Dance: Ballroom Champion Struts his Stuff

Strictly Luka

Italian ballroom champion Luka Fanni struts his stuff in the spectacular stage show Burn the Floor

By Scott Holleran

The $10 million ballroom dance extravaganza Burn the Floor sizzles as advertised: A fevered update of ballroom’s waltzes, rumbas, and jitterbugs, the national touring show is performed by a whole stage full of gorgeous, scantily clad dancers—plus mirrors, fireworks, and giant video screens. But gloriously gaudy as the show is, much of its dramatic appeal comes from its 44-member ensemble, plucked from the top ranks of international ballroom dancers.

“It’s a great feeling to dance with people we’ve been competing against for 20 years,” says Luka Fanni, the 30-something openly gay ballroom champion of Italy, who, with his younger sister, Luana, forms one championship couple in Burn the Floor‘s all-star line-up. “Now we compete on the stage, and there are 40 winners every night.”

In the show the Fannis are featured for their specialty, Latin dancing – a skill they make look effortless but one that reflects years of training. Luka and Luana started dancing together as children at their home on the Italian island of Sardinia, and they’ve been a successful team on the international scene since 1982.

But over the years they began to chafe at the rigid conventions of the ballroom world. They took time off in 1983 to study with Espen Salberg, Norway’s top Latin-style teacher, choreographer, and ballroom fashion designer, who became Luka’s lover for more than three years as well. And when they returned to competition, they were done for good with the ties, tails, and the ball gowns of old.

“We were always criticized by the judges because we went outside the rules,” he says. “We’re famous for our strange costumes and, you know, it was like, `Where are the stars and the feathers?'” If their rebellion sounds like a replay of the popular Australian film satire Strictly Ballroom, Luka says the parallels are real. “Strictly Ballroom was a big shame [to dancers] because it was so true,” he says.

But on that issue – and in his own life – Luka is big on facing the truth. Even when it came to growing up gay in Italy’s repressive culture, he was determined to be true to himself. “When I came out at age 16, some friends just disappeared,” he says. “And then I understood that they don’t deserve me. My sister, Luana, is very private, and I think she may have had a hard time accepting it, but she can understand me. Even for my mother, facing the truth was a big drama. But I decided to be very open about my sexuality.”

However, Luka is hardly an activist. “I try to be my best, and my sexuality comes after that,” he says.

Set to reopen in larger U.S. venues this fall, Burn the Floor gives Luka a chance to express the whole range of his art–with a sense of humor too. “This show is kind of camp,” he says. “It’s so gay. It’s so pink, sweaty. There’s so much skin and bodies moving.” Inspired by a performance at Elton John’s 50th birthday party a few years ago and retooled by producer Harley Medcalf, the show features songs ranging from the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to Touch and Go’s pulsating “Would You …?”

It all adds up to an exhausting workout. But Luka, exhilarated to be dancing in the States, never wants to rest. “I love having fun onstage. Luana and I had a sad youth, and I decided to have all the fun I missed when I was younger.” He adds with a burst of laughter, “I’m doing a great job.”

Originally published in the May 23, 2000 edition of The Advocate.