Tondo dude busts moves in new UK primetime dance-off
LONDON —Filipino choreographer and performer Ronnie V. Del Barrio became a contestant on brand new primetime UK dance competition, “Dance Dance Dance,” Sunday, Jan. 8, taking him a long way from Tondo, Manila.
The show, which launched for the first time this year under ITV, features UK celebrities teaming with friends, family and fellow stars to recreate choreography from iconic dance videos and music scenes.
Every Sunday, contestants and their partners bring their own interpretation of famous dance routines to viewers around the UK.
Dance, Dance, Dance
Del Barrio, whose inaugural fashion showcase Moda de Filipinas took place in Kensington last year, was offered the chance to perform on the show as the partner of his longtime friend and fellow “Miss Saigon” stage actress, Fiona Wade, who currently appears on UK soap “Emmerdale.”
“I met Fiona when doing ‘Miss Saigon,’ and have been friends with her for over 20 years,” says Del Barrio. “ITV asked her to do the show, and the partner she said she wanted was me.”
“I didn’t believe her at first, because she’s been in the business for a long time and has so many friends. But all of a sudden she thought about me, so I said OK. I feel blessed that she asked me. I’m very thankful. I didn’t overthink it, I just accepted the challenge.”
The judging panel is composed of dance industry experts including world famous choreographer Tina Landon, who has choreographed for international stars such as Michael and Janet Jackson, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears; Timor Steffens, who has worked with Madonna, Beyonce, and Usher; and creator of Diversity street dance crew, Ashley Banjo.
Fellow contestants on the show include JLS band member, JB Gill; “Eastenders” actor Jonny Labey; TOWIE star Jessica Wright; and “Coronation Street” actress Lucy Jo Hudson.
Escaping through dance
Del Barrio, who grew up in Manila’s Tondo district, had a difficult childhood.
“I grew up witnessing people suffering in their daily lives,” the choreographer recalls. “Riots here, riots there. Wars within the local vicinity. When people got drunk, they’d fight. All these dramas in the streets of Tondo. But the drama didn’t stop me doing the things I do — dancing.”
Del Barrio began taking dance more seriously in his teens, taking up folk dance under the Philippine Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe and learning ballet with Manila Metropolis Ballet.
He toured the world with the Philippine Baranggay troupe, and then, at the age of 23, found himself auditioning with a contemporary dance company in Birmingham, England.
“I was the only oriental [in the group],” Del Barrio laughs. “When I joined, nobody had taught me how to dance the [contemporary] style properly. They just gave me a VHS, a video, to learn from. It was so bizarre.”
In 1991, at the age of 24, Del Barrio decided to audition for London’s west end production of “Miss Saigon.”
“I’m a dancer, I’m an artist, but I don’t sing,” he recalls. “I went for it anyway. When I auditioned they asked me for a music sheet and I didn’t have one. I only had the Minus One sheet, a karaoke thing from the Philippines. They didn’t have a tape recorder. I felt so embarrassed.”
Del Barrio didn’t get into the production the first or second time, but was offered the chance to attend Miss Saigon School where everyone was trained. Then, the dancer’s luck changed.
“Just one week before the show opened to the public, the only oriental in the cast was off sick. They called me to do it. I was so nervous, in showers of sweat. It was so funny.”
During the first show, Del Barrio had only one single line to sing — and he couldn’t sing the words.
“There was a full orchestra with just one line for me to get through, just one, and I couldn’t even sing the words. I just sang, ‘da da da da’, without lyrics. The conductor looked up at me and he was laughing. Everybody backstage was laughing.”
“I thought they’d get mad, but they were laughing because they knew that I hadn’t learned the whole thing. For a professional company to chuck you in straight away, I simply had to rise to the challenge and be brave.”
Rising to the challenge
Del Barrio’s determination to rise to creative challenges is reflected in his decision to join the dance competition, especially after a significant amount of time away from the craft.
“I’m doing the same thing now on ITV with ‘Dance Dance Dance,’” Del Barrio says. “I haven’t danced in more than 20 years.”
“I used to be so fit and strong doing jazz and ballet and backup dancing in the Philippines. But the stamina is totally different for Philippine folk dance, more grace and projection and smiling. There’s a certain element of skills you do.
“Jazz, ballet and tap, on the other hand — your entire body is working, and physically demanding in terms of timing, music, movement, extensions. So many things to think about. Doing ‘Dance Dance Dance,’ I had to learn almost like it was the first time again.
“When I said ‘yes’ and signed the contract, I thought they’d train and encourage us more. But it’s TV-style straight away, you learn all the different dances immediately.”
On the first week of the show, Del Barrio and his partner were given the classic ‘Dirty Dancing’ routine with the ‘lift’, to perform in front of the judges.
“I’d been a member of the gym paying monthly fees, but I rarely go, wasting the money, and suddenly I’m on this national show,” laughs Del Barrio. “We tried not to overthink it. The judges clearly thought we had great chemistry to do the dance — and we love that part of the film — so we went for it.”
Del Barrio says that the keys to pushing past his comfort zone and continuing to grow are positivity and courage.
“I’ve been in the business doing what I do for a while,” Del Barrio acknowledges. “And being on this new kind of show is amazing. The nervousness and anxiety didn’t settle in until the first day we did a camera rehearsal. That’s when we realized it was a real competition.”
After seeing how proficient his competitors were, Del Barrio found it hard not to draw personal comparisons.
“I’m laid back all the time, I’m not too chaotic and I usually contain my emotions. But during the dress rehearsal, when I first saw the other dancers, I realized how good everyone else was.
“I’m a dancer, I choreograph, so I know who’s good and who’s not. It was hard not to think about my age, my physical stamina; things like that in comparison to everyone younger.”
He found solace, however, in the positive mental attitude of his partner, Fiona Wade.
“Fiona, bless her, she’s the driving force of positivity. Tiny, sexy, beautiful, very positive.
“The bottom line is, I just went for it. I love what [the show] does, because they emulate, and they put all the iconic new techniques in with classic dances, and do it in a highly technical way with great graphics, staging, everything.
“I still want to prove to myself that I can dance the flamenco, and then do a show with that,” Del Barrio reflects. “I still want to do a big, big dance production that I can help direct and put together. Something international. I’d love to bring something like ‘Dance Dance Dance’ to the Philippines.”
Going with the flow
Having experienced a multitude of emotional ups and downs growing up, the choreographer emphasizes the importance of paying heed to your gut reactions and emotions in every scenario.
“I always go where things lead me,” Del Barrio admits. “I’ve never been particularly focused on a certain thing. As long as I’m something good, that I enjoy, I just say yes and go with the flow.
“A lot of people, when they do things from a place of hatred, resentment, bitterness and negativity, they pull things down. You want to do what’s right, you have to feel what’s right. Then you’ll be OK.”
Del Barrio expresses gratitude for the love and care he received from friends, family and professors when growing up, as they provided a much-needed support network.
“I loved my grandmother so much, she gave me so much. I’d cry if I didn’t get that kind of love and energy from people. I don’t have relatives here in the UK, but my family is more the [Filipino] community and Lahing Kayumanggi Dance Company. This is where I belong,” the choreographer adds.
“I’ve always lived with friends and grew up with their overwhelming support. That’s why, when I do things now, whether I get paid or not, I don’t mind. As long as I enjoy it. It all bounces back.”
Watch Ronnie Del Barrio and teammate Fiona Wade compete on ‘Dance Dance Dance’ every Sunday on ITV, 6.30—8pm GMT.-@melissalegarda