It seems like yesterday that I opened a letter addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Saltzman: “Congratulations! You have won 10 free lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. . .etc. etc.” As the studio was only walking distance from our home, we took advantage of the offer. If only we had signed up for another 10 lessons (that was 40 years ago) we might have been world champions today. As it turns out, we were only destined to be part of a vast number of people who share a passion for ballroom dancing. That passion is satisfied with “Burn the Floor,” the awesome Latin and ballroom showcase for 18 good-looking, award-winning dancers from all over the world.
“Burn the Floor” is the first new Broadway show of the season. That it has also been touring the world (over 30 countries) for the past 10 years should assure you that the company (taking replacements into account) has all the moves and steps down pat. Also be assured that it is not simply a Broadway-ized version of a TV show. It is a stunning display of Latin and world-class ballroom dancing that is a cut above anything that has yet been offered on the tube. Far from being simply lightweight summer entertainment, “Burn the Floor” is a heavyweight when it comes to its level of artistic virtuosity and technical skill.
Even as it comes framed within a splashy, but never kitschy, theatricality, the dances are admirably conceived for their tempestuous and dramatic impact. They are also performed by dancers who appear seriously and sensually in touch with the disciplines of their respective dances. This can be attributed to Australian director-choreographer Jason Gilkison, who seems determined not to let anything outside of playful passion get in the way of the dancers’ swiveling hips, entwined legs, and undulating torsos.
We easily make allowances for the obligatory mirrored ball, billowing smoke effects, and the backdrop of twinkling stars that glitter in accord with the dictates of set designer Ray Klausen and lighting designer Rick Belzer. Janet Hine’s colorful, glittery, and shimmering costumes (based on the original designs by John Van Gastel) are not only gorgeous and tasteful but also dedicated to the philosophy that less is more.
Excitement is generated from the start as the dancers make their entrance down the aisle to the stage to the rhythm of the cha cha. Audience involvement is palpable and often expressed with vocal approval as one number segues seamlessly to the next. Although much of the music for this touring show is taped, it is cleverly augmented with Latin percussionists Henry Soriano and Roger Squitero and instrumental soloists David Mann (saxophone) and Earl Maneein (violin/guitar) perched on a raised bandstand at the back of the stage. The inclusion of vocalists Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia also helps to offset the absence of a live band. A terrific singer, Tapia’s movements were often as exciting to watch as were the dancers.
It certainly isn’t hard to imagine various relationships evolving as we watch the various couples perform a repertory that includes such standard dances as the Viennese waltz, foxtrot, tango, and quickstep. Although the program contains photos of the dancers, it does not identify them with a particular dance. Many of the numbers are enhanced by a full complement of dancers. If Act II could be called the more temperature-raising, it is because of its focus on the Latin dances which include a torrid Tango and Paso Doble. It is only respectful that these south-of-the-border numbers segue to a finale that embraces the various dances yet hits a peak with a jitterbug jive that has the audience cheering as if they were at a football pep rally.
The act of dancing — whether alone, as a couple, or in groups — is generally accepted to be older than spoken language. It’s body language extended to different levels of virtuosity. Except for the techniques and traditions imposed on classical ballet, all other forms of dancing have been relatively accessible to large numbers of people.
Fans of popular TV shows as Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and Superstars of Dance and those yet to embrace ballroom dancing are now able to see in “Burn the Floor” just how high the virtuosity bar has been set. Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy from Dancing with the Stars will be guest dancers during the first three weeks. Chmerkovskiy, who appears taller and brawnier than any of the other male dancers, and the extraordinarily pretty and leggy Smirnoff are both wonderful dancers and have undeniable star power. However, their bravura showmanship and flawless technique are also evident in all the show’s award-winning dancers. No judge is necessary when the audience can clearly see that every dancer rates a 10.
If I were to pick my favorites, it would be Australian married couple Damon and Rebecca Sugden, whose peerless and graceful performance of the waltz is still whirling around in my mind. Thanks to silent cinema star Rudolph Valentino, the Argentine tango became a rage during the 1920s. The music and dances of Latin American infiltrated many Broadway revues during the 1930s.
Maybe some of you can recall the 1950s and how the art of flamenco as exemplified by Jose Greco and his troupe inspired audiences around the world. In New York, on any given day, you could hear the sounds of castanets clicking and feet stomping coming from many a West Side apartment. Touring ethno-dance-centric shows such as “Tango Apasionado,” among others, resurfaced with a vengeance in recent decades.
Since primitive times people seem to have always enjoyed rhythmic movement, always insinuating a meaning of its own. Unless you are missing a chromosome or two, you should find “Burn the Floor” an invigorating and exhilarating entertainment. It is certainly the sexiest show on Broadway. ***
“Burn the Floor,” through Sunday, October 18, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th Street. $39.50 to $111.50. 212-239-6200.