Ballroom dancing. that's the stiff, stuffy, frilly style frozen in the '50s, practiced by Barbie-and-Ken dancers with numbers on their backs, right? Wrong. At least, Elton John doesn't think so. When he threw a party for his 50th birthday in 1997, he brought on a group of world-class professional ballroom dancers to entertain his guests. It takes a big performance to impress a show biz crowd, but the sexy, edgy, supercharged display dazzled Elton's 600 friends--and a new concept for an old genre was born.
Australian impresario Harley Medcalf, who has managed many of John's concert tours and took the Irish blockbuster Lord of the Dance on its first tours, was at the birthday bash and was especially intrigued by the show. "There was so much chemistry and such electricity between those couples, and such a transfer of energy to the audience," he said. Although he says he knew little about ballroom, "I became more and more interested." Medcalf had personal experience of how Michael Flatley and his foot-tapping troupe had shot traditional Irish dancing out of obscurity into spectular fame and fortune with Riverdance. Why not, he mused, do the same with ballroom, putting top professionals into a show staged with all the modern lighting and sound techniques of a modern rock concert? Ballroom even had the extra advantage of being accessible. "There's no way you or I are going to do that Irish footwork," says Medcalf. "But anyone can leave the show and start ballroom dancing."
The result of Medcalf's musings is a $10 million, two-hour spectacular called Burn the Floor which, after rave reviews in Australia, is on a whistle-stop tour through Europe and in late March will start a U.S. tour to include Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami. It stars 44 international champion ballroom dancers who, on the competition circuit, represent countries ranging from Australia to Sweden, Russia, Italy and Scotland. Among them, the dancers hold more than 400 championship titles. In this show, they offer the gamut of popular dance from classic Viennese waltzes to salsa, 1940s jive and jitterbug, and a futuristic, urban funky, techno cha cha cha.
Costumes, lighting, sound and sets are contemporary and clever. Costume designer Bonita Bryg, who first trained as a dancer with the Royal Ballet and was image consultant for the pop group Take That, even manages to get away with twinkling Christmas tree lights under frothy skirts without teetering over into kitsch. Her flamboyant costumes and use of color also do something to ameliorate the one part of the show that proves unconvincing and somewhat tiresome--a long flamenco and paso doble number where toreadors in bikers' gear do a lot of cape whirling and macho swaggering to the strains of Bizet's Carmen.
Otherwise, the show moves with such exuberant vitality, technical virtuosity and infectious rhythm that audiences find it hard to sit still. In the big skirts and bobby-sox jive scenes, and in the massed Latin finale numbers where the dancers are free to ad lib their steps, the pace is furious and the dancers do almost set the floor on fire. "It's theatrical Viagra," wrote Australian comedian Barry Humphries in the London Evening Standard's weekly entertainment guide.
It is also obvious that the creative team is accustomed to working with big rock spectaculars; there is nothing old hat about Burn the Floor and very little to link it with Come Dancing, the original BBC-TV show that, for most Britons, epitomizes ballroom. For 50 years the program faithfully followed the glittering tulle skirts swooping around the competition circuit to the presenter's enduring refrain of: "Shirley (or Sheila or Sharon) sewed on every one of the 50,000 sequins by hand."
Sequins are muted in Burn the Floor which also avoids the orange perma-tans of the other ballroom icon, the hit Baz Luhrmann movie Strictly Ballroom. Many of the dancers' backgrounds, however, are not so far removed from the characters in the film, which satirizes the intense world of competition dancing in Australia and centers on a family-run ballroom dancing school. The grandfather of Burn the Floor's artistic director, Jason Gilkison, opened Australia's first ballroom dancing school in 1931 and many of the couples started ballroom as children and have danced together for years. Some, like Canadian champions Alain Doucet and Anik Jolicoeur, who began dancing together 18 years ago, are married to each other. Between competing for titles, they teach dancing.
It is heartening, then, to find that lives dedicated to a dance form that was as demanding as it was declasse are being rewarded by fame, fortune and, most important, recognition.