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The Language of Twirling

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

Not a book this time, this time: a film. Billy Elliot (2002), written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, and the language of twirling. Twirling – the origin of which is “obscure” but possibly connecting sound and sense in “merely imitative” (OED, “twirl, v.1” etym.) fashion – is a motif in the film on several levels. The verb is defined as “[t]o rotate rapidly, to spin; to be whirled round or about; also to turn round quickly as to face or point the other way; also figurative of the mind or head: to be in a whirl, be confused or giddy” (OED, “twirl, v.1” 1.a.). Billy Elliot is a film about dance – ballet, to be exact –, physically twirling and turning to a rhythm; Billy Elliot is also a film about change in general: personal, social, economical and cultural. Unspoken grief vs. rock music, Union integrity vs. personal goals, boxing vs. ballet. These tensions are not resolved by words, they are resolved by twirling.

And yet ‘resolve’ is not exactly the right word.

While they turn and turn and turn and circle each other, these contrasts rarely really mix or merge, but they do become closer. On a figurative level, they get to know each other, become less foreign, slowly open up for change. The twirling itself is sudden, but true transformation takes time: the time the story covers, the time it takes for Billy to become a lead dancer, the time it takes his family to accept his choice. The time it takes to tell the story – or to show a twirl – only captures the immediate emotion, sows the seed for change.

The images in this film themselves ‘twirl’ the different worlds that clash in it: boxing gear on ballet bar, working-class Northerner travelling backwards on Tube escalator, Billy dancing through brick-lined streets. In this final scene, Billy eventually ‘twirls’ his anger out. His father and older brother, Tony, are against his dancing and auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. Tony literally places Billy on the table and taunts him to show his dancing skills, while the boy’s middleclass dance teacher urges him not to give in to his older brother’s threats. As the fight between the grown-ups goes on, Tony demands “Dance, you little twat!” (“Dancing” 00:20-00:21) – which makes pretty clear what he thinks of ballet – and music sets in in the pause that follows as Billy is unable to react: The Jam punk song “Town Called Malice” (1982).

Aggressive, rhythmical, loud.

His father, brother and teacher form a kind of circle around Billy who turns from the one to the other still unable to answer either in words or movement. His grandmother, a wannabe dancer herself, makes a silent forth outside the circle. The words of the fight are gradually drowned out by the music and the images mix with Billy – at some later stage – beginning to dance in the yard, kicking the wall, covering his ears with his hands, shaking his head, grunting, pushing, running, tapping, jumping, screaming (“Dancing” 00:22-02:55). As words fail the boy, he speaks with his body. When the music fades, his tapping and grunting and breathing and twirling dominates the soundscape for a little while and we hear what Billy hears, just the rhythm of his feet (“Dancing” 02:55-03:15). Then, he crashes into a rusting corrugated iron wall, grunting and kicking once more, breathing out, and only the calls of distant seagulls remain (“Dancing” 03:16-03:31). He has twirled himself out.

Language fails, communication doesn’t.

Billy’s twirls effectively convey his anger, his frustration, his confusion, his passion for dancing – but they are also a one-way street as they merely turn about themselves. In Billy Elliot, twirling is expression, power, identity, life. It makes the characters “giddy,” unsure of the rules they’ve set for themselves and the roles society seems to have firmly assigned to them, and it introduces them to new perspectives – but it can only ever mark the potential for change. Every twirl needs to be followed up by a conscious decision, a choice, genuine acceptance. To move forward, we eventually need to stop turning. Consequently, the final image of the grown-up dancing Billy Elliot is not a giddy twirl, it’s a controlled jump (“FINAL” 02:42-02:52).

Works Cited

“twirl, v.1OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, Accessed 25 August 2019.

“Billy Elliott – Dancing Scene (HD).” YouTube, December 2013, Accessed 19 September 2019.

“BILLY ELLIOTT FINAL SCENE.” YouTube, April 2013, Accessed 19 September 2019.

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