Dancing Queen

7.12.2009

By Aaron Hicklin

Bruno Tonioli was 17 years old when he met the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. He was visiting the coastal resort of Positano for an arts festival, a teenage dreamer raised by poor, hardworking parents -- peasants, really -- whose greatest hope was to see him qualify as an accountant. Instead, there he was at the home of the great Zeffirelli, a pretty boy plucked from the crowd to please and flatter the aging queens and their friends. Liza Minnelli was there. Laurence Olivier too. 'I was shitting myself,' Tonioli recalls from a distance of 30-plus years. 'I didn't know which spoon to use, which glass to drink from. I was wearing a lace shirt and very tight jeans. I knew I looked good, but I was totally out of my element.'

As it happened and, in the fateful way that can rearrange life's options, Tonioli was seated alongside a director for a French dance company, then enjoying tremendous success with a cross-dressing revue of the kind that could exist only in the '70s. 'Nowadays people would say 'What the fuck is that?' ' says Tonioli, who soon after found himself cast as Jesus in the same show -- yes, Jesus, what a debut! -- thanks to a combination of luck, skill, and sheer ambition.

'The guy who had been playing this role was a big French diva,' Tonioli recalls. 'And he stormed off for some reason, and the director said, 'Can you do this?' and I said yes -- no fucking idea if I could. They used to teach me a number in the morning, and I'd perform it that night; the next day I'd learn the second number so that by the end of the week I knew the whole show.'

That was in Milan, but the show had legs. Paris first, then London, where Tonioli met the legendary British dancer Lindsay Kemp -- 'I have one of his paintings that he gave me for my 21st birthday. Can you imagine? 21!' -- and finally, inevitably, New York and the Great White Way. He saw the original production of A Chorus Line and was bowled over. He studied with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. He danced and he sang and he acted; he was the kind of multi-talented hoofer on which the industry relies. He was never not working. 'There are many people who are not actually famous but have a successful career,' he says. 'You don't know who they are, but they are the meat and potatoes -- they keep this thing going. I was, for many years, one of them. I had a comfortable life without the famous thing.'

A summons from the BBC four years ago changed all that. Envious of the success of the U.K.'s Pop Idol (the show that spawned American Idol here), the channel was looking to find someone to do for amateur dance what Simon Cowell had done for wannabe pop stars. Enter Tonioli, the loquacious Italian with the booming laugh who knew what it was to dream of waltzing and fox-trotting and cha-cha-ing across a ballroom floor, who grew up watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly double bills with his father every Sunday -- 'dubbed in Italian. Can you imagine? Elizabeth Taylor dubbed in Italian.' And if he didn't have Cowell's facility for the razor-edged put-down, he had something else: a big, flamboyant personality that was a perfect complement to the razzmatazz of television's campiest show. He can swivel his hips, throw his arms in the air, and shout, 'You're bringing sexy back' (to High School Musical's Monique Coleman) all at the same time.

The show was called Strictly Come Dancing, and although it had the structure of a reality show -- B-list celebrities learn to dance at the hands of experts and then face a weekly elimination challenge -- it had much more in common with old-fashioned variety shows and the genre of dance-off movies that includes Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, and Baz Luhrmann's fabulous Strictly Ballroom. It struck a chord immediately, quickly surpassing the success of Pop Idol and catching the attention of ABC in the process. Rebranded Dancing With the Stars, the U.S. series aped the success of the British; season 6, which ended in May, regularly pulled in more than 20 million viewers. A seventh season will premiere this month, with Tonioli once again playing court jester.

OUT: So let's go back to the beginning.
BRUNO TONIOLI: I grew up in Ferrara, in Italy, a small town north of Bologna, very pretty, Renaissance-medieval style. Nothing happens; boring as hell.
OUT: You probably feel differently about it now.
BT: No, I can't stand it. It gives me anxiety. I never go back. It's pretty, but I don't think you can ever go back. I became myself, really, in London. I always had dreams, but I never knew how to achieve self-expression until I came here.

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