- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Some of the best ideas ignite at the oddest time. Australian entertainment producer Harley Medcalf got his notion for the dance spectacle "Burn the Floor," which steps onto the Warner Theatre stage beginning Tuesday, as a guest at a 50th birthday bash for his friend Elton John in London's Hammersmith Ballroom.

"Out come 16 young ballroom dancers and it absolutely stops the room. I was transfixed. As an ensemble, they had this incredible energy," he says.

That was five years ago. The Sydney-based entrepreneur since has promoted not one but two touring productions that combine ballroom dancing with rock 'n' roll and assorted theatrical effects to American audiences. The cast includes 17 couples, the majority of them champion dancers from international ballroom dance competitions representing about as many countries as there are styles of dance.

The two-hour extravaganza gives a lighthearted treatment to the classic waltz and Latin steps, which ballroom dancers must perform with exacting finesse in competition. Dances include the rhumba, samba, cha-cha, jive, swing, mambo, salsa, tango and quickstep.

Perth native Jason Gilkison, 35, the show's artistic director and choregrapher, has danced with the same partner, Peta Roby, since age 7. He calls himself the oldest member of the cast. Mr. Gilkison won two world champion ballroom dance competitions in 1990.

"We've all come through the ballroom circuit and weren't satisfied," he says by telephone from Colorado Springs, Colo., three dates ahead of the troupe's Washington gig. "The rules we place on ourselves and the industry rules a kind of stilted uniform [is] that ballroom world with the shiny parted hair and orange skin."

He laughs, imagining the varied rigid steps and flashy costumes traditionally required of ballroom dancers. "What we want to show is the essence of ballroom without all that over-the-top stuff, to get away from these stereotypes. In this show, the ballroom essence is not about everyone dancing the same way but 35 people doing the same steps with 35 different personalities."

Most of the cast members are Australian-born; the youngest is 16.

"Burn" has toured since 1999. Mr. Gilkinson says his native country's worldwide reputation for dance owes a great deal to the 1992 movie "Strictly Ballroom," directed by his former neighbor Baz Luhrmann. Mr. Luhrmann also directed "Moulin Rouge," which has received an Oscar nomination this year for best picture.

"All of a sudden no one is left in Sydney," Mr. Gilkinson jokes. "People whose names are a household word at home were in the right place at the right time."

Mr. Medcalf, 50, has been in the production business for 30 years. As managing director of Duet Entertainment out of Sydney, he is chiefly active in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. But his tentacles can reach far, especially when he sets his mind to creating a ballroom show from scratch.

The title, he says, comes from "an old Fats Waller song with the line 'Burn your leather on the floor/Grab anyone's daughter.' A friend sent me an old recording and I said immediately, 'That's it. That's the name.'"

"Burn the Floor's" second production is playing Biloxi, Miss., and will go on to Reno, Nev., in April.

The popularity of the shows can be attributed to the dancers' attitude, Mr. Medcalf believes. "People like to have fun. They take a lot of spirit away from a dance show that expresses the full range of human emotions. It comes from the heart of the dancers. They are an amazing troupe," he says.

Its success also owes a great deal to the Irish dance sensation "Riverdance," and even to Cirque du Soleil. These all "helped bring people to theaters who are not traditionally theatergoers a full spectrum of parents, children and grandparents," he says.

WHAT: "Burn the Floor"

WHERE: Warner Theatre, 13th Street between E and F streets NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through next Saturday, 7 p.m. March 17, and 2 p.m. March 16 and 17

TICKETS: $26.50 to $56.50

PHONE: 703/573-SEAT, 301/808-6900, 202/432-SEAT or 800/551-SEAT; online at www.ticketmaster.com

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