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Reinventing Ballroom with burn the floor

I just can’t ballroom dance. No matter what I try, my two left feet stay firmly planted on the ground. Yet, in just ten years ballroom dancing has changed my life.

Well into the prime of my career as a concert promoter, at a chance meeting in London in 1997, I was touched by ballroom dancers, instantly feeling their passion, joy and commitment to dance and to life. Was I simply in the right place at the right time?

These dancers inspired me and challenged me with their work ethic and discipline, and above all their grace, beauty and abundance of talent.

I began following the dancers competitions, watching these incredible kids who were sleeping on floors, in and out of jobs, and putting every cent of family earned money towards dance lessons and travel. I desperately wanted to find a way to work with these young dancers, was there a missing ingredient in ballroom dance competition I could discover? With my background in concert production I began to investigate adding theatre technology and presentation to the skill and artistry the dancers revealed on the ballroom competition floor. This was my first thread of an idea to create a new show.

Early in 1999, a show began to take shape. Working in Hammersmith in an old military barracks hall, six weeks, twelve hours day, six days a week, followed by a week of technical rehearsals preceded a move to the Bournemouth International Centre for our world premiere. Seemingly the Burn the Floor tradition of delivering under pressure and creating opportunity from little, “no matter what it takes” was born at this time.

After chaotic dress rehearsals the first shows were performed with much relief. A collection of spirited dancers, assembled from fifteen different countries, the fierce personalities all honed in dance competition, excelled on stage, the months off work and pressure released. The enduring comment of the night captured the feeling in the company. “it’s as if we have all won the competition tonight!”

Thus began a never-ending cycle of marketing and touring around the world, often with the show just running on euphoria and adrenalin. It was a time of solid learning, what worked, and what did not work in the show, with the very best teacher………the audience. Everyone could see we had a good show, but what would it take to make it great? Would our dancers, their vitality, be foundation enough to sustain us?

Slowly, we were learning to succeed in any circumstances no matter how challenging, how testing, good or difficult. Amidst critical reviews, I could still stand amongst our gradually growing audiences, and feel a chill, the hair on the back of my neck raised by watching the rumba or waltz.

In these early times we did not reveal the “B” world in our marketing. Ballroom had been consigned to the back blocks of fashion as passé, out of date, better to not mention it at all? At the very suggestion of the Ballroom word, publicists, promoters, venues alike gave me more of a quizzical look!

The regular touring gave me time to spend with Jason Gilkison, who with Peta Roby had joined our first company in Bournemouth. It was to be my dance education, as Jason and Peta revealed to me pivotal moments of their wonderful journey.

My favourite story, is Jason, describing a career defining moment, their stepping stone to be the first non European couple to win a World Amateur Latin title. How he decided that, to succeed – he simply needed to be himself, back his judgement and believe in his own vision.

How at Blackpool, in 1987, when it was the time of “Strictly Ballroom”, cat suits and sequin pants for the boys, Jason decided to “dress” to make his statement. He appeared all in black, trousers, a black dress shirt, sleeves rolled up for business, simple and masculine, no longer a “truck driver in a tutu”.

As the legendary Bill Irvine MBE, master of ceremonies bellowed with his deep authoritive voice, the infamous words “Stand Together” and counted in the twenty eight couples, as his eyes scanned the assembled contestants, he stopped, abruptly, at Gilkison/Roby. He stated to a hushed audience “I don’t believe my eyes, there is one gentleman wearing not one sequin or diamantie? Is this a return to sanity?”

A deafening silence crosses the ballroom floor, and as a bead of sweat formed on Jason’s brow, gradually, a slow hand clap rises to a huge roar of applause.

I also learnt how Jason and Peta’s mentor and guru, Walter Laird, taught them to “let the outside in” and how his lessons were a historical memoir of the Latin uprising. Also from Jason’s Grandfather, Sam Gilkison, who started the first Ballroom studio in Perth, West Australian, in 1931, they learnt to “powder their face with sunshine” and always his dictum “this art form must be presented to the general public….or it will die!”

I gradually began to understand, and potentially, to discover the future direction of “Burn the Floor“, that for us production was secondary, that the “truth” was to be in the dance.

Having involved Jason in the choreography and make over process of the show since 2000, I now asked him to create a totally new version of “Burn the Floor”, his vision, his creativity for our future touring, and together, with Peta our younger new breed of dancers, we began this process in 2005.

Little did I know that Jason had “secretly” been keeping notes for his own show, his own bold statement, to reinvent ballroom in a new fashion. He described it in a very animated way, as ‘finding a gem in your grandmother’s jewellery box, polishing it, and then revealing it in a brand new setting”.

And so, this time we began an extensive workshop, no need to rush this new production. And, as they say “timing is everything”. A groundswell had begun, with the onset of reality dance television, and “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance”, along with dance movies and studios full of new clientele.

Was it now possible that, in 2006, we could reveal the cloak, boldly and honestly call ourselves a Ballroom show? Absolutely. Shout it from the rooftops!

Although our experiments continued as we began to tour the new “Burn the Floor” show, we were more focused and strategic. “Ballroom. Reinvented” was our tag line, a fitting and proud description of the Gilkison ethic.

In 2008 we clocked up another touring benchmark, celebrating performances in 150 cities, all in less than ten years!

We also reached new heights in performances, commitment and passion, and with it, solid critical acclaim, and finally in July 2009, a serious goal was attained, with our first season on Broadway, at the gem, the Longacre Theatre on 48th Street.

Ballroom on Broadway! No prouder moment for this young company, as we extended our season and performed one hundred and ninety three shows.

Reviewer John Simon summed it all up for me “But praise first and last to Gilkison, almost more shaman than showman — a witch doctor in direct contact with Terpsichore, the muse of dance.”

So, now we have started a long world tour, amongst our next goals sits the West End. And, once more I can proudly stand amongst the audience, feeling, knowing, that they too can now experience that touch of the dancers, the chill of excitement, fuelled by their rebellious energy, chemistry and passion, the very elements that first intoxicated me.

A chance meeting for me, became my destiny!

-Harley Medcalf, producer of BURN THE FLOOR