Singing and dancing are retro skills in Hollywood, as practical, it seems, as learning to twirl a six-gun. Stardom these days means knowing how to pose heroically against a blue screen, not how to express yourself with a shake and a shimmy. So when a young actor boogies with as much exuberance as Elijah Kelley does in the campy message musical Hairspray, it's electric. Kelley, 21, plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, the James Brown of Baltimore's civil rights-era Patterson Park High. He's the one who teaches the kids in detention, white and black, all the fun new dances.
In a movie that has a chubby John Travolta in drag dancing with surprising grace, it's still Kelley's suave, athletic performance of the number Run and Tell That that provides the sizzle. Kelley's breakout performance has earned him a record deal, and he has a pop-soul album due this spring. He also has a shot at a biopic about the young Sammy Davis Jr. Not bad for a guy who moved to Hollywood just three years ago, after growing up singing in a church choir in LaGrange, Ga., and taking just one dance class, at age 10, to meet a girl. "Performing is a rush," says Kelley. "You can express yourself without regret or explanation." He managed a pretty nifty tango in 2006's Take the Lead, but when he first saw the moves he was expected to do in Hairspray, Kelley was baffled. "I was like, I hope you have a stuntman," he says. Two months of rehearsals later, the cameras rolled. And Kelley danced away with a promising career.
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