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How a party dance for Elton John made it to Broadway

August 2, 2009 |  8:00 am


Elton John was just turning 50 when "Burn the Floor," the dance show that opens at the Longacre Theatre today, began its meandering journey toward Broadway. He’s now 62.

The pop superstar’s gala birthday in 1997 in London included a 10-minute set by a group of ballroom dancers. That's when the idea for the show started germinating in the mind of  Australian producer Harley Medcalf. 

Two years later, the producer debuted a showcase of ballroom dancers at John’s mansion at Windsor for the singer’s annual AIDS fundraiser.

“The show went fantastically well,” says Medcalf, who had been the singer’s Australian promoter for 20 years. “Elton even took to the dance floor with one of our girls and with Baby Spice in tow.” 

Ten years and hundreds of performances in 29 countries later,  “Burn the Floor” arrives on Broadway in a substantially different guise than Medcalf had initially conceived it.

Having just presented a long Australian tour of dancer Michael Flatley (“Riverdance” “Lord of the Dance”),  Medcalf says that he first "threw everything he could into it,”  recruiting choreographer Anthony Van Laast (“Mamma Mia!”),  costume designer Bonita Bryg, and a group of dancers that included ballroom champions Jason Gilkison and Peta Roby. 

“It was the biggest ballroom dance show ever,” says Gilkison who, in 2001,  eventually took over as artistic director and choreographer when it became clear that “Burn the Floor” needed a major overhaul.

“The goal was to streamline it, make it more theatrical, reinvent it with the help of the dancers, who had their own ideas of how to make it more contemporary,” Gilkison adds. While the new version played well enough, more extensive revisions came in 2005 in an Australian workshop with the working title of  “Jason Gilkison’s Ballroom”.  And even more changes came earlier this year when the show was pared down to fit into the the 600-seat Post Theatre in San Francisco.

“This show is never frozen," Gilkison says. “We work more like a dance company. We leave no stone unturned.” Adds Medcalf, “We Australians are a determined people.”   

To read more about the show, which features "Dancing With the Stars" pros Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff, see my Sunday Calendar story here.

-- Patrick Pacheco