A class of ten 16-to-19-year-old boys was in the midst of a warm-up session in the School of American Ballet’s Alexandra Danilova Studio at Lincoln Center on a recent morning when Jamie Bell dropped in. As the 14-year-old star of Billy Elliot made his entrance, surrounded by a phalanx of publicists and admirers, the students’ stretching pliés give way to nervous jetés.
The film, about an 11-year-old boy who stridently disobeys his hyper-macho father to pursue ballet, has left an indelible mark on the boys of the SAB – particularly that whole bit about ballet being seen as a sissy thing. “As dancers, we all know what it’s like to be verbally tormented,” Bell says to the class. “Everyone calls you ‘gay,’ ‘pouf,’ ‘ballerina boy.’ ” There are tentative nods of recognition and nervous giggles as feet shift and eyes go to the ground. Keith Mearns, a 17-year-old student, hands Bell a Xeroxed Billy Elliot flier to sign. “The film really inspired me,” Mearns says, smiling shyly. “It opened me up to why I’m really doing ballet.”
Now Bell wants to observe the class, and it’s time for the boys to shine. As the pianist launches into a peculiar medley of “Moon River” and “Oops! … I Did It Again,” the star sits and observes the class, wrinkling his brow at the choice of music. (He’s a sworn Dr. Dre kind of guy.) “Whoa, these boys are good,” he confides. “Really, really good. Whoa!” He nods, watching intently for a few minutes. Then, as the boys strip off their sweatpants to reveal tight black leggings and the ecstatic high kicks commence, Bell leans in and whispers, “So – do you know where the girls are rehearsing?”