Cutting a rug

Dancing with our Stars cultivates ‘can do’ attitude

Striking a pose while practicing for the “Dancing with our Stars” competition are, front from left, Caroline Anglim and Yvette Herzbrun; standing from left, Megan Bledsoe, Lance Coleman, Kristin Palacios, Mike Kirby, Bob Hirche, Anne Souder, Lynn Cox and Mika Yoshida. On the cover, Mike Kirby and Kristin Palacios practice the Tango during dance classes in Knoxville.

Striking a pose while practicing for the “Dancing with our Stars” competition are, front from left, Caroline Anglim and Yvette Herzbrun; standing from left, Megan Bledsoe, Lance Coleman, Kristin Palacios, Mike Kirby, Bob Hirche, Anne Souder, Lynn Cox and Mika Yoshida. On the cover, Mike Kirby and Kristin Palacios practice the Tango during dance classes in Knoxville.

“I am not a dancer, and I have no rhythm.”

Those are the words I’ve heard from most of the guys who have volunteered to compete in the “Dancing with our Stars” competition/fundraiser for Appalachian Ballet Company.

I can empathize. I said those same words when I agreed to be in the competition. But that’s the beauty of this. It’s more about attitude than aptitude. As long as we are willing to learn, the dancers from Appalachian Ballet are willing to teach us.

This is not shuffle-your-feet, Junior High slow dancing. The competitors will be doing everything from swing, ballroom, Tango, disco and even Bollywood dancing like the routine seen at the end of “Slum Dog Millionaire.”

This innovative event is set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 12 at Top of the Plaza in downtown Maryville. There are no “advance to the finals” or gold tickets to Hollywood waiting at the end of the evening. What is promised is a chance to have a great time while supporting the work of East Tennessee’s premier ballet, the Appalachian Ballet Company.

Appalachian Ballet Company artistic director Amy Moore Morton said when she pitched the idea to her board to hold a fundraiser similar to the television show “Dancing with the Stars,” the board members loved it.

“I can’t remember what first made me think of it,” said Morton. “We were trying to come up with a good fundraiser. With shows like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ becoming so popular, I thought that might be way to involve the community along with the ballet company. That’s how the idea came about.”

Morton said as an added bonus, Appalachian Ballet Company alumni and former board member Yvette Herzbrun also volunteered to dance. “We’re thrilled to have Yvette Herzbrun dancing,” said Morton.

Morton said the men who were recruited to be in the competition were enthusiastic…for the most part. “Some jumped right on board. With a few, I had to do gentle persuasion and remind them they had agreed to do a service for non-profits likes the ballet company,” she said. “I haven’t had to do too much arm-twisting.”

Adding some “muscle” to the fundraiser is Blount County’s $10 Club, a group of women who do a variety of service projects in the county. “We’ve been thrilled to have the $10 Club helping us,” Morton said. “And the ballet company’s Parent Guild has been in charge of the silent auction and have gotten some wonderful items.”

For the competition itself, there are four judges on board.

“Our judges are Dr. Otto Slater, Fran Leonard, Dr. Fred Tolhurst, who has had formal ballroom dancing training and Rachel Brown, my little sister and the owner of Fenton’s Leap Learning Center,” Morton said.

Morton described the judges as being similar to the celebrities who judge on television shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” Each will have distinctive personas that should also entertain the crowd.

“Rachel will be there for the hilarity of it. Fran will be very sweet and kind. Otto, I’ve heard, has a sharp tongue like a Simon Cowell character. Fred will be the expert.”

The dancers have put heart, soul and time into learning the routines, Morton said.

“We have a diverse group of men dancing,” Morton said. “All the men so far who have come into the studio have laughed and sweated and left ready to come back to have another rehearsal. We haven’t scared anyone off.”

The competitors include George Williams, who is dancing with Heather Wilcoxon; David Dwyer with Brittany Blum; Bob Hirche with Anne Souder; David Talley with Yvette Herzbrun; Lynn Cox with Mika Yoshida; Mike Kirby with Kristin Palacios; Jeff Mitchell with Caroline Anglim; and patient Megan Bledsoe drew the short straw and dances with me.

“I think the company dancers have started out with basic steps and have worked to the abilities that the men have. A couple of guys are really strong, and the dancers are taking advantage of this by putting in lifts,” Morton said. “The girls have tailored their routines to their partners in order to make it work.”

Jeff Mitchell said that while he likes to dance, this definitely hasn’t been a case of doing what comes natural.

“When I dance, I do anything I want to do and this has structure,” Mitchell said. “I’m not good with structure, just ask my wife.”

Mitchell said the tough part has been the memorization. “It’s compartmentalizing each piece and trying to play it back. I video taped it with my phone so I could watch it over and over,” he said.

Lynn Cox not only had initial reservations about participating, he looked for ways to back out. “I thought of a lot of things to try and get out of it,” Cox said. “Then I started working with Mika. She’s great. If you can say one thing, she is so patient. It is evident that she teaches kids how to dance because she’s teaching me. I’m worse than a kid.”

Cox said Yoshida is also very daring. “There are jumps and flips and windmills. She wants to do the tough stuff. I think, ‘I can’t do that,’ but ultimately I get it, so it is kind of neat.”

Yoshida said she has been dancing since she was 9 and when she met her partner for the competition, she threw out a number of different combinations and moves for them to try. “We tried several things I had in mind, and he did everything right,” she said. “So I tried everything I wanted him to do, and he’s doing great. He’s doing a lot of tricks, and I’m excited for him. It’s going to be an exciting piece.”

Bob Hirche said he laughed when someone called and asked him to be in the competition.

“Immediately my thought was, ‘I’ll never be able to do this.’ If you see me, you know I can’t, but Anne (Souder) is so good. She is so supportive.”

Anne Souder has been dancing 12 years, and she said teaching a beginner makes her think about what the steps in the routine are going to be. “I love teaching people, so I think this has been a treat for me, to get to work with someone and convey dance in my own way,” she said.

Mike Kirby and his partner, Kristin Palacios, have taken dedication to the task to a whole new level. They were assigned the Tango, so they enrolled in a ballroom dancing class in Knoxville.

“It’s out of my norm,” said Kirby, “but that’s why I’m having a good time. I’m very excited about it. Kristin has been real easy on me. She keeps up with the beats.”

Palacios said both she and Kirby are in the same situation as far as learning a new routine. “I’m not a ballroom dancer and don’t have much of a background in it,” she said. “We’re taking a ballroom dance class, and it has helped. Mike’s really enthusiastic and willing to dive into it. That helps immensely.”

David Dwyer said he was very impressed with his partner, Brittany Blum, a University of Tennessee student studying to be a doctor.

“She gets up at 5 every morning to be at UT Medical Center at 6:30, and we were here practicing until 9:30 last night. Where does she get the time? She’s about to graduate at age 20 in pre-med, she’s choreographed two pieces for the Appalachian Ballet and is dancing in one” said Dwyer. “I’m pretty much in awe. I’m still looking for what I want to do when I grow up, and she’s all over it. She’s tall, beautiful, strong and jumps like a guy.”

Blum said when Morton first asked her about participating in “Dancing with our Stars,” she balked. “I said there is no way, I have no time. But Amy said, ‘Brittany, I want you to do the disco with Dave.’ It took a little convincing, but I’m so glad I did it,” she said. “It’s so fun. I’m having a fun time. It’s the greatest idea -- how creative.”

As for me, this is the second potentially embarrassing thing my publisher, Sherri Gardner Howell, has roped me into in my five years at Blount Today. The first was a pie-eating contest at the Tennessee Valley Fair. I ended covered in chocolate crème pie, but placed second to celebrity pie-eater Jesse James - Sandra Bullock’s husband. Really, I won, but that’s another story.

When the boss told me about this “opportunity,” which was followed by a phone call from Amy Morton, I had serious doubts. But my dancing partner Megan Bledsoe put me at ease while she put me through the rigors of two practices a week. And just like everyone else, I’ve had a blast. I also learned a new appreciation for the Appalachian Ballet Company dancers as I got just a taste of what they do each time they put on a production.

All I can say is it’s a heck of a lot better than a face full of chocolate crème pie.

Don’t miss this event. Everyone is working hard and having fun. You will just get to have the fun part, and help the ballet at the same time.

Like Jeff Mitchell said, “We’ve got to fill that place up for them. We want to sell it out, 250 tickets. If you want to laugh out loud, come see the show.”

Dancing with our Stars begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, at Top of the Plaza in Preservation Plaza at 200 E. Broadway Ave., Maryville.

There will be heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer, and guests can bid on silent auction items. At 8 p.m., the competition will begin.

Tickets are available at Appalachian Ballet Company/Van Metre School of Dance on West Broadway or at Blount Today.

“Everyone will take a seat in the big ballroom area where the competition will begin,” Morton said. “At the end of the competition, we’ll have a DJ playing music, and the guests can take over the dance floor. We will finish up with announcing the winners of the silent auction.”

Morton said the competition would be a fun night out for couples starting the Valentine’s Day weekend. “I think it would be a fabulous Valentine’s Day date. You have wine and food. If someone hasn’t thought of a gift for a loved one yet, there will be wonderful auction items, and they get to dance the night away,” she said.

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