There is considerable appreciation these days for the link between dance and sports.

"Great athletes are studying ballet; basketball teams take ballet classes," Weisberger said. "Pittsburgh Ballet had Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann on its board of directors. Ballet dancing is the highest form of athletics. It's not just physical; it's the total aesthetic. And it's not easy. You think everyone can do this?"

Meredith Rainey, a former soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet, is one of the teachers who put the Peabody boys through their paces, from exercises at the barre to increasingly tricky steps and leaps across the length of the floor.

He doesn't miss much in the rectangular, mirrored dance studio — someone grimacing ("It's going to hurt"), someone with eyes down ("You can't look at your feet and do this"). And the teacher keeps things going at a steady clip. There's a point to the urgency. Rainey knows how much these students have to do if they are to excel.

"I started late," he said. "I was 15. So I had to learn fast. And I didn't have a boys' class. I was the only boy taking dance."

Being outnumbered by girls in dance class is not an unusual occurrence for boys. That's something observed by Nora Brennan when she holds auditions for the lead in "Billy Elliot." For some boys, being chosen — four at a time rotate in the title role — means their first chance to work with peers of the same gender.

"It's helpful for the boys to know they're not the only one," said Brennan, the children's casting director for the Broadway production of "Billy Elliot," which closed last January, and for the North American tours. "When they get in a room together, they all learn from each other."

Nearly two dozen boys have performed the role so far in the United States and Canada. The latest are "getting their feet wet" in Austin, Texas, this weekend before the show heads to Baltimore, said supervising resident director Steven Minning.

"They are fresh out of the gate, which is great," Minning said. "That's when they're really hot."

To get to that gate takes a variety of talents.

"We travel the country looking for 9- to 12-year-olds who are extraordinary dancers," Brennan said. "Usually, they are very strong in ballet with several years of training. They have to have the potential to learn new dances — tap, gymnastics, contemporary. They have to be able to sing and learn to act. And they have to learn the Geordie accent [of northern England], which sounds a bit Scottish."

That's still not all. To capture the essence of Billy, a performer needs to reveal something else.

"I'm looking for a sense of determination and tenacity," Brennan said. "This almost always comes from within themselves. I notice at the audition which kids give up or fall apart easily."

Added Minning: "To access the emotional parts of the character of Billy is a challenge. Some boys tend to be older souls than others. There are a lot of life experiences in them already. They can't articulate them, but they are there."

One of those life experiences is likely to be dealing with lingering prejudice against boys dancing ballet. There have been periods when dancing was seen as cool for boys — Weisberger recalled increased interest after publicity surrounding the brilliant Russian celebrity-defectors Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov decades ago — but that is an exception.

"There's still a stigma, a lot of dancing-is-for-girls stuff," Rinko-Gay said, "even if it doesn't go to the are-you-gay stage."

All of that is part of the "Billy Elliot" story.

Brennan noted that when she asks boys at auditions whether they have ever had trouble at school because of their interest in dance, "pretty much all the hands go up. There are bullying issues. Sometime they tell friends they are going to soccer practice instead of dance class," Brennan said.

Boys in the Peabody program don't hesitate to acknowledge that they have faced some of these issues, but they shrug it off.

"I've loved dancing since I was little," said Seth Walters, 13. The taunting "changed when I said I was studying at Peabody."

And the boys who are accepted into the demanding Peabody program invariably arrive with essential support.

"My family is proud of me," said 11-year-old Devonte Tasker. Nods from his colleagues reflected similar sentiments.

If the Peabody imprimatur help boys get past the old stigma, their own conviction and dedication make the biggest difference. Rinko-Gay's assessment of the current crop of students is upbeat.

"There is good potential here," he said. "I don't know how many would stay in classical ballet. But I do think some of them might go on to Broadway."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Billy Elliot" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. $43.15-$101.90. Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickemaster.com.

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