The Curtain Calls for You to Think: #BoysDanceToo24 November 2020
Pre-COVID-19-lockdown-reality, I meant to go see Billy Elliot the Musical, based on the 2005 film of the same name. Not-so-surprisingly, I didn’t end up going. Instead I read about it, watched the movie, I even signed up for free at-home ballet lessons – this one wasn’t really followed through – and I got to reflect on the subtleties of the plot and the songs in the musical’s soundtrack. There are so many layers to this story, from the hardships for the working class, to the roles of a single father, and the subversions of gender expectations. The musical doesn’t shy away from any one of these themes. The number “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” still went ahead on the day of her death – to neglect, to omit, any one of these themes would mean to lose a critical point in the narrative.
It isn’t shocking that a story about a working-class boy pursuing dance would touch on gender roles and masculine stereotypes. Yet, I didn’t expect the musical to do what it did. Movie Michael was quiet and reserved; musical Michael is loud, boisterous and seems quite unapologetic about it. Michael, to me, is almost a mirror to the friction between attributed male stereotypes, especially those found in the working class of the ‘80s, and what is stereotypically thought of as a feminine dance type. Michael gets his own number, “Expressing Yourself”, where the boys dance in dresses and skirts and tell the audience that there is nothing wrong with expressing yourself the way you want to. Call it a modern flair if you will.
Billy, the boy standing in front of this mirror, lives out the friction between the masculine realities of a miner striker’s world and the classical ballet world. Interestingly, but I hope not surprisingly, the ballet world requires immense strength, from sheer willpower to go through the physical pain of breaking toes, to fighting an unbudging mental box that is the socially-constructed masculine stereotype of the world. I will never understand what it is like to grow up taking ballet and going against a tide that tells you that “you are less than” for doing something incredibly enduring.
This narrative isn’t just made for the stage, it’s a real narrative. In 2019, Prince George was mocked on live American television for learning ballet. Three hundred male ballet dancers rocked up at Times Square for a flash-mob-impromptu dance lesson, and #BoysDanceToo started trending.
Billy Elliot touches on a lot of themes in so many nuances. From a small goodbye kiss on the cheek, to Billy’s dad understanding that his son’s passion is what he needs to cherish. Expression does not make a man any less than. Michael is an allegory to the going against the prescribed masculine tide and Billy is the medium of the conversation – one being had every single day. To let a boy dance does not make him less than, to wear a dress does not make you less than. To be expressive does not make you less than!