A sultry new Latin dance-drama, Brazouka, is heading to town.
The show has been dreamed up by Australian entertainer/author/psychologist Pamela Stephenson, wife of Scottish funnyman Billy Connolly.
Starring Brazilian dancer Braz dos Santos and a sizzling troupe, it’s produced by Harley “Burn The Floor” Medcalf and choreographed by world-renowned Arlene Phillips.
To seductive moves and rousing music, the show is centred around Braz’s real life story of a poor young fisherman whose jaw-dropping Lambada dance moves propelled him to international stardom.
Pamela – who’s been of great comfort to Billy since his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and prostate cancer – talks to The Starfish about next month’s show.
Most of us know you as an entertainer and a sex therapist, but not a dancer!
I rediscovered my love of dance three years ago. I danced when I was really little. I had polio. My sister and I were sent to dance lessons to strengthen our limbs and in the course of that I discovered that it was very joyful to dance. I loved being on stage and I loved expressing myself through my body. Which was kind of the opposite for my family – which was very much in the head. I was pretty serious about dance as a kid until I was about 13 or 14 – and then I got involved in serious school and exams, and I should never have given it up. But I did.
Were you in Auckland still then?
No, I left Auckland when I was four. So this was all in Australia. I was based in Sydney. My parents were scientists at university in Sydney.
Did nobody really encourage you to keep up the dancing?
I think there was the sense that, now you have to focus on serious stuff. I think it was a huge loss. I should have fought harder for it but I didn’t.
But you were only 14.
I was only young, but dance taught me a lot of things. Dance teaches kids a lot more than physicality. It teaches discipline, and the joy of sensuality of being in your body. By sensuality, I don’t mean connected with sex, I mean the sensual pleasure of moving your body. Dance teaches you lyricism and grace, also strength and athleticism.
Do your kids dance?
I got my kids to learn ballet. They grew up in LA and it was so great because on Saturday when I knew all their friends were just hanging out at the mall, they were rehearsing with the American Ballet Theatre and that was just a really good focus for them.
So you got back into dance when you got asked to perform on a TV show?
Yes, I did other things with my life, and just came back to dance through Strictly Come Dancing which was kind of a weird way back to it.
When they invited you on, did the producers know you were a good dancer?
No, and I didn’t know! Because I hadn’t danced for so long, I’d just lost touch with it. I’d done a few odd lessons at the gym – a bit of Indian dance and so forth – the occasional Chata dance in NY – but nothing serious.
So being on the TV series was life-changing?
Yes, because I re-connected with it, and realized that I was actually quite well coordinated. It was reasonably easy for me. I mean, it was still a hard thing for to do, going out to dance with millions of people watching! And after that, I didn’t want that experience to stop, because I’d re-discovered something that was really important to me. I went out to find a social dance that I could continue with. I found Salsa and Tango but none of these things really satisfied me. It didn’t work for me to sit around and wait for guys to invite me to dance. No, I wanted to be a bit more proactive. When I discovered Brazilian dancing and I could just waltz up to some guy that I wanted to dance with – and he’d jump up and dance with me, that was nice!
So you went to Brazil?
Yes, and I found these fabulous dancers, doing the Lambazouk – based on Lambada. it’s the contemporary form – but it’s moved on a long way. It’s lyrical, sensual, undulating, with beautiful partner connection..
So this story of these two boys, is it based on a true story?
Yes, that’s Braz. The guy that posed with us. I loved his story. He was my first Lambazoo teacher and Rommie was my second. I probably could have done a story on any of the dancers, they all have such amazing stories.
So Pamela, had they not been such amazing dancers, their lives would have been very different?
Very different. In fact he may not have lived. He may not actually be with us. He nearly drowned at sea. He was terrified of the sea. A lot of his friends were drowned. There were many instances. It was really dangerous out at sea. Very very terrifying, and they couldn’t even swim. When the long trips were over the men would make their way back to the port and the first stop for the older men was the bordello. So Braz would tag along. Wouldn’t be allowed in – probably not so much because he was too young but because he didn’t have any money (having given all his money to the family) and he would peek in the door and what he witnessed, peeking in the door was the birth of Lambada. Because like Tango, like many other sensual Latin dances, that’s where they all started, in the bordellos.
Was that just to please the client?
It was designed to get them hot as fast as possible.
Get ‘em out!
Get ‘em out! Get ‘em in, get ‘em out! It was a different dance then, a lot more gyrating, it was basically dry humping I suppose. That’s why it was called the Forbidden Dance, that’s why the Catholic church banned it, and that’s also why it became popular because it seeped out of the bordellos. Everybody wanted to do it because it was forbidden. And of course, it became more palatable. It became a dance that was, you know you could do it on the beach, in the bars and you weren’t going to get arrested. It was more developed. It got more stylish and got more developed. Braz was dancing in the beach bar when it came out of the bordellos; he learned to do it, he and his brother and his sister. But his sister was always dragged home by their father. It was tolerated in the boys but not in the girls.
What year are we talking about?
When it first started. Probably 20 years ago. Then one day he was dancing in his beach bar on the sand. And then one day a stranger tapped him on the arm and asked him if he and his brother wanted to go to Paris and dance there. He said ‘yes’ even though he didn’t know what Paris was. His father wasn’t keen. But his mother intervened behind the father’s back. She took them 12 hours by bus to get their passports. She believed this was an opportunity they shouldn’t miss. And he was desperate to go; here was a chance to make money and send it home and help the family. And at the same time it could save him from the sea. It was actually the family that did that song that became world famous.
He is in the clip that was famous?
He’s in all those clips. It’s really the story of how he went from being a child fisherman, to being able to dance internationally.
Did you go there seeking him out?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t know his story. Someone introduced me to him because I was looking for a teacher who could teach me properly. Then I met his whole family, many of whom danced, then the other Brazillian masters of this dance. There’s another dance I fell in love with: Samba de Gafieira . Another cheeky fabulous dance. These are the most fantastic dances. When you see them you go “oh my God, this is better than anything I’ve seen.” They do all these amazing lifts. And it’s sensual, but the hair and the movement. It’s just fabulous.
So while Braz was teaching you, you learned his story?
No, I didn’t know his story for a long time – till I met his mother, and she told me. I actually met him once and then I went to Brazil – because Women And Homes sent me on a writing assignment to go and write about Brazilian dance (which I’d already done for them in Buenos Aires, I’d gone there to write about Tango). So when I went there I looked him up and met his whole family and that’s when I learned the story. I thought ‘oh wow, that’s an amazing story.’ And I’m always really impressed by people who fight for survival, who fight for a way to look after their families or whatever, or fight for education or fight to express themselves. I also met many masters of Lambazoo and Samba de Gafiera all around Brazil. I just couldn’t understand why these dances weren’t popular the same way that Salsa for example is popular. I just couldn’t figure it out. I thought, ‘well someone needs to make this happen.’
It’s all marketing?
Yes! I started thinking, ‘how could I do this?’ And realizing they were brilliant but they were going from congress to congress. So they weren’t developing beyond the congress level. And even though it was being danced in 51 countries, and in the clubs all the kids were getting into it, it was becoming very westernised, there wasn’t the ‘next level’ for it. I thought, I think I can create a way for there to be another level of this dance. So I got eight of them to London, put them in a room in a hotel, and invited some people who might be my team. One of them being world renowned choreographer Arlene Phillips. I said to her, “Arlene am I crazy? Is there something special about this dance or not?’ And she said ‘Pamela I’ve been dancing my entire life and I’ve never seen anything like this. And I knew it was special. I wasn’t just crazy. She thought it was like spinning plates, the way the guys spin people. I’ve seen Braz dance with 22 women at once. And they’re very cheeky. They come and steal you from other guys, which is fabulous! She said it’s fabulous, we’ve got to think about how we can make this work. And then I found Harley, who’s done Burn The Floor and promoted me in the past, and Billy. It was a natural connection. So the three of us formed this team. It’s taken us three years for it to come together – to find the right dancers and so forth. We had to create a company. We had to tell the story, find the music.
All these storytelling techniques woven in with all the dancing?
You’ve got all these careers, but this is something you haven’t done before?
It was something I hadn’t done before.
But in a way that would be an advantage because you’ve got so much experience in entertainment?
Yes, that helps. I can see something that’s very skilled, but I know unless I’m emotionally connected to it, or unless I’m swept along by a story, it’s great, but I wanted people on their feet, dancing and totally into it. And that’s what happened. Thank God, when we presented it for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival, it worked! We had people queuing around the block. The music really works. It’s contemporary Brazillian. You need to go online to Brazouka.info . You’ll get to see all the cast and get to know them.
Are they like a big family to you now?
Completely. On Mother’s Day last year I got a card signed by 16 Brazilians. They’re very sweet.
This has all come about because of that show! It sparked the dancer within, re-kindled it! You go looking further afield, and a whole new world opens up and your life changes?
It’s crazy, isn’t it.
How many careers have you had now?
My best friend says 12 but she’s wrong!
So if someone asks you in an airport lounge what do you do, what do you say?
You know, we have a scene like that in our show!
Where are you based, when not on the road.
New York. Billy does the narration. Did I tell you? This came about when I asked him to tape for us that bit when you tell people to turn their mobile phones off before the show. I said “Billy mine’s getting a few laughs, but yours will get a few more. Want to do it?” And he did it, and it was hilarious. So I said, “Would you just do the narration for it?” (Laughs)
Is there much narration to it?
There’s enough. We want to make sure people are taken by the hand and help to understand the story. It’s a bit complex.
Is there a tear shed at all?
Some people do find it very moving. Because you see Braz trying to make his decision. First of all, friends being drowned, there’s a funeral scene, you know. It is poignant. But it recovers very quickly, because basically we want it to be a feel-good show and it is. People end up on their feet, clapping and swaying.
This has obviously taken up the past three years. Are you still doing all your other things: your sex therapy work and so forth?
I’m a psychologist and I write about psychology but I haven’t had a practice for a while. I can’t travel when I have a practice and my family’s spread out all over the world and I’m choosing to do other things for now. At some point I may set up and run a practice again., but not yet.
And this show could go on for years!
It could. It’s about to open in London and we’re doing a quick week in Wimbledon. Then we go to South Africa and then we come to Perth. Japan and Moscow, and a lot of other territories also want it because they came to Edinburgh and loved it.
So you’ve got a quiet confidence that it’s going to be a hit?
Yes, I think the experience in Edinburgh has shown that it is. It’s very hard to make it work in Edinburgh because they’ve got so much choice. And what happened was word of mouth. To see hundreds queuing outside the theatre was wonderful.
How’s Billy? (recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prostate cancer)
He’s doing great. Thank you for asking. It was a shock for him, but he’s doing very well and being very funny about his illnesses. He’s doing great.
Brazouka is on at the Regal Theatre from Thursday, October 23 until Sunday October 26. For bookings visit www.ticketek.com.au or phone 132 849