Dance is the new rock'n'roll, says the man behind the hit show Burn the Floor. Diane Parkes meets him.
With Strictly Come Dancing fever currently sweeping the UK, the tour of Burn the Floor could hardly be more timely.
A blend of ballroom, Latin, fast rhythms and spectacle, the show has toured the world – despite having an unlikely beginning.
The story began back in 1998, when producer Harley Medcalf first realised there was more to competition dancing than he had ever imagined after watching a short show at a party.
At the time ballroom was hardly front page news. But Harley was ahead of the game and launched his show Burn the Floor just before dance became hot news.
The show has now been touring globally for 12 years, has been a hit on Broadway and in the West End and has been seen by millions of people.
What is more, the rest of the world has also woken up to the fact that ballroom is, as Harley calls it, “the new rock ‘n’ roll”.
Harley can still remember that first meeting of minds.
“For the first 30 years of my career as a producer I was working in Australia and Asia with Elton John,” he says. “So I was invited to his 50th birthday party at Hammersmith in London in 1998.
“The entertainment was this short ballroom show. At the time ballroom was buried away at the end of a maze and was dead end. But when I saw this show I saw 18-20-year-olds and they were doing this new style of ballroom and I was intrigued.
“Then when I got chatting to them they were telling me about how they held down three jobs and slept on friends’ floors just to have the money for lessons and competitions. I was struck by the incredible quality of their dancing and their commitment.
“I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see the British Championships and I saw this incredible talent, but it was all just a bit tired.
“I thought what would happen if we put together this talent with rock ‘n’ roll technology?” Harley decided to explore the idea.
“I started speaking to people in the ballroom world and word just got around. I was getting phone calls from these young dancers from Italy, from America, from Sweden, asking about being in the show.”
And so Burn the Floor was born.
The show brings together the ten dances of ballroom and Latin – foxtrot, waltz, Viennese waltz, quickstep, tango, cha-cha, rumba, paso doble, samba and jive as well as elements of salsa, swing and mambo. Fast-paced and sultry, it aims to take ballroom out of the dance halls and into the public eye.
In many ways Burn the Floor was created at just the right time, as ballroom and Latin dancing has seen an explosion of interest as a result of television programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance.
“When we were first looking at publicising the show our publicist in London came out with a great line ‘ballroom is the new rock ‘n’ roll’” recalls Harley. “We loved it and we thew it out there – and it bounced right back.
“At that time people just weren’t interested in ballroom in that way. But from about 2005 onwards there has been this massive resurgence in ballroom and dancing. People have suddenly realised what they have been missing.
“We put our first show on in Bournemouth in 1999 and we used to have audiences of people aged 45 and over, but now we have taken Burn the Floor across the whole world and our audiences are kids. We have been to around 200 venues in more than 40 countries. We played Beijing, we broke records in Tokyo and we can take it pretty much anywhere and people want to see it.”
The show has a slightly ambiguous relationship with the television programmes which have helped to put dancing back into the spotlight.
“A lot of our dancers have gone on to be in those shows like Strictly both in the UK and in all the other countries which have also created their version such as Dancing With The Stars. It shows what a wonderful pedigree our dancers have. The fact that the television producers can recognise their attributes and the skills they have built up in Burn the Floor is great for the dancers.”
Professionals who have migrated from Burn the Floor to the UK’s Strictly include Natalie Lowe, Roger Windsor and last year’s winner Artem Chigvintsev.
“It is a challenge,” admits Harley. “Because, while I am always pleased for each of the dancers, it also sends a bullet through my heart when they leave. We have spent all that time and money training them and then they go to something else!”
Not that the team are short of new talent.
“There are so many young dancers coming through with amazing skills. For us it is great if a dancer can do all ten but there are also some dancers who are incredible at either Latin or ballroom.
“If we find someone who is incredible at tango we would want to give them the opportunities to be in the show as well.
“And it is interesting how things have changed. There was always great talent out there but what is different now is the attitude of the young dancers. They now know that they can make a career out of dancing and that makes them very determined and very ambitious.”
Harley is determined to see development in the show as well as the dancers. The version of Burn the Floor which comes to Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is direct from Broadway and choreographed by Jason Gilkison and Peta Roby.
The couple, who were UK, world and international champions, danced together for more than 30 years and performed in the original 1999 production of Burn the Floor. Jason then went on to become choreographer and then artistic director while Peta is currently associate producer.
And they currently they have the job of reworking the show.
“The challenge this summer was to change about a third of the show,” says Harley. “We have been spending three months developing four completely new pieces which are replacing some of the show.
“Our aim is to keep creating new pieces so that by 2012 we will have a transition. It is important that we keep the show moving forwards.”
* Burn The Floor, B’ham Hippodrome, Oct 25-29, tickets: 0844 338 5000, www.birminghamhippodrome.com