ASSEMBLE 18 of the world’s best dancers — including national and international champions and winners of TV competitions such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars — and a few talented musicians; orchestrate some how-is-that-even-possible-type, ballroom-on-steroids choreography; rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; then unleash the show on the world and what you have is Burn the Floor.
The production — which, following its run at the Artscape in Cape Town, is on at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg until August 19 before it goes to the Playhouse Opera Theatre in Durban on August 22 — is directed by Australian ballroom dance champion and choreographer Jason Gilkison, whose list of personal achievements is longer than the most impressive battement développé. Not only were Gilkison and his dance partner for 33 years, Peta Roby, undefeated Latin American champions in Australia from 1981 to 1997, but they also went on to win the World, British and International Championships. They received the Young Australian of the Year Award in 1990, performed with Madonna in the movie Evita, in 1996, and joined Harley Medcalf’s original Burn the Floor cast in London in 1999.
These days, with Gilkison at the helm and "reinventing ballroom", the Burn the Floor troupe includes dancers from Australia, the UK, Austria, Italy, the US, Slovenia and, for the first time this year, South Africa.
Keoikantse Motsepe had a long list of successes to his name before stepping into the spotlight in Burn the Floor.
He and partner Otlile Mabuse were South Africa’s undefeated Latin American Champions from 2004 to last year. They represented South Africa in major international dance competitions from 2003 and competed in the World Latin Championships in New York in 2010.
Like many dancers, Motsepe, who grew up in Mabopane, near Pretoria, began dancing very young, despite the fact that his father wanted him to pursue a career in soccer.
"I was five years old when, having watched dancing on TV, I began cha-cha-cha-ing in the goals during games — I was the goalie," he says. "I liked the fact that dancers seemed to have fun. They smiled a lot. Soccer, on the other hand, was so serious. A friend noticed my moves between the goalposts and, partly, I suppose, because I was letting the side down because I was distracted during games, told me about a place that offered dance classes. He took me there, I watched some classes and joined up. That’s when my dancing began."
Although they might not have been entirely convinced about his choice of extracurricular activities at first, Motsepe’s parents soon became his greatest supporters. Moreover, unbeknown to the 22-year-old dancer when he started out, his mother, in particular, played a major role in helping him develop the kind of discipline required by a dancer.
"When I was really young, I was annoyed by the kind of discipline my mother insisted on at home. She checked my homework every day after school and asked a hundred questions to ensure I knew my stuff. She was very strict about me being punctual and regimented in everything I did. I wondered if it was because I was the youngest and only boy in the family (he has two sisters). It was only when I got older that I realised how effective her approach was. I adopted her kind of discipline to my dancing and, to this day, I’m grateful to her for it. Dancing requires self-discipline and control."
Motsepe and Mabuse began dancing together when he was 11 and she a year younger. Their 11-year partnership, which ended only last year when Motsepe retired from competitive dancing to join Burn the Floor, took off with their first major win, in 2003. Thereafter, the couple won every major Latin dance championship in their age group in South Africa.
"I loved competition when I was younger. Otlile and I were best friends, and still are, even though she’s dancing in Germany now and I’m touring. We found competing exciting and we were well matched in our ambitions. The training was intense and time-consuming but we loved it. It was only when I got a little older that I found competition stressful. Perhaps continually trying to retain a title and get better all the time makes it that way."
Even so, Motsepe hadn’t planned to give up competition when his dance teacher, Rafick Hoosain, convinced him to accompany him to watch Burn the Floor when the show was in Johannesburg last year.
"Can you believe I went under duress?" he laughs. "Otlile and I were at the height of our training for the South African Latin American Championships and I didn’t feel I could spare the time. Thank goodness Rafick insisted. The evening changed my life."
Within days, Motsepe had discussed auditioning for the show with Mabuse, auditioned and been offered a place in the troupe. Last year’s championship was the couple’s final competition together. They won the event but, because they would not be returning to defend the title, they ceded the floating trophy to the couple placed second.
Adjusting from competing to performing was, he says, a doddle: "With the stress of competition over, dancing is more enjoyable than ever. Of course, I had to get used to working with the other dancers, but they were very welcoming. I felt at home in no time. And it is a pleasure to dance for an audience without being judged as one is in competition. I can’t stop smiling on stage."
That’s not to say the workload and skills are any less challenging in his new role. In addition to rehearsals and performing, Motsepe spends hours in the gym building his strength.
"Our cardio fitness is pretty good because of the pace of the show. But to maintain the strength for the many lifts included in the routine, the guys spend quite a bit of time in the gym. I’ve built considerable strength since the beginning of the year and it really feels good being able to easily lift and hold the women."
Motsepe had already travelled to the US, China, Singapore and Australia with the production before it arrived for the South African leg of this year’s tour. The show travels to Hong Kong next. He’s no stranger to international travel, having competed abroad with Mabuse. Even so, the dancer concedes, he misses home at times: "Although I loved visiting China and the Chinese audiences were among the most enthusiastic we’ve performed for, I found the Chinese culture the most difficult to adapt to. Perhaps it was the food but I really missed home when we were there. But I’ve made such good friends among the other dancers that it makes up for missing home now and then. And if South African audiences continue supporting the show like they have been, hopefully we’ll keep coming back here."