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By Elizabeth Kramer
Photographs by Matt Stone
The Courier-Journal
June 24, 2012

The setting is 1984 in northern England, where 11-year-old Billy discovers a dance class. It’s a place he’s secretly longed for, where he can show his passion for dance, learn and grow.

While he finds an encouraging dance teacher, his family members aren’t so supportive. “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling,” his father huffs when he learns Billy has been going to ballet classes instead of boxing lessons.

This storyline launches the charming film “Billy Elliot,” which was released in 2000 and earned enough accolades to encourage the movie’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and director, Stephen Daldry, to make it into a musical with Elton John writing the music and Hall penning the lyrics.

In 2005, it met success with its premiere run in London, which earned it four Laurence Olivier Awards, including one for Best New Musical. In 2008, it crossed the pond to New York, where it won 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards.

The musical’s storyline also tells a true-to-life story for many boys who love to dance, but like Billy find that not all of their peers or the adults around them are keen on their passion. “It’s inspiring because it’s about a boy following his dreams, and no matter what anybody says, he keeps trying,” said Samantha Blaire Cutler, an 11-year-old Louisville native and cast member in the touring production that comes to town this week.

She said some of the boys who play the part of Billy in the show know what it’s like to feel like the only boy in their community who dances. “They say that they were the only boy in their dance studios,” Samantha said. “One said he was made fun of because he danced.”

Her mother, Kim Goldman, who often tours with her daughter, said many boys in the cast have talked about not having male friends at home who dance, particularly the ones who don’t come from New York or Los Angeles. “They say how nice it is when they are on the tour that they are suddenly with other boys who get it,” she added.

Here in Louisville, some parents and teachers say boys in dance still get teased, but they also are starting to see a shift in the culture due in part to popular television shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Dancing With the Stars” was definitely a catalyst for Keyarius Kibler in December 2009 when he was 9. That’s when his mother, Kenisha Stoner, noticed that he and his 4-year-old sister were in the living room trying to emulate some of the moves from a dance on the show.

“This went on for a week or two,” she recalled recently, “when my husband said, ‘You need to be calling some dance studios around Louisville.’ ”

She called around and soon enrolled her son and daughter in Dreamz Dance Company just off Stony Brook Drive. Since then, Keyarius has taken ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and improvisational dance classes. In 2010, he began attending Western Middle School, an arts magnet school where he also studies dance.

Last October, he participated in a workshop at Lincoln Elementary with members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. A month later, he went to Chicago to take classes in a special program with prominent dancers, including Wade Robinson, a judge on the show “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Desmond Richardson, who was a leading dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before co-founding Complexions Contemporary Ballet and dancing in Broadway shows. Recently, Keyarius learned that he’s getting a scholarship to attend classes at the Louisville Ballet School.

This month, he’s been rehearsing at Dreamz Dance Company with other students for a dance competition that has its national event next month in Ohio. At a recent rehearsal, Keyarius described his dance team as his “second family” and talked about the encouragement he’s gotten from his family and teachers, as well as some other kinds of reactions by other children.

“Since I’ve been teased for years, it’s gotten easier to deal with,” he said. “Mom’s told me that it will keep going on, that some people will support you and some people won’t. But I don’t cry.”

His mother said she tries to give him some insight into how others might think. “I’ve told him that maybe they don’t understand just as basketball or baseball is an interest, a talent and a skill, so is dance,” Stoner said.

Tamara Begley, the dance teacher at Western Middle School, said she is sensitive to how her male students can feel among people outside dance class and that they do fear getting picked on.

So she makes some compromises. She doesn’t make the boys wear tights, but still gets flack when she has them wear costumes. “When I tell them, ‘You’re going to wear jazz pants for this piece,’ ” she said, “there’s always an outcry of ‘No, I’m not!’ ”

She talked about one student who was afraid about wearing tight pants onstage. “He had told me, ‘I can’t wear that in front of my dad,’ ” she said. “But he did it. Now, his dad was super proud of him and it was all fine.”

Despite the widening acceptance of boys in dance, she said there are still gender issues “no matter what.”

“They’ve made dance as more a part of popular culture,” she said. “You see athletes — football players, basketball players and Olympians — on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and I think it’s taken some of the fear out of doing it and made it OK.”

Teachers at the Louisville Ballet School are also sensitive to the harassment that boys who dance can get. The school’s director, Elena Fillmore-Diehl, said that while boys at the school are a small minority, there seem to be more than when she was growing up. She said many at the school today are active in musical theater and want to improve their skills. She added that many also watch the popular dance television shows, which often emphasize ballet as a necessary foundation.

“The shows talk about how the classical form gives dancers the strength and control to perform most styles,” she said.

Boys at the school also have male instructors there “who are awesome role models for the boys,” she said.

One is Ben Needham-Wood, 24 and a Louisville Ballet dancer who began dance classes at age 5 and grew up outside Boston. He said his classes include more than tondues and plies. In them, he emphasizes the strength that male dancers need to perform and has students do push-ups and sit-ups.

“I try to talk about how professional athletes, whether they’re in football, basketball, soccer — a lot of them will cross-train with ballet and it’s becoming more common,” he said.

Needham-Wood understands this as a dancer and as an accomplished soccer player in his youth. “ I was a soccer player — and a pretty strong player — so my friends knew me as not the kid who knew ballet but as a soccer player on their team,” he said, noting that ballet definitely improved his coordination and his abilities in the sport.

But when he was growing up, he said, he still had to deal with teasing, especially in seventh and eighth grades. “There was a group of high-schoolers that followed the bus I was on home once and heckled me out the window after I got off the bus,” he said. Then there were some classmates, the hockey players, who would tease me going through the halls and give me a push here or there.”

He said he doesn’t think of the incidents as anything major and that he always had a very supportive family and a mother who also worked as a guidance counselor and was able to guide him through rough times.

Marquise Brooks, 9, said he’s only had one other child laugh at him once about dancing since he found his love for tap as a student at Lincoln Elementary School.

Now a student at Western Middle School, he said most of his friends know him more as a basketball player. He also sees the connection between the two activities. “If you dance, you grow and you can become more athletic,” he said, adding that he’s been spending some time this summer practicing moves in his tap shoes that he saw in a video of Gregory Hines.

His mother, Amanda Brooks, said she was amazed when she first learned he’d taken a shine to tap while at Lincoln Elementary. She said while they’ve not seen the musical or the film “Billy Elliot,” they’re familiar with the issues of boys in dance via a Disney television movie called “Jump In,” about a boy who takes on double-Dutch jump roping.

Similarly to “Billy Elliot,” the hero in “Jump In” is training in boxing, but then finds a love and talent for double Dutch, and ultimately wins the support of his family.

It’s the same kind of valuable lesson that comes out of “Billy Elliot,” which Goldman said she’s seen played out dozens of times while on tour with her daughter.

“The show is really about parents supporting kids and communities supporting kids so they can follow their passion,” she said.

Copyright © 2012

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