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I Was The Real Billy Elliot
By Jeffery Taylor
Dance Critic and an Arts feature writer for the Sunday Express.
, November 2004


Later this month, one of the most highly praised British films of recent years opens on general release. According to the Hollywood Reporter at the Cannes Film Festival, Billy Elliot, the story of a young boy's battle to dance, is "poised to sweep the world off its feet". The first feature film by stage director, Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot, won a 2 minute standing ovation at Cannes and was bought within 24 hours by all the world's major film markets.

The film tells of motherless 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell) who takes ballet lessons instead of boxing sessions during the 1984 Nottingham miner's dispute to the fury of his miner father and elder brother. Every emotional button is punched during Billy's tricky journey to the Royal Ballet School, including transcendental visits from his dead mother and the crusty support of ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Through a mist of tears from Billy's gritty father the film climaxes in an emotional family reconciliation and the crashing chords of Tchaikovksy's Swan Lake.

If only real life were so simple.

I, too, started dancing aged 11, in the 1950s in Urmston, a working class cultural desert on the outskirts of Manchester. Billy Elliot claims to deal with the cruel prejudices and harsh realities of working class life. But sentimental happy endings rarely eased the pressures of poverty faced by a fatherless - and in those days that meant no income - family at a time of food rationing, massive devaluation and a cost of living annually spiralling by 5 - 10%.

The modern perception of the war time diet as spartan but healthy somehow passed the Taylor household by. As a child, due to malnutrition, my legs were weak and misshapen and I lived in dread of corrective iron braces. I saw salvation when I went to a ballet performance and wondered, if the leading male dancer could have legs stronger and more supple than I thought humanly possible, why couldn'tI? The family thought my brain was as soft as my legs but my doctor agreed and I turned up at the local ballet school, clutching, like Billy, my 2/6d and told the startled teacher, Irene Williamson, that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Not tap or ballroom - ballet or nothing.


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Jeffery Taylor on entering the Royal Ballet School
Photo: © Jeffery Taylor

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Like Billy, mine was a one parent family, but it was my mother who had walked out on my father, taking me and my elder sister with her. And like Billy's father, typical of the Northern working class with a will of iron and unshakeable beliefs. Once I started ballet lessons against her better instincts, our relationship developed into a fight for survival, but unlike Billy's father's ultimate surrender to his son's wishes, ours was a bitter battle until the day she died. She had no income, except one pound 10 shillings a week as a credit draper's shop assistant while my father paid the rent and never-never payments on furniture for a flat above my paternal grandparents. We never made ends meet.

Sometimes my mother had my school dinner money and bus fare, other times I went hungry and walked and soon she gave up on finding 2/6d a week for my ballet lesson. For 4 out of the 5 years I studied with her, Irene Williamson taught me, like Billy's Mrs Wilkinson, for nothing. Though we never spoke of it, I always knew she was on my side of the trench. My mother said she could never hold her head up again if she went on the dole, so she hid any spare food from me under her bed when I came home from school and left a loaf and a pot of jam on the kitchen table to dull my ravenous, adolescent appetite. One Saturday night all she could put in front of me for tea was a sheep's brain stew and I have never felt so worthless as when the bile rose in my throat at the sight and I had to refuse.

Unlike Billy I never saw my father cry in my life and I recall my mother in tears only once. One day I arrived back from school to find my mother home early from work, sitting on the sofa, listlessly poking the ashes in the fireplace. My father had stopped the payments on the furniture and the bailiffs had called. They left the sofa, two beds and the kitchen table.

My mother's despair deepened as my commitment to ballet, like Billy's, grew with the years. My sister married and left home and the beatings which had started when the family first split increased with her frustration as she failed to convince me of my duty, as she saw it, to devote my future to her welfare. At 14 I was madly in love with my dancing partner. Like all teenagers time meant nothing to us. If I arrived home a minute past my allotted time, which I usually did, I was slapped about on the front steps. But, like Billy, nothing shook my determination to leave Manchester for London and a life in ballet.

After my first audition for the Royal Ballet Upper School, an alarmed school director told me and my and my teacher that I must never dance another step if I was to avoid my knees collapsing and the prospect of the rest of my life in a wheel chair. I was stunned and the memory of the rest of that day is obliterated from my memory. When we returned home, I learned that another examiner at the audition, a respected dancer and teacher, Claud Newman, had outlined a 12 month course of exercises to straighten my knees. It worked and the following year I was praised for my strong legs and accepted into the school.

Billy's departure from his home town to the Royal Ballet School is a tear-stained three-way tug of love between him and his father and brother. I packed my suitcase and walked alone up the road to the bus stop.


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Jeffery Taylor and Carmen Mathe
in the Classical Dance Group Sleeping Beauty

Photo: © Jeffery Taylor

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After graduating from the Royal Ballet Upper School I lost touch with my mother for many years. To my knowledge she saw me dance professionally only once. Shortly before her death we met again, not as parent and child but adults with independent lives. And a mutual respect, if grudging, for never giving up on what we believed in.

I hope Billy's career was as long and as fulfilling as mine. During 15 years I danced nearly everything I wanted to and met my wife, teacher and choreographer, Joanna Denise. But one thing Billy and I certainly have in common is his description of what it feels like to dance. "When I dance I forget everything," he says, "I sort of disappear. There's a fire in my body like electricity." I know exactly what he means.

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All text is © copyright of the Critics' Circle / National Dance Awards.
 

Jeffery Taylor
Photo: © Jeffery Taylor