Monday, February 08, 2010

Dancing On Wheels & Brian Fortuna


Strictly come rolling... The secret passion of BRIAN FORTUNA
By Brian

Gliding around the dance floor to Sinatra's The Way You Look Tonight, the Olympic swimmer Mark Foster and his dance partner Diana Morgan-Hill wowed the judges with their graceful foxtrot.

While Mark, a close friend of mine since he performed in Strictly Come Dancing, looked elegant in tails, Diana, a 49-year-old magazine editor, was radiant in a peach silk.

But this was no ordinary foxtrot. Mark, 39, is one of Britain's most successful swimmers but Diana is now wheelchair-bound, having lost both her legs in a train accident 20 years ago.

Not only was she performing in a wheelchair for the first time but she had removed her prosthetic limbs in order to be able to spin faster in her chair.
'The lightness I feel without my legs is just incredible,' she said afterwards. 'It makes me feel how I used to when I was dancing before the accident. It takes me back to the joy of dance.'

Mark and Diana were taking part in the new BBC3 show Dancing On Wheels, in which six celebrities and their wheelchair-bound partners compete to take part in the Wheelchair Dance Sport European Championships in Tel Aviv later this year.

The series was a fantastic success. But that evening, in July last year, was particularly special for me because my mother Sandra, a choreographer and dance teacher, had flown over from the States.

It was she who taught me how to dance and sparked my interest in wheelchair ballroom dancing. She choreographed Mark and Diana's foxtrot.
As we emerged into the sunshine from the mirrored dance studio at Brunel University in West London, where we were rehearsing the show, she began to cry. 'That was amazing,' she said. It was then that I realised just how proud she was of me.

It was the culmination of a shared dream that began eight years ago when a man who had been badly injured in a motorcycle accident came into her New Jersey studio with a friend and said: 'Sandy, we would like to learn how to dance.'

My mother began to work with them and they created some dance routines and devised a syllabus, which I believe is the first in the world for wheelchair ballroom dancing. Since then, we have created a wheelchair formation team, taken one of the couples to demonstrate their moves on the Dancing With The Stars (America's version of Strictly Come Dancing) tour and created wheelchair ballroom dancing classes for wedding couples.
Wheelchair ballroom dancing has been the most challenging and rewarding project I have ever worked on and has touched the lives of everyone involved.

Singer Michelle Gayle is another contestant in Dancing On Wheels. Her partner Harry Maule, 24, has been in a wheelchair since he was 17 when surgeons managed to remove a cancerous tumour but his spinal cord was severed.

After one of Michelle and Harry's dances, Harry's mother said to me: 'I want you to know that you've changed my son's life. He is a different person now and I want to thank you for that.'

I now feel as if I have come full circle since I first learnt to dance aged five at my mother's studio, Fortuna's Universal Dance Centre.

My father Amadeo is a podiatrist who began competing in Latin dance championships in his 40s. He and my mother met at a club owned at the time by the Italian Mafia Gambino family.

After college, I landed a role in a Canadian reality television show called Live To Dance. At one of the rehearsals, I heard someone saying they were casting for the Martin Scorsese film Aviator. I jumped at the opportunity.
I was a dancer in the film's nightclub scene - they recreated Coconut Grove, the LA club popular in the Twenties and Thirties.

We were told not to bother the celebrities, but the first thing I did was go up to Leonardo DiCaprio and say: 'Hello, I'm Brian. Pleased to meet you. Everybody tells me that I look like you,' and he replied, 'Yes. We have the same eyebrows.'

Not long after that I was in my mother's studio and I saw Dancing With The Stars on television. My first feeling was one of great excitement. My second feeling was that I was upset that all my friends were taking part but I wasn't.

Then I went down to Florida with my father for the US ballroom dance championships. I met head judge Len Goodman and told him: 'I'm really interested in being part of the show. Can you put in a word for me?'
I called the Dancing With The Stars producers, went to New York for the audition and got a contract for the show. I was ecstatic. But then I discovered that the contract stipulated that they didn't have to use me, and another dancer got the part. I was really disappointed.

But I decided I wasn't going to give up. In 2006, a year after I auditioned, I heard they needed one more dancer for a new tour.

I grabbed the creator and said: 'You need to put me on this job. I want this. This is what I was made for.' The next morning I got the call asking if I was available.

The following March, I was cast in Series 4 of Dancing With The Stars, dancing with Shandi Finnessey, a former Miss USA. We didn't do particularly well but I did do another two tours and was asked to host the pre-show live tour for 13,000 people.

As we were finishing the third tour, I was on the back of the tour bus and I emailed the producers of Strictly Come Dancing in Britain. The auditions were four days later so I booked a plane ticket. I auditioned with Kristina Rihanoff, who had been dancing with me on the tour in the US. I had a good feeling about the way it had gone.

I thought the British public wouldn't take to me because I'm an American. In fact, they have been incredible and I'm having the time of my life.
During my first series I danced with Heather Small, the lead singer of M People, who is now appearing in Dancing On Wheels. And then this season I was paired with Ali Bastian, the former Hollyoaks and The Bill actress, and we are now dating.

I took Ali home to meet my family over Christmas. On Christmas Eve we had the traditional Italian Feast Of The Seven Fishes - baccala, fried smelts and salmon. We spent New Year in Grenada.

I came to England to do Strictly Come Dancing, met the girl of my dreams and choreographed a show about wheelchair ballroom dancing. How perfect is that?

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