Contestants Get Their Groove On For Fifth Autism Center Benefit
By BETSY BETHEL
“Dancing With the Ohio Valley Stars” is poised once again to bring together a motley assortment of colorful dance contestants to raise money for a good cause.
Seven “celebrities” who are amateur dancers will jive, cha-cha and salsa their way around the Capitol Theatre stage with their professional partners on Saturday, Nov. 7. They run the gamut from journalist to banker to Crossfit devotee to vagabond.
Their common bond is they are spending two to three nights a week — sometimes more — learning a dance routine on their own time in order to put on an entertaining show to benefit Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling.
This year’s dance card includes:
- Shawn Fluharty, West Virginia delegate, with Chelsea Loy, owner of Take a Bow Dance Centre in Moundsville;
- Matt Welsch, chef owner of Vagabond Kitchen, with Kristin McCombs of Take a Bow;
- Glenn Elliott, Wheeling attorney, with Lacey Baker Booth, co-owner of Turn It Out Dance Academy in Bellaire;
- Tate Blanchard, WTRF-TV news anchor, with Taylor Lucas of Take a Bow;
- Kristie Barnett, WesBanco vice president and senior trust officer, with August Levy therapist Chad Onifer;
- Walker Holloway, financial adviser at Hazlett, Burt & Watson, with freelance dancer Claire Norman, and
- Natalie Humphries Brown, MPR Transloading & Energy Services president, with Caleb Cooper of Take a Bow.
“The stars are really fun,” said Kathy Shapell, founder and director of Augusta Levy. “All of them are really into it. They’re really just fun people.”
A fan of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” Shapell conceived the event five years ago, and has enjoyed watching the local stars rise to the occasion. She has been pleased with how well attended the event has been — from 300 the first year to more than 1,000 last year.
“I think it’s a really fun event, so it’s nice that it has grown every year. It’s very encouraging to get that kind of community support,” said Shapell, who 10 years ago started the Augusta Levy Learning Center, the first research-based, intensive therapy program for autism in the state.
Each of the contestants interviewed for this article said they are happy to help such a great cause.
“Let’s just say, I thought I could dance until I started practicing,” said the self-described “outgoing” yet “humbled” Fluharty, an attorney and local lawmaker who will be doing the fast-paced cha-cha with Loy. “I’m competitive, and I’ve learned through this process that I’m a bit of a diva. I want things to be performed perfectly.”
Barnett is also a perfectionist, although she said she has “zero” dance experience, barring a “just for fun” adult class at Oglebay Institute about 10 years ago. She doesn’t watch “Dancing With the Stars,” and she’s not going to start now, she said, because she doesn’t want to feel intimidated.
“I knew going into it that I tend to be competitive and a perfectionist. I knew it would be a challenge. I like to try new things and challenge myself and put everything I have into it,” said the bank executive and Crossfit enthusiast.
The hardest part, she said, has been teaching her feet and brain to work together to perform the “sassy” Latin dance steps. Her partner, Onifer, is the only “pro” dancer who is not technically a professional, although he has a musical theater background. Cooper, a two-time Dancing With the Ohio Valley Stars champion, volunteered to choreograph and teach Barnett and Onifer in addition to working with his own partner, Brown.
Blanchard may be the only contestant with some serious dance chops, having danced at Dance Dimensions in Wheeling during elementary school and joining Generations of Steppaz dance troop in high school. He said his partner, Lucas, has been “really, really, open to getting my input” on their salsa routine.
Some of his fellow competitors worried.
Not Welsch, though. The Vagabond Chef just wants to have fun. When asked to be part of the event, “My exact words were, ‘Uh, that’s terrifying. Of course I’ll do it!’” More comfortable cruising winding roads on his BMW cycle or crafting melt-in-your-mouth barbecue, Welsch nonetheless put on his comfy clothes, showed up at the studio and said, “Look, I am not a dancer and I’m not very competitive, I just really want to have a good time.”
Welsch is sharing his progress and enthusiasm in a series of Instagram photos depicting him in some unlikely positions. His favorite is the “Flashdance” chair pose, head back, long hair hanging down and feet stretched out in front of him. The only thing missing is the water. And the leg warmers.
“We’re having an absolute blast,” he said. Even though he describes himself as a “silver-back gorilla” when it comes to dancing, he has learned to relax and be mindful of how each part of his body moves.
“I think we’re getting really good!” he said, but he was mum on their chosen dance style. “I think it’s safe to say it’s going to blow people’s minds.”
Both Elliott and Holloway share about the same extent of dance experience — both cited only their stints among the ranks of the Viennese Winter Ball Cotillion during high school.
Elliott said the experience “has been a pleasant surprise. Dancing in general is out of my comfort zone. Dancing in front of people” is way beyond it, he said. But after seven or eight practices, he has his jive routine to “You Better Shape Up” from “Grease” down pat.
“I’m just starting to not think about my feet anymore and look up.” Booth, he said, “has been good about managing my expectations. She’s been good about keeping my confidence level up.”
Booth called Elliott a “joy” to work with, noting as soon as she taught him the first step and he nailed it, she knew they would be fine. Booth has been first runner-up several times but the champion title has eluded her. Elliott he said he is doing his best to change that this year.
Cooper noted he and Brown have “polished” their ballroom quick-step routine, but “we are finessing the little things. We’re making it memorable.” He said although he has been spending double the time preparing for the event this year because he is helping Barnett and Onifer, he is enjoying “the camaraderie factor of being able to share and brainstorm with other couples.” Plus, he said, “it’s for charity and also brings the arts into the Ohio Valley, so it’s my privilege to do it.”
The winners bring home enormous mirror ball trophies, while runners-up receive smaller ones. Every participant receives an award, however, to thank them for their hard work and for volunteering their time.
A pre-event dinner will take place in the Capitol ballroom, catered by Ye Olde Alpha. Tim Ullom and Jason Treuman will provide musical entertainment. Tickets for the dinner must be reserved by Friday, Nov. 6, by calling 304-242-6722. Tickets for the show are available at the WesBanco Arena box office or online at www.capitoltheatrewheeling.com. They also will be available at the door before the show.