Interview with Donnie Burns MBE, two days after the Professional Latin Comp Blackpool 2001.
By Brigitt Mayer

I have been writing for the leading German dance magazines, DPV Aktuell and The International News, for the last 4-5 years. In reporting on the Blackpool Festival this year, I once again conducted interviews with some of our most knowledgeable and noteworthy Dance Celebrities for their opinions on the dancing, dance trends, as well as the results. My main interest this year, was to find out their opinions on the "character" of our Latin Dances; is it still maintained or has it been diluted, through too much choreography for example? One of my more insightful interviews was with Donnie Burns; I left the interview in English because I feel it would also be of interest to the English speaking community.

After we talked a little to each other Donnie started:

Donnie: You tell me what you want to know Brigitt.

Brigitt: One question I have has nothing to do with results or anything like that; I have a problem with Paso. Do I have the wrong idea about what Paso should be like?

Donnie: In what respect I have problems with it; I wonder if they are the same. You tell me.

Brigitt: Well, I'm missing everything that has anything to do with passion; the male-female aspect of Spanish dance. They are competing against each other, male-female.

Donnie: I think you are correct. I think it's probably the same in most of the dances now but you see it more in Paso because the character of Paso is so well established and so clear. So if that were to happen to all five dances, you would start to see it in the Paso first. This is actually something of what was said in my lecture. I think these couples are all fantastic Brigitt and you know that, I think they are incredible! But I'm just a little concerned . not a lot, but a little bit. And, they all have the right to do what ever they want to do even if it's right or wrong, that's their artistic right. But I'm a little bit worried about the character of each dance in general. Some of these couples that are new, are coming in, and they deserve to come in, on a performance value and certainly on a talent value. They would be even more effective and even better, if, they did some quality established moves that are part of the character of the dance. There were one or two couples that actually did that, but in general there is a trend towards, "well, if it's basic or whatever then it's cliché," and that is not true. And some clichés are good you know; "The world is round" is a cliché because the world really is round. To say I don't like clichés so I am going back to having a square wheel is not necessarily better. So that concerns me a little bit; I think you are right in a way.

Brigitt: I looked at this in the Amateur Event and then at the Pro Comp to see if it is much different. I do think it is different, but I still wonder if this is the right direction.

Donnie: I agree. But it was a great comp and the new kids on the block. I congratulate them. I am very happy for them and I share the sadness of those who were disappointed; we have all been through that. The thing that concerns me now is, because the new kids are avant-gardes, are we going to have everybody splitting and kicking in the next year or two? .. Its funny about 5 years ago Liz Curtis said something to me that really made me laugh. She said: "Why is it that when we come up with stuff like that in America it is called flash and trash but if it comes from Europe it is art"? So there is a little bit of truth in that; and at the same time they are so talented.

Brigitt: And maybe they only do it to get the attention and once they are established they don't do it any more. You don't see Brian (Watson), Jukka (Happalainen) or Paul (Killick) flip around any more; but remember when Paul and Alan (Tornsberg) first came out with new partners, they did it.

Donnie: I remember Gaynor and I; we used to be all flash and trash.

Brigitt: And Sammy (Stopford) and you always had something figured out to get the crowd going. I guess that's part of Blackpool

Donnie: part of the circus. They love blood here.

Brigitt: Just think of this year's Amateur competition when Formica and Ghocci had their little moment "together". The crowed just loved it.

Donnie: That was a turning point in the evening. Well there are only three couples up there now and the rest it is wide open. They all have fantastic "selling-points" qualities and they all have big weaknesses as well. I actually thought that Brian and Carmen, in the last year or two, had consolidated and it would take any of the other couples 18 months at least, if ever, to get them. Tonight I was proven wrong. So there you go . and with the Paso? . In a way that leaves it wide open for somebody to go out and do a really good character Paso But there was some great dancing there tonight and some great choreography.

Brigitt: Is choreography overemphasized, or overdone at the moment?

Donnie: I think so it's difficult to see past it and to actually grab some of the essence of the couples or the dance. I am loosing a lot of the real message and can't see the woods for the trees, a little bit. I saw one of the couples in the final today during their Paso, in complete disregard to the music.

Brigitt: Music is a whole different subject in it self.

Donnie: I asked Wally (Laird). "What do you think about Paso"? He said to me: "I am a matador but I am afraid of bulls, so I just keep running". But in many ways I really enjoyed the Comp. Cha-Chas are all pretty good, Samba is a little bit funny, though not bad. Jive has changed a lot over the past few years.

Brigitt: The Rumba allows the most room for more theatrical choreography.

Donnie: Yes, and they still seem to get all the recognizable stuff in the middle, so it is okay.

Brigitt: In all the other dances it gets really difficult.

Donnie: And you know Brigitt, what I said in my lecture, I remember, it's very true. They are so and I understand why... busy about being fast in the moment, that they do not get any gravity. Some of the Cuban dances are loosing the gravity, the compression. The top three or four (couples), they have that gravity, but from 5 to 12 I do not see it.

Brigitt: Do you think it has to do with the fact that the couples today are younger when they become better and they therefore have different priorities? They, perhaps, are attracted to speed and such skills that do not necessarily have anything to do with the Latin American dance style per se?

Donnie: Most definitely.

Brigitt: If you think about it, the couples today are much younger then they were a few decades ago; When some of the Champions were in their forties.

Donnie: Fritzi (Eugen Fritz/Ute Streicher) was 39 or something when he won his first German championship I believe.

Brigitt: Today you are National Champion at 18. You turn Pro when you are maybe 23; how old is Slavic?

Donnie: I don't know but he is very young. And also it comes down to partner dancing. They change partners more quickly today That's okay but what it means, really, is that it takes them longer to get some "substance" in. They don't get a long chance to mould one plus one equals one so it takes you 6 months to two years to get your act together. Even Brian & Carmen, they went very quickly but they didn't. The first Blackpool, when everybody was expecting it, it didn't happen. And yet they went out and won the worlds.

Brigitt: If you think about principles of lead and follow for example Wally's if the partners both come from the same schooling, it should not be too difficult.

Donnie: But I don't know if they ever learned it to a degree were they can just go and dance at a high level quickly. I think they learned it maybe partly within the structure of the partnership and the choreography that they had but did not become masters of it yet. So than if you get a new partner and new choreography you are basically starting at "A". I think that is part of it, even more than the age perhaps. Age is very important, but I would also say equally, if not more important, is the partner changing. It really takes you a long time to mould; and you cannot rush time. You can change a lot of things, but you cannot change experience or time.

Brigitt: These "young" couples could now use all these years ahead of them to improve their Latin-skills and get more in tuned with each other.

Donnie: I have to say Brigitt, I really admire Jukka and Sirpa. Two years of loosing and going further down, most people would have given up, packed up, saying, "I'm going home".

Brigitt: When Bill said to stay on the floor, (retirement announcement) I thought

Donnie: That it was Jukka and Sirpa. Most people thought that and there they are still in there, and they came out and won it. Incredible guts! I really admire it; Brian & Carmen must've been devastated. But back to what I said before, partnering is really what it is all about. It is the central nucleus, the selling point of the style of dancing that we do, and I cannot accept too much side-by-side work. That really gets me, whereas I can go along with other things.

Brigitt: I remember writing about that subject already 4 years ago like others did. It is constantly discussed and it is still out there. Why is that?

Donnie: Because it is an easy way out. The judges really have an influence here, the judges not the coaches, because people will always do what they think they have to do. It is starting to get better. If one were to study the top four couples, Happallainen, Watson, Killik and Tornsberg, one would see that those four couples danced 80 to 90 %, or more, partnered. And if they study the new, maybe exiting kids that were finishing 5th to 12th, they see that these couples danced 50 to 75% non partnered; there lies the difference!!!

I would like to thank Donnie very much that he took the time to voice some of his thoughts on the direction Latin dancing is taking today. There lies a big responsibility in doing so for publication because it can influence people. Not everybody will agree with everything, but maybe it raises discussion.

Donnie Burns MBE demonstrating with Gaynor Fairweather MBE with whom he won 14 World Championships

Donnie Burns MBE demonstrating with Nicole at the UK Open Dance Champs 2001

This article is part of and should be seen in the frame context of Dancesport UK