By Tim Parks
Mary Murphy has all of the key ingredients to set the stage on fire during her performance in Burn The Floor, which will play at The Civic Theatre on October 12-17, and will assuredly be considered one of her favorite terms, “hot tamale,” by those in attendance.
With her “special guest star” status firmly in place for the production, she has the moves and attitude to captivate audiences during her stint in San Diego (she will also be appearing during the San Jose stop of the national tour), with her pairing with ballroom champion Vaidas Skimelis.
While it’s a reasonable bet that you might want to check which way it is to the nearest fire exits, the on-stage sizzle and excitement will undoubtedly keep you on the edge of your seat.
I chatted with the delightful “So You Think You Can Dance” personality, which she has to spare in spades, about all things dance, including the surprising revelation that this choreographer and U.S. Ballroom Champion didn’t initially think that her vocation would be geared towards the world of dance.
Try this one on for size, “Coach Murphy,” as she explained about her initial career path.
“I’ve always been an athlete; that was pretty much the only thing made available to me as a kid with three older brothers and I was the fourth boy, and I wanted to do everything they wanted to do,” she recanted. “If my family made dancing available to me, I’m not even sure I would have done it. I had actually fully intended to be a physical education teacher and track coach. I had no dreams of being a professional dancer. If you had said that to me back then, I would have been laughing my butt off!”
However, as with many college students, her major would change, as she felt a kinship with the art of dance.
“But when I did find it in college, I just loved the way it made me feel,” she said. “How kooky and crazy modern dance can actually be; it kind of fit my personality. It’s crazy now, because once I did find it, I still didn’t really love it.”
However, she did take a summer job at a Washington, D.C. ballroom dance studio and a trip to New York City became her turning point and sealed the deal.
“It changed my entire life when I walked into the Waldorf Astoria and saw all of the couples dancing around on the floor with the fabulous costumes,” she stated. “For whatever reason, it’s still crazy to me, because up until that point the only thing I cared to be in were a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. It was almost like Divine Intervention, if you will, that I be there at that moment – it hit me on a cellular level, like a lightning bolt, that I wanted to be a ballroom dancer.”
Fast forward to earlier this year and Murphy returned to New York City to make her Broadway debut in Burn The Floor, which has been called “Ballroom. Reinvented” and prominently features 21 dancers partaking in ten dance styles that range from the smolder of the Paso Doble to the grace of the Viennese Waltz.
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words,” she said of the experience. “The day they (the producers) called me, I literally almost fell off my chair! And when they asked, ‘Do you want to be on Broadway?’ I was like, ‘Oh boy,’ and all sorts of things ran through my head, my age, I was just in a wheelchair because I had acute tendonitis, I’ve got a tumor in my right foot, I have a rotator cuff tear. And all of these things were going ‘bam, bam, bam’ in my head, and the next thing out of my mouth was, ‘Yes I will!’ (laughs).
“I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ gave that to me,” Murphy explained. “I don’t think the producers of Burn The Floor would have called me had they not seen me dance on the finale. Actually, the opening and closing night were two of the best moments and most fulfilling of my life and my dance career. I gave the cast as much energy as they gave me to make sure Mama Mary got through it all (laughs).”
Speaking of the cast, Mary’s engagement with the national touring company does include “SYTYCD” winners and finalists joining her on-stage, which Murphy cited as a “wonderful” experience.
“It’s really kind of cool for all of us ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ dancers to be together,” she said.
Murphy, who resides in Scripps Ranch and also owns the Champion Ballroom Academy in Hillcrest, is more nerve-wracked about her native soil performance than her turn on The Great White Way.
“To come back to my hometown of San Diego at this point in my career and dance; trust me, I’ll be more nervous than I was on Broadway!” She exclaimed.
But the 52-year-old needn’t worry, as is evidenced by the fact that she is willing to spread her wings into new endeavors, and coupled with the fact that dance competition shows have endeared themselves into TV viewers’ hearts.
“I can say that I’m ecstatic that it actually has,” she responded. “There was a dance era with movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and then it was kind of just died and had a baby surge with the disco days. Then it was gone for a very long time. I think what’s so great about ballroom dancing is it is so visual.”
On the subject of being visual, fans of “SYTYCD” definitely saw that Murphy was noticeably absent as a permanent judge during the show’s seventh season, while she did appear as a guest judge and performed on the aforementioned finale.
Naturally, Murphy had to be asked if she would be returning for the eighth season.
“Well, I certainly hope so,” she professed. “It seems that is going to be happening. Right now, Nigel’s (Lythgoe) main thing is to pick judges for ‘American Idol,’ but things are encouraging in the air, so I hope to be back full-time.”
In the meantime, you can catch Murphy and the rest of the Burn The Floor cast by logging onto BroadwaySD.com to purchase tickets.
Sidebar: Mary Murphy’s Favorite Dance Flicks
Flashdance – “I definitely fell in love with Flashdance. I was one of those people that was sportin’ the clothes (laughs) and the whole business. And I love the music! When you have some dance and some great music together, it just leaves you wanting more.”
Footloose – “That was one of my favorite movies; I think I could relate to it because it was kind of like where I grew up. There was no dancing going on in town and everybody wanted to; it wasn’t made available to us, since it was a pretty religious small community. I would have probably been arrested if I was caught doing it (laughs)!”
Hairspray – “I like both versions and the stage version, too. But John Travolta dancing at the end, kicking it up, I thought that was the greatest. I’m a huge Christopher Walken fan, and when the two of them were dancing together, it was hysterical to me.”
This interview was first published in The Rage Monthly in October 2010.