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August 13, 2009

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'Burn the Floor' brings ballroom dance to Broadway

AUDIENCES just can't seem to get enough of dance shows and the latest fast and furious incarnation has gone down a storm, writes Erin Carlson.

Maksim Chmerkovskiy is getting ready to rumba. The stage is black but the crowd knows it's him: they detect the faint outline of his Grecian warrior build, six pack abs and spiky hair.

Lights up. The "Dancing With the Stars" heartthrob, wearing only jeans, begins the Latin dance of lust. His ravishing partner, Karina Smirnoff, arrives in an unbuttoned white shirt and black undergarments, waves of thick bronze hair cascading down her shoulders.

As the house band performs the love ballad "Burn for You," they twirl, spin and circle one another seductively, inviting observers to openly drool - or, at least, renew a timeworn commitment to sign up for salsa lessons.

Ballroom dance in all its forms - from the waltz to the quickstep to the paso doble - has landed on Broadway.

After 10 years touring the globe, the sizzling show "Burn the Floor" made its debut at the Longacre Theater on July 26.

Chmerkovskiy and Smirnoff add name recognition to a company of talented unknowns. The two - engaged since New Year's Eve - are best known from ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," where they teach celebrity amateurs from Laila Ali to Billy Ray Cyrus to find their inner rhythm, often despite a lack thereof.

There are no beginners in "Burn the Floor." And there's no shortage of backless dresses, sequins and skirt slits, among other flamboyant ballroom trappings.

Nine other dance couples exude unbridled fervor for the art form, comprised of 10 standard and Latin dances: the waltz, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, tango, jive, the quickstep, cha-cha, samba, paso doble and rumba. There are two vocalists and four musicians on percussion, saxophone, violin and guitar.

The Latin and ballroom dance performance will return to Shanghai this fall at the Shanghai Grand Theater from September 18 to October 7.

"The time is right for ballroom dancing to be here," says the show's creator, Harley Medcalf. "Ballroom dancing has such history and pedigree. Look at what's going on all around the world, with the television shows and the new audiences discovering ballroom dancing."

Ballroom dancing is normally competitive, pitting couple against couple for top honors.

But this group dance together, syncing their moves during a two-hour show packed with rabble rousers (a jive routine to "Proud Mary"), subdued numbers (a Viennese waltz for "Nights in White Satin") and passionate interludes (a paso doble of "Matador").

In a latest performance, they swing danced down the aisles, dripping sweat on the audience.

Carrie Ann Inaba, one of three judges on "Dancing With the Stars," was recruited to be a producer by Medcalf during a recent run at San Francisco's Post Street Theater.

"This show just reaches right in you," she says. "It reaches out to you, grabs you and doesn't let you go. It's so sexy and so athletic and so passionate and so emotional. It's got all these incredible elements. When I first saw the show, I fell in love with it immediately. It's got all the elements of something that I would want to be working with. And now I am, and I'm so excited!"

Celebrity status

Inaba, a dancer and choreographer, said she gave some creative input but not much needed change. She took the producing job against the advice of "certain people" on her team who felt the role wasn't right for her; she thought her celebrity status could help raise the show's profile.

"A dancer is a beautiful creature," she says. "And I think 'Burn the Floor' showcases that in the best possible light. You really understand how physically demanding, how much passion it takes, how much dedication, how much hard work goes into being a dancer when you watch the show."

"Burn the Floor" follows other hit dance shows on Broadway over the years, including "Movin' Out," "Contact" and "Tango Argentino."

Medcalf, who has also produced "Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance!" on Broadway, conceived the idea for "Burn the Floor" after meeting a group of ballroom dancers in London; they performed at Elton John's 50th birthday party in 1997 and debuted on stage in the United Kingdom two years later.

Medcalf wanted to test the show in San Francisco before heading to New York.

"The whole point of going (to the Post Street) was to try and establish better credibility for our show in a theater that has shown in the past that success there has led to Broadway," he says, bringing up the coastal trajectory of "Forever Tango," the hit tango revue by creator-director Luis Bravo.

Medcalf's latest company of dancers come from Malaysia, Slovenia, Russia, the UK, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States.

Chmerkovskiy and Smirnoff, accustomed to competitive dancing, have had to learn to blend in with the crowd.

"Everybody's doing, like, everything in sync and in harmony, so if you suddenly decide to be a little bit on your own and do something different, you're going to stick out - and we don't want that," Smirnoff says. "Well, we do want that when alone on the floor. We're gonna stick out in a positive way!"

The Ukrainian-born Chmerkovskiy said he was just trying to not hurt anyone.

"There's another 10 couples on the floor and yesterday I smacked one guy in the mouth and he just almost passed out," he says of one rehearsal. "So I'm really trying to focus and not kill anybody out there. Because they're all crazy fast."


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