study ballet even as it makes him a major oddity in his northern England mining town, touched a nerve.
Five years later, transformed into a musical with a score by Elton John, "Billy Elliot" became a runaway hit in London's West End. It went on to win a slew of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, after its 2008 Broadway premiere.
When the touring production of the show arrives Tuesday in Baltimore, the audience will include boys around Billy's age and just as enthusiastic about dancing. They're members of the Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys, part of the preparatory division of the Peabody Institute.
Chosen by audition and awarded free tuition, the students, ages 9 to 16, are put through a rigorous training in classical ballet. It's the kind of training the fictional Billy embraces, resists and embraces again as he comes to terms with his gift.
The Peabody boys, who will also attend a master class with choreography staffers from the show later in the week, easily identify with the musical's unlikely hero. They've all experienced, one way or another, the realization that they need to dance.
"I went to see 'The Lion King' two years ago, and I felt like I didn't blink one time. I was staring at the dancers," said Terrell Rogers, 16. "Now I just can't stop dancing. I'll do a turn randomly in the grocery store."
Such a sight could be something right out of "Billy Elliot." Billy, unenthusiastic about the boxing lessons his father has insisted on, discovers a ballet class and finds himself drawn in almost instantly, as if his feet had been waiting for such a chance.
Billy faces the expected obstacles: knee-jerk opposition from his father and brother, concerned about the boy's masculinity (Billy does sense encouragement from the spirit of his dead mother); the challenge of affording dance lessons; and, especially, the trip to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.
Set in the mid-1980s, the plot pits the child's struggles against a backdrop of conflict in the town, where the miners have gone on strike. In the end, thanks to the generosity of the local ballet teacher who first spots Billy's potential, and of the miners who decide to help out, the boy gets his chance.
Providing a chance is what the Peabody dance program is all about. The Baltimore-born Estelle Dennis started dancing at a tender age and kept at it, despite family resistance. She formed a community dance company here in 1934.
Before her death in 1996, Dennis arranged for a trust fund that would award scholarships to male dance students in Baltimore, advanced students ready to take bigger steps toward a professional career. When too few such students could be found, the fund's trustees authorized the creation of a dance training program for boys, launched in 2009 at Peabody Prep.
"Just as we were beginning, 'Billy Elliot' opened on Broadway, and it was so inspiring and beautiful," said Barbara Weisberger, the octogenarian artistic adviser for Peabody Dance and founding artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. "We said something like 'Think Billy Elliot' in the release announcing the program."
Auditions were held in several Baltimore public schools to put together the first class. About 60 turned out; two dozen or so were chosen. Each year since, there has been a good response to the auditions. Currently, about 30 boys are enrolled in the program.
"Once we took the financial factor out of it, providing the free tuition, we discovered there are boys out there," said Timothy Rinko-Gay, one of the teachers for the scholarship program.
Those boys do not necessarily have any experience with ballet.
"I was a hip-hopper," said 13-year-old Gordon Lander. "Someone told me that ballet was the technique for all dancing, that it would help with endurance. And it has helped me."
Gordon looks thoroughly at home executing classic ballet steps — coupe, frappe, passe, plie, releve, sous sous (the boys learn a lot of French terms along the way).
"We are not trying to make them all princes in 'Swan Lake,' " Weisberger said. "We just want them to know that whether it's hip-hop or jazz or classical ballet, Broadway, modern dance, whatever, they can do better."
Asked after a class how many envisioned going on to pursue a dance career, nearly all the boys raised their hands. But 12-year-old Olivier Knopp, whose older brother went through the Peabody program and is now in the America Ballet Theatre's Studio Company, did hedge his bets.
"If I had to make a choice right now, it could be ballet," Olivier said. "But it could be soccer. Ballet helps with footwork and stuff."
There is considerable appreciation these days for the link between dance and sports.