The Opportunity: A conversation with Bruno Tonioli

by Michael Volpe

As the screen flickered into life, the first thing I saw was a deep blue sky and a blazing sun flitting from side to side as the phone was positioned correctly, then I glimpsed a copse of palm trees and tall banana. Finally, a face filled the screen, in sunglasses, tanned with a dazzling smile of even, white teeth. ‘Hello darling!’

Bruno Tonioli was in the garden of his home in Los Angeles where he has been ‘trapped’ since the beginning of the pandemic. The Strictly judge couldn’t even leave the US for the BBC’s lockdown series in the latter part of 2020 and delivered his contributions from his home in California. His base in the sun was established when, soon after he landed the part of a judge in Strictly in 2004, this ebullient, effervescent Italian scored a similar role on the American equivalent, Dancing with the Stars. For 16 years he has pursued a bewildering schedule of flying between London and LA weekly in order to fulfil his obligations to each show. ‘I was talking to a friend recently and it occurred to me that this pandemic has meant that for the first time in 16 years I am not 100 miles an hour, full time, with every minute of my life planned out meticulously.’ I comment on how relaxed he looks; ‘What are you going to do? We have to just ride it out. Things happen and you can’t change them.’

I met Bruno through his love of opera and ever since I have known him, his contrasting personality has always struck me. It is easy to dismiss celebrities who give off a certain impression of themselves — in Bruno’s case it is that unrelenting ebullience — but he is thoughtful and actually doesn’t seem to enjoy attention beyond a polite selfie. This boy from a strict Catholic family in Ferrara, Italy, has had to work hard on his journey and he never takes his place in the world for granted.

I’m keen to ask him about the opportunity that came his way and which set him on the path to where he is now. He tells me the tale of how, in 1974, he was in Positano to enjoy the festival organised there by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and saw a dance show by French avant garde company La Grande Eugène.

‘It totally blew everybody away — here was this amazing, indefinable thing with all these sexy men in it and in those days in southern Italy that was way, way out there. I was hooked on it and the show was a huge success. Amazing.’

Bruno met and befriended some of the company members, including the director and they invited him to Milan to see the show at a later date. Bruno was not a professional dancer at the time — in fact he was being groomed as a bank clerk and his trip to Milan coincided with the principal dancer of the show throwing a fit and walking out. ‘I looked a bit like him, same size, same build, and a week before the show, the director asked if I could dance. Of course I said yes, but I really couldn’t claim to be a professional. I just sensed something powerful going on — I knew this was a moment that meant something — even the costumes fitted me perfectly. I knew that I could have been absolutely shit, but I learned the show in a week and went on and had a great success.’ After that he toured Europe for two years and became an actor and dancer, appearing in many famous music videos and shows.

Bruno is unequivocal about the opportunity that presented itself that day in Positano, and he continues to work to a similar principle that when things are scary, you need to pursue the chance, because whilst there is a possibility that things will go horribly wrong, just imagine how wonderful the success will feel if it comes off. That approach took him into the next chapter of his life when, as a dance teacher, Pamela Stevenson and Billy Connolly — who he was teaching to dance — suggested he consider choreography. Pamela put him up for an episode of Not the Nine O’Clock News and he was on his way. Over the years he became a hugely successful choreographer on films, TV and he fully exploited the MTV/Eighties phenomenon of the music video when his credits include Tina Turner, Elton John and Freddie Mercury.

‘I was very successful and when Strictly was offered to me, it was a risk — it could have all gone completely wrong back in 2004, but I had that fear again, and that fear made the potential rewards on the other side seem so enticing. So I took the plunge — I dived off the cliff! And before you know it, the American show invited me to take part and here I am.’ As he says this he sweeps his hand around himself at the gorgeous garden he is sitting in.

That word ‘fear’ keeps coming up in our conversation. Bruno freely admits that like many people in his business, there is a constant fear of failure. It haunts everything they do but the key difference, he believes, is that you need to use that fear in order to push yourself to take the opportunities that come your way. You can either shrink away from them or you can take on the scary things — the scarier they are, the more delicious the success. Luck plays its part but eventually it becomes a bystander. It is becoming the most common thread in these interviews — and it is not terrifically profound — that opportunity alone is not enough; you have to take it and pursue it and embrace it. And it doesn’t matter how mundane that opportunity may at first appear.

‘Language courses like those at Nova are a good example actually,’ says Bruno. ‘Nothing is better for you than good communication — I learned this the hard way and absolutely killed myself learning English. I knew that I had to be able to communicate and express myself effectively. So if the chance to improve your language comes, then take it, dive off that cliff. You really never know where things are going to take you!’ And with that, he gesticulates to the sunny sky, raises his eyebrows and ends the call with a flourish.

To find out more about what Nova do, click here.

The Opportunity

In people’s lives, ‘opportunities’ can come in various guises, some can be clear and obvious and others may not be evident until after the passage of time. At Nova New Opportunities, we aim to create the conditions for people to take new life chances, and to see where it may take them.

‘The Opportunity’ is a series of discussions with successful individuals who recall a particular moment — or opportunity — that changed the course of their lives. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a particular moment would prove so important to their future, at others, it was a blazingly clear juncture that they knew had to be grabbed with both hands. It could be deemed ‘a stroke of luck’, or it could just have been that someone, somewhere showed a little faith, but these moments are when we recognise the turning points in our lives.

Welcome to Nova. We are a small diverse charity with a big reach and novel approach to social change.