Michael Alexander meets a real-life ‘Billy Elliot’ from Clackmannanshire who, along with his talented brother and sister, are taking the ballet world by storm.
In the endearing movie “Billy Elliot,” which was released in the year 2000, an 11-year-old boy from North East England decides, against all odds, that he wants to be a ballet dancer.
His widowed father and older brother, both tough coal miners on strike, at first hate the very idea of Billy’s dancing, believing that it means he’s unmanly.
But Billy, a tough and stubborn kid, perseveres and, in the end, reaches his goal.
Fast forward to 2017, and rural Clackmannanshire might seem a far cry from the post-industrial wastelands of County Durham.
Yet for 18-year-old local lad Harris Bell and his family, who live near Dollar, the realities of a young man overcoming public perception to pursue his chosen career in ballet are all too familiar.
“Every boy ballet dancer has heard it wherever they go,” laughs Harris, who has been ballet dancing for 10 years and was recently accepted into his third and final year at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London.
“As soon as anyone finds out you do ballet, people say ‘oh, it’s Billy Elliot!’ – especially at the Royal Ballet School, because they think that’s for girls.
“It’s nice as well though because people can relate to it. Many people haven’t seen ballet or don’t have an interest in ballet and don’t know anything about it apart from Billy Elliot.
“I know a lot of boys that have actually taken inspiration from the film and don’t feel embarrassed about it or anything, and that’s kind of what’s kept them going. If it wasn’t for that they probably wouldn’t have continued.”
Harris admits he got some “grief” from primary school class mates when he took up ballet at the age of eight.
But he says the reaction nowadays is more one of respect as his peers see it as “more about athleticism than prancing around with a skirt on”.
It was Harris’ mum Pauline, 46, who first got Harris and his two younger siblings Rory, 16, and Cara, 13, into dance.
The ex-Dundee Harris Academy pupil, who is the daughter of former Courier night editor Norman Fenwick, was teaching music to pre-school children around 10 years ago when she “traded” with her best friend Natalie Garry – an English Ballet trained dancer and teacher who was running Gleneagles Ballet School at the Gleneagles Hotel.
“I taught her kids music and she taught my kids ballet,” explains Pauline, who is married to phone company PR director Julian.
“Then Rory and Cara went to the Julie Young Dance Studios in Perth.
“At first it was nothing too serious. It was convenient and a lovely thing to do at that age. They never made it girly. Harris would dress up and do the hornpipe.
“I used to think are people going to wonder why the boys are doing ballet?
“But the boys never bothered and they enjoyed it, because their teacher made it really acceptable. As a result they never questioned it.”
There’s no real history of dance in the Bell household but they are a very musical family with Harris able to play eight instruments and everyone else at least able to hold a tune.
At the age of 11 Harris was accepted into the prestigious Dance School of Scotland in Glasgow.
But with a desire to concentrate on ballet, he quickly relocated to Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham where his talents were honed – and it was there that he met his now girlfriend and fellow ballet dancer Brittany Green.
Three years later, after winning an award for most promising boy, he was accepted into the Royal Ballet School, attached to the Royal Opera House in London, and regarded as the top ballet school in the world.
After a gruelling few years which has seen many of his friends drop out, he is one of only three British boys left in his class, alongside male and female ballet dancers on scholarships from all over the world.
Harris, who is sponsored by Scottish firm Artemis and represented the Royal Ballet at Paris Opera Garnier Theatre last month, explains that boys are often assessed out because they are not strong enough and girls are assessed out because they become too tall. Others just decide ballet is no longer for them.
But as well as the physical, it can also be a “harsh” mentally straining environment.
He adds: “Passion for it is key. If you don’t have passion for it it becomes a chore and then it becomes torture because it is so gruelling on your body and your mind – especially your mind. People ‘lose it’ all the time. The pressure to get it right, the pressure you put on yourself to get things right, is so immense.
“When you get something wrong it just feels awful. If you don’t have the drive to want to improve that, then you can’t make it because you’ll just sit back on your haunches and not get anywhere.
“I’m lucky because I’ve never doubted it – apart from once, in year eight, after a bad class. A lot of people do doubt it, because it’s such a harsh environment, and if you let that get to you it’s horrible.
“Girls are weighed and checked. It’s brutal.
“The mental impact can be severe when they are assessed out of the school.
“A lot give up. They quit because it’s too painful. Only the strong minded keep going.”
Mum Pauline says the dedication and hard work is admirable.
With Harris so strong, flexible and powerful, she says he stands out at the top of his class.
“They love him because he is one of the most masculine boys they’ve got, “ she smiles.
“The ballet world is dominated by quite a few feminine men, and they need the masculine men!”
But with younger son Rory at the prestigious Glasgow dance school – and soon heading for Urdang Academy in London – and daughter Cara travelling to Newcastle every weekend to classes under the Royal Ballet Mid Associate Scheme, their talent has come at a price.
“As a family we gave Harris away at 11-years-old to do this,” she says.
“Rory has followed a similar path as well. He decided he didn’t like ballet. He does wicked hip hop and is about to leave the Glasgow Dance School for London.
“Cara is a beautiful ballet dancer. She trained with the boys and then decided she didn’t want to go away. She travels to Newcastle every Saturday to take their associate programme. She’s been training with them since she was eight.
“But this means we do a lot of travelling about and it’s very expensive. Part of me doesn’t want Cara to continue with ballet beyond 16 because it can be so heart breaking if they don’t make it to the top level.
“I don’t really have time to feel proud because of all the ferrying about. They are all individually talented.
“But everyone is shocked when I explain that all three kids are performing at this level. And that’s quite rare.”