Everybody dance now

HOT TO FOXTROT  |  Pasha Kovalev and Anya Garnis bring some of the sexy moves to ballroom dancing with ‘Burn the Floor.’

Out ballroom dancing champ Jason Gilkison keeps ‘Burn the Floor’ on track — from behind the scenes

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It’s an hour before showtime, and Jason Gilkison is busy making sure his dancers are ready for the opening night in Oklahoma City of their show Burn the Floor. There’s a lot to coordinate, but Gilkison stays cool, despite having to mount a show with eight dancing couples and two singers, including American Idol finalist Vonzell Solomon and So You Think You Can Dance married heartthrobs Ashley and Ryan DiLillo.

Those may be the marquee names, but the real star of Burn the Floor is the show itself, an energetic and sexy two hours of ballroom-on-Red Bull.

And that, as director and choreographer, is Gilkison’s responsibility.

It’s not as if Gilkison didn’t have his day in the footlights, too. He got rhythm early — his grandfather opened the first ballroom dancing studio even in Australia, in 1931 — dancing from a young age with his partner, Peta Roby. At age 16, he and Roby moved to London, then the epicenter of ballroom training anywhere in the world. By 1988, he and Roby were world champions.

If the story vaguely conjures images in your brain of the Baz Luhrmann film Strictly Ballroom, that’s not really an accident: “Peta and I were loose prototypes for those characters,” he modestly concedes in his charming Down Under accent. “I actually just met with Baz last week.”

You might not see Gilkison on the stage of Fair Park Music Hall when Burn the Floor opens, but his stamp is on it.

“It came too late for me,” says the still-boyish Gilkison, who has been dancing and choreographing for an astonishing 37 years. He and Roby retired in 1997 — just about the time Burn the Floor was conceived of at, of all places, Elton John’s home.

“The executive producer was Elton’s manager, and for [Elton’s] 50th birthday party, eight ballroom dancing couples came for a 15-minute display.

No one had ever seen a group of dancers have such a hold on people,” he explains.

That party became the germ for the show; it debuted in 1999, and Gilkison joined it soon after. He never thought it would be a career. He may not have thought it would last a season.

“Eleven years ago, it was very experimental to take ballroom dancing and put it into a theatrical form,” he says. It has evolved over the years, as well. “The original show was 45 dancers, not eight or nine couples. We redid it — the new version is more dancer-friendly.”

And it has become its own animal. Burn the Floor has toured non-stop for more than a decade, including a five-month run on Broadway that Gilkison directed and choreographed (it ended last year). That production features Dancing with the Stars veterans Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff.

So how does a serious dance expert like Gilkison feel about such pop-competition TV shows like that and So You Think You Can Dance? He loves them.

“It’s the perfect time for something like Burn the Floor with [the popularity of DWTS and SYTYCD]. These obscure dance forms have now been popularized. Dancing that had been dormant is now seen in a contemporary way.”

Not always in a good way, though. He admits Kate Gosselin’s lead-footed stomping on last season’s DWTS made him cringe. “She really struggled,” he says.

Gilkison himself has been a choreographer and judge on SYTYCD. Just a few days before, former gay contestant Ade has been in the house (he is dating one of the current dancers), and Gilkison even shares a bit of news for the show’s diehard fans: “Mary Murphy will be back!” (Murphy is a ballroom expert whose shrill enthusiasm was sorely missed last season.)

Burn the Floor needn’t worry about guest visits from Gosselin, though. While Gilkison’s chief job is effortlessly substituting new acts and “special guests” as the show has developed, that been easier due to its reputation for excellence.

“The right dancers have always gravitated toward us,” he says. “I think what surprises the ballroom dance masters is that technically they are at a high level — these are not cruise ship dancers.” (One downside: The energy level starts out so strong, it has no place to built to.)

It certainly has a lot to offer an audience primed for sexy athleticism: In tight black pants, and with hips swinging from their killer abs, the show sometimes resembles a muscular Tom of Finland catalogue, including a shirtless pas de deux between two male toreadors. And it concludes with a Cher song. Hey, put the gays in charge, and they know how to end strong.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2011.

—  John Wright