People often ask how my son Jamie started dancing. Maybe it started in the womb, when I would play classical music close to my swelling belly while taking leisurely baths (it was my first pregnancy; I had time for testing prenatal brain development theories).
As a baby, Jamie was not soothed by the motion of a car; I had to hold the steering wheel with one hand and the Mozart musical cube with the other, contorted toward the back seat, and continually press the buttons to emit the melodies that stopped his howling and got his chubby legs grooving.
As a toddler, Jamie loved to boogie down on Lincoln Road in South Beach. He’d stop in front of the street musicians and dance with such passion and concentration that a circle of onlookers inevitably formed to watch the kid they dubbed the “dancing boy.” Wherever we went, if music was playing, Jamie had to dance. It was almost a compulsion.
At age three, we watched “Swan Lake” performed on a stage built across the lake in Retiro Park in Madrid, under a starry sky. The lights splashed over the rippling water, the dancers, like white swans, glided through the darkness—and straight into Jamie’s heart. He was entranced. (His dad, a ball sports guy, nodded off.)
Once we moved back from Europe to sporty Westport, there was the requisite attempt at soccer. Jamie mostly scored cartwheels, not goals. He was only seven when we saw Billy Elliot on Broadway. To a kid who often pirouetted from point A to point B, whether in a parking lot or a living room, it was a revelation. The show transported me. Maybe ‘cause I knew I had son who yearned to dance, maybe ‘cause it’s the best musical ever written. For a fleeting second, I thought, Imagine if Jamie could play that role. Pie in the sky, I knew. He hadn’t even taken a ballet class.
At Christmas time, during second grade, Jamie saw The Nutcracker at the Playhouse and we learned that a local studio had a boys ballet program. Jamie eagerly traded in cleats for ballet shoes. The director came out beaming halfway through his first class and said he must stay for the workshop after and begin rehearsing for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the older students. “That kid’s got it,” she said.
The following fall Jamie began dancing at Alvin Ailey in the city on Saturdays, in addition to his local classes several days a week. A casting director spotted him at an acting camp in New York and suggested a manager. Swiftly we were thrust into a whirlwind of auditions, more frequent trips to New York, and rejection. The acting world is definitely not one in which every kid gets a trophy, especially a kid who is not small for his age as most child actors are (enabling them to appear younger and take longer to outgrow their Broadway roles).
When Jamie was nine, Nora Brennan, the casting director for Billy Elliot (as well as Matilda), came to Alvin Ailey, scouting for boys for the Broadway tour (the Broadway show sadly had closed; we saw it three times before it did, always in a packed house). She called to tell me Jamie was just the type of boy they looked for—he had the grace, focus and natural talent. I almost dropped the phone. Jamie? Billy Elliot?! With six months of more rigorous training, with the coaches in New York who had groomed the Broadway Billys, she thought he’d be ready to audition. Jamie began taking privates—ballet, tap (with Thommie Retter who played Mr. Braithwaite on Broadway), acro—and upping his voice lessons. He sacrificed sleepovers and perfected a la seconde turns.
As the six-month mark approached, we heard a discouraging rumor: the Broadway tour of Billy Elliot would close soon. We ran into Nora at an audition and she confirmed the rumor was true. “Jamie was on the top of our list,” she said with a sigh. Jamie’s angry dance would not be the one Billy does on stage. He flung himself on his bed that night and cried.
Kids at school started taunting him about dance. The main perpetrators were girls he’d been friends with since kindergarten, girls from open-minded families. The boy ballet clichés run deep enough to permeate any culture. As the role of Billy became more elusive, Jamie’s world became more like Billy’s. He felt isolated.
Jamie began studying at School of American Ballet, traveling into the city four days a week and more once he was cast in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. We heard about a Billy Elliot the Musical in L.A. and excitedly submitted a video. They cast the veteran Billys from the tour.
That summer, after any hope of playing Billy had faded, an audition came up for Billy Elliot at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Florida. It was an Equity theater with a stellar reputation. Most of the actors would be cast in New York and fly down to spend November and December in balmier temps. Travel, housing, a rental car, tutoring, a nice weekly paycheck, and a tan? Sign us up!
The audition holding room was packed with eager Billys and Michaels (Billy’s flamboyant best friend). We recognized one from the tour, others from Broadway shows. Oh boy, this would be no shoo-in. After several grueling hours of tap, ballet and singing, Jamie left forlorn. He beat himself up through dinner, repeating that he just wasn’t good enough. The email with the callback details appeared on my phone partway through his diatribe.
He didn’t feel any better after three hours of ballet, tap, scenes, and singing at the callback, amidst stiff competition. Jamie was one of the first to be dismissed. He called me in tears, and I told him, “I completely understand if you just want to stick to community theatre. I’m emotionally exhausted. I can only imagine how you feel!”
About four days later we received the offer from the Maltz for Jamie to play Billy. It was only the beginning of a different form of exhaustion, but Jamie’s debut as the 118th Billy in the world, on December 10th, 2015, made every last tear, bead of sweat and taunt from classmates worth it. He was spectacular.
After the show, a “superfan” who had seen over 100 shows approached Jamie, with tears in his eyes, and handed him a Billy bag—an original from Broadway that the fan had carried to every show he’d seen, London included. “You just earned this,” he said.
That winter, with encouragement from me, Jamie decided he would perform “Electricity” at Bedford’s talent show. He enlisted his close friend Josh Suggs, an athlete who always stuck up for his pirouetting pal (read that full story here: https://06880danwoog.com/2016/02/29/josh-jamie-billy-elliot-and-bedford/), to participate as well, with a magic show. When Jamie began to panic, worrying his peers would laugh at him, he couldn’t turn back. He had a pact with his loyal friend. Josh amazed the audience as the closing act of Act I. “Electricity,” Jamie’s song and dance, would be the closing number of the show. I held my breath. Jamie would have too, had the singing and explosive dancing he would execute not required ample oxygen. Jamie entered to cheers of approval and, by the crowd-pleasing turns at the end, the thunderous applause had him soaring like only Billy can.
Jamie is now going into his fourth and final production of Billy Elliot. This one is coincidentally in his dad’s hometown—Lancaster, Pennsylvania—where the Manns are known for their athletic prowess. An equally athletic Mann looks forward to taking the stage this fall.
Billy Elliot the Musical is playing at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, from September 22 through October 16. Jamie will play Billy at evening performances.
Here are a few highlights of Jamie: