Ballet as Sport in Billy Elliot

illustration by Gary Mills

As someone who took ballet classes intermittently throughout her youth, I maintain a complex relationship with this particular genre of dance—as artform, as exercise, and as both physical and psychological mode of torture. Most ballet classes boast some delightful combination of an endless stream of classical piano music (which you will grow to loathe and even fear); a wall of large mirrors reflecting back your every mistake; at least one student significantly advanced in ability, making the rest feel incurably awkward; and an instructor somewhere in the range between middle-aged and elderly, likely a former professional dancer herself, who will—at least once or twice per class—grab your feet or arms or torso and expertly mold them into the proper position. At times frightening, painful, and strangely rewarding, ballet has taught me that pain is beauty, and beauty pain. Perhaps because in order to achieve the fluid movements, elegant lines, and impossibly splendid illusion of levitation, one must first suffer through the ugly process of unlearning the slouched shoulders and shuffling footsteps that define so many of our daily postures. 


In the midst of a coal miners’ strike in 1980s Durham, England, Billy Elliot lives with his father, older brother Tony, an aging and often confused grandmother, and the gap left by the loss of a beloved mother, who lives so strongly in Billy’s memory that he often anticipates her reactions even though she isn’t there to perform them.

Born into a family of coal miners, Billy discovers dance while taking boxing classes at the local gym. He secretly trades in his gloves for a pair of slippers (metaphorically speaking) and begins skipping boxing to attend ballet classes with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), the dance instructor who uses one hand to hold her cigarette and the other to turn out Billy’s feet as he pliés. She recognizes Billy’s abilities, and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. When his father learns of Billy’s betrayal, it’s not difficult to understand his disapproval: it has something to do with prejudice and something to do with love. It’s possible that Billy’s father views his son’s boxing lessons as encouraging the development of a necessary and practical skill—a mode of self-defense against the inevitable bullying that will befall the boy. Ballet, to him, has little real-world application. From the film’s outset, rationalizing his strong aversion to Billy’s chosen mode of self-expression requires little stretch of the imagination, yet his eventual acceptance and unconditional support of his son’s passion comes as little surprise. When the prospect of sending Billy to the Royal Ballet School arises, he seizes the chance to help his son escape their small mining community and the limited opportunities that await him there.


Ballet sits at the intersection where art meets athleticism. As art, it revolves around form and movement: it creates beauty, it tells stories. Viewed as sport, it does not concern the competition between two or more opponents to determine a winner, like boxing. Rather, it’s the act of overcoming the friction between mind and body—between conceptualizing and executing. Ballet does not function as sport in the traditional sense. But it does engage many of the core values and practices that exist at the heart of the world’s more preferred pastimes—in both nebulous and more concrete terms. Not unlike the work required to develop into a competent softball or football player, golfer or racecar driver or swimmer, training to become a ballerina calls for determination and dedication, discipline both physical and psychological. It necessitates years of commitment to altering the body for performance. 

The truth about ballet is that it’s incredibly difficult. For anyone who lacks coordination, balance, super-human strength, or struggles to distinguish right from left, it’s impossibly difficult. When Billy attempts to teach himself to pirouette in the bathroom of his family home, he makes it look difficult. He props the stolen library book with the step-by-step instructions on the sink and follows them closely. He holds his arms out rigidly in front of him. He spins with incredible force—and slips into the filled bathtub. He completes the turn but fails to stick the landing. Yet the movement in question—a full rotation of the body while balancing on one foot—appears effortless when performed by the tiny plastic figure in a jewelry box. The technique necessary to pirouette is not mastered in a day because it requires two movements: both the understanding of how to perform a pirouette, and the act of releasing that knowledge to accomplish the kind of grace that comes only when the thinking stops and the muscle memory takes over. It calls for a fluid, confident movement only achieved through time and persistence, and the willingness to let go. Billy describes the experience of letting go during his audition for the Royal Ballet School near the end of the film, when a member of the board asks him what it feels like when he’s dancing:

It’s sort of stiff, and that, but once I get going, then I forget everything. And sort of disappear. Sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in me whole body—like there’s fire in me body. I’m just there, flying. Like a bird. Like electricity. 

He experiences a transition from the body as something physical, unwieldy, and even burdensome, into something lighter than air, without limitations—explosive and powerful, but also serene. 

Billy’s speech not only turns the tide of a less-than-stellar audition, effectively convincing the committee of the boy’s special genius for dance, but also reveals an important overlap between the worlds of art and sport. That overlap exists in the rare type of freedom one gains from first mastering the technical details of the discipline in question (the rules of the game, the French words for each of the movements) and then utilizing those tools as a means of expression. The structure doesn’t constrain creativity, but rather concentrates it. Sport, like dance, calls for grace under pressure—focus, precision of movement, and seemingly insignificant adjustments of the body that can mean the difference between sticking the landing or hitting a homerun, and falling flat on one’s face. Billy isn’t more free because he hasn’t yet begun the intensive training that comes with his craft. On the contrary, once he has internalized the rules of the game, he’ll uncover a greater variety of avenues to exercise his talent. For now, however, he can only explain what it feels like to dance, and how his body transforms as it strives toward the kind of sublime performance that will come, but only with time—and blood, sweat, and tears. 


Billy Elliot (or, as it was originally titled, Dancer) does not showcase the trials that Billy will undergo as a trained ballet dancer. It does not show us the long days, weeks, and years of technical training and rehearsals that will define his career and carve him into the impressive, feather-adorned creature who leaps across the stage and hangs mid-air at the film’s conclusion. In many ways, the film’s makeshift retitling better represents the story than its original title: Billy Elliot isn’t about a boy becoming a dancer, but rather a boy becoming himself. The movie follows the dancer as a prepubescent tangle of limbs bouncing wildly on his childhood bed in the opening credits. It takes us on Billy’s journey of self-discovery, and reminds us that at the root of talent lies passion; without it, nothing truly great can ever be achieved. Billy’s dancing embodies the anger and frustrations of his life, but also the unfathomable joy that courses through him. His boundless passion explodes from within him—it surges forth in the form of rhythmic foot stomping, twirling, and jumping about. At certain points, it’s as if his feet have a mind of their own. Billy Elliot draws comparisons with the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and Jamie Bell certainly brings to the screen a similarly contagious kinetic energy, notable for its chaotic, improvisational feel rather than its refined technique. But Billy doesn’t perform for an audience. He dances because something deep inside compels him to; the energy must be expelled. Midway through the film, Billy seeks inspiration for the dance he will perform at the much-anticipated audition from his mother’s last letter to him. The same glowing, internal rhythm that marks his dancing speaks out in the studied way that Billy recites his mother’s words. They flow through him, as fluidly as if he’d written them himself. He understands these lines as blueprints, dancing across the page, communicating to him a kind of movement not visible to the naked eye, but deeply ingrained within him and within his perspective upon the world. He translates the emotion he experiences through his mother’s letter into his “I Love to Boogie” dance—and it has little to do with grief or sorrow. Rather, it has to do with his love of dancing. “Always be yourself,” he recites from the letter. This one simple sentence gives him the power to embrace his passion with abandon. 

At Billy’s age, I began to pull away from the world of athletics. Ballet and I went our separate ways, and I pursued less physical modes of self-expression. I had never felt free in ballet, the way Billy so clearly does. For this ability, I envy him. Not for his talent or his success, but because of the way he dances through the streets and devotes himself so entirely to his passion, without the fear that he’s made the wrong choice. Billy Elliot is about dance, but, first and foremost, about a kid discovering one of the hardest parts of growing up: the give and take of learning who you are, and the realization of what you’ll have to leave behind in the process of becoming that person. Billy’s coming of age begins when he loses his mother, but the transition doesn’t come to fruition until he discovers dance. These two seemingly unrelated landmarks in his life prove irrevocably intertwined.


Since the death of his mother, Billy’s world is harsh and hypermasculine. Art and emotion, beauty and the ability to pursue it—the concerns that persistently populate Billy’s mind and body—constantly butt up against the reality of his world, the very practical concerns of his father and brother, and the pent-up emotions the two refuse to acknowledge. Tony won’t entertain Billy’s questions about death, or even share his records with him. In winter, Dad breaks up the old family piano for firewood. While still attending his boxing, Billy dances around the ring to avoid his opponent; he fails the match miserably. His father looks on, disgraced by his son, while Billy glances longingly in the direction of the ballet class, held in the other half of the gym. Magnetically drawn toward the melodies plunked out by the pianist, Billy joins the line of tutu-wearing little girls at the bar, and there’s no turning back. When he finds out that Billy has been using his boxing allowance to pay for ballet classes instead, Billy’s father confronts him with genuine confusion and discomfort surrounding his son’s new hobby. “It’s not just poofs, Dad,” Billy explains. “Some ballet dancers are as fit as athletes.” He attempts to justify himself to his father, position ballet in terms of its proximity to sports, and thus reframe it as something masculine. But these preconceptions cannot so easily be undone. His father responds with violence, and Billy must find a new way to study ballet in secret.

Mrs. Wilkinson offers to train Billy in one-on-one sessions to prepare for his audition, and here the real work begins. Like any decent coach, Mrs. Wilkinson is unrelenting; she knows there’s no crying in ballet. Even when Billy does successfully execute his pirouette, she criticizes the positioning of his arm. “You’re not even trying,” she says to him after he falls while rehearsing his audition dance. “Do it again,” she demands (a classic ballet instructor refrain). Billy tells her he can’t. He feels utterly defeated, both by the difficulty of his training and the difficulty he faces with his family. He lashes out at Mrs. Wilkinson—the first person who encourages his dancing and genuinely wants him to succeed—because her encouragement has also increased tensions at home, and complicated his life and his future beyond recognition. Nonetheless, they maintain a tough-love relationship, in which she stands up for him to his father, but also pushes Billy to work harder and be better. Billy’s memories of his mother recall her affection and warmth, but also her scoldings of Billy’s missteps. He hears her voice almost like a conscience in his head. Mrs. Wilkinson does not fill the role of Billy’s mother in a traditional sense, though she does strive to guide him in a way that his father initially cannot, as he continues to grieve the loss of his wife and grapple with the unsettling of life in Durham. She offers Billy a lifeline—providing him with the attention and stability he lacks at home while also opening a gateway to the world of ballet. Without Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy can’t dance; without dance, he can’t thrive.

During a particularly symbolic sequence, the melody from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays as Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson, and her car take the ferry across the river following one of their private lessons. The large, bulky ship crosses slowly, gliding along, moving through the water not unlike the ballet’s titular bird might. Yet the harsh steel structure of the vehicle itself could not be more dissimilar from the white, pillowy feathers of the swan. The sequence showcases a striking contrast between art and industry, beauty and functionality—but also the unexpected places where these things converge. This juxtaposition suggests the possibility for a compromise between the life that Billy’s family has always known and the one that he longs to lead. Billy and his father ultimately meet in the middle, where he recognizes his son’s talent as an opportunity for a better future. When Billy’s dad nearly leaves the strike to return to the mines, he folds not out of defeat, but out of love. He pawns his wife’s jewelry for the same reason: to raise money for bus fare to Billy’s audition in London. Mrs. Wilkinson offers to pay, but he refuses to take her money. It’s an act of pride, but also a sign of his commitment to his role as his son’s only remaining parent. There’s no longer a question of ballet’s suitability as a profession—let alone a pastime—for a young boy to pursue. 


At his audition, Billy stands before a firing squad of quizzical looks and questions. For a group supposedly only interested in seeing how he moves (and not in judging his technical abilities), they watch his performance largely in silence, as though he has chosen to demonstrate his talent by punching a large pig carcass dangling from the ceiling, rather than performing the dance he has spent months preparing with Mrs. Wilkinson. This committee of intimidating individuals holds the power to definitively alter Billy’s life, and the sinking feeling that forms in the pit of his stomach as he faces them must also resonate for anyone who has ever put their fate—willingly or otherwise—in the hands of the powers that be. In the locker room following the frightening ordeal, a posh blond boy who’s been through the process several times before attempts to console Billy. “It’s alright, there’s always next year,” he says, and in response, Billy hits the kid in the jaw. Billy fights pretension and privilege with violence, putting his limited boxing skills to good use. He finds in this moment that he cannot fit snugly or easily into either world—not the one he comes from, nor the one he strives to break into. After a scolding and a few additional questions, the interview portion of the audition comes to a close and they send Billy off, extending a condescending “Good luck with the strike” to his father.

In spite of the rocky audition, Billy ultimately earns a place at the school. But the day he receives his acceptance letter, they also learn that the coal miners’ union has given in, and that the men will return to work. This confluence of events sets the bittersweet tone of the film’s final scenes. The young Billy prepares to leave for London, says his goodbyes, and when he does they feel permanent; there will likely be very few visits home while he undergoes training. The people who have shaped him and cared for him must let him go, and he must let them go, too. Life will go on for them, and they will continue to face the same struggles each day, heading down into the mines or confronting the small minds that surround them, the limitations that continue to define their lives. And Billy, too, will face struggles—new struggles that his loved ones cannot hope to help him through. Billy tells his father, “I think I’m scared, Dad.” He responds, “That’s okay, Son. We’re all scared.”


I found my way back to ballet in college as a way of satisfying a few PE requirements as well as my own curiosity regarding the extracurricular I’d given up. Stepping back onto the Marley flooring for the first time in seven or so years, I found the same wall of mirrors staring back at me—albeit in an entirely different building from the one I’d known as a kid—and felt a strange mix of emotions. The space radiated a comforting familiarity but also unearthed a long dormant anxiety. Slippers and leotards, grand symphonies rendered in simple piano melodies—little had changed. Many of the movements we studied in Beginner’s Ballet felt natural, as though my feet had held onto the memory of learning them years before, even though my mind had not. My relationship to ballet began to evolve into something far more similar to the way Billy feels about it as an 11-year-old than the way I did at his age. We don’t dance ballet because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. It compels us to strive for the impossible, and discover in ourselves a strength we never knew we had. In the film’s closing credits sequence, the adult Billy pirouettes repeatedly, effortlessly, as though he’s had the move mastered his entire life. More than a dancer, he’s an athlete and an expert in his craft—strong, precise, and graceful. This Billy has worked and sacrificed so much for the chance to perform onstage. Then, the young Billy pops into frame, once again jumping on his bed, wild, unpolished, and free as a bird. This Billy has no notion of the long and complicated road he has yet to travel—from the cobblestone streets of his overcrowded neighborhood in Durham, to the stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, flooded with silvery-white light—and the small gasp of breath Billy’s father takes as he watches his son take flight.