Dancing raises Alzheimer's awareness

Annual gala highlights amateur dancers

April 14, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Deb Donofrio had hoped to waltz with her husband at the Alzheimer's Association Memory Ball on Saturday. They would be one of the eight couples dancing to raise money to battle the disease that robs its victims of their memories.

She and Chuck, the man who has shared her life for more than 25 years, had always loved to dance. As the benefit approached, they tried the fox trot and practiced other familiar steps. But the task overwhelmed Chuck, who was diagnosed six years ago, at age 50, with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"We never took any lessons, but we loved to just swing around with each other," she said. "Now he can only watch me dance, and every time he watches, he cries a little."

Instead of twirling Deb on the dance floor, Chuck will be in the audience cheering for her, along with their daughters. Stephen Nadeau, a professional dancer, will lead her through the lilting motions as they compete for votes — each costs the voter a dollar — at the evening event at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

"We have prepared well, with two lessons a week and nightly practices, when we roll up the carpet at home," said Regina Clark, who will tango with her husband, Roger.

Nearly all the contestants volunteered out of concern for a friend or family member coping with a disease.

"Alzheimer's is the sixth-leading cause of death in America and the only one that can't be prevented, cured or slowed," said Melissa Sharlat, development manager for the Alzheimer's Association in Maryland and gala coordinator.

Alzheimer's and related disorders affect nearly 86,000 Marylanders and 5.4 million Americans, nearly 200,000 of them, like Chuck Donofrio, under 65.

"This disease is the long goodbye," said Deb Donofrio, her husband's caregiver. "It is so hard on families. You miss all the things you did together."

While the Donofrios still enjoy bird watching and kayaking, dancing has become too complicated. She chose to dance without him to raise awareness and funds for all the families affected by the disease, she said.

Some dancers are paired with professional instructors, like Nadeau. Others, like Bonnie Stein and John Cogar, co-workers at a bank, chose each other and a lively rumba.

"She was looking for a dance partner, and one of our colleagues said he saw me dance," Cogar said.

He smiles but says he is petrified. She said she has taken up the challenge for a good cause.

"I have learned a totally different skill set and gained tremendous appreciation for those who can do this," said Stein. She lost her mother, who loved to dance, to Alzheimer's.

Lisa Hawkins, president of a chain of adult health care facilities, is dancing for her patients, all seniors and many coping with dementia. She and Sean Climer, a dance instructor, chose "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love." The idea of performing before a large crowd gives her butterflies, she said, but the cause keeps her going.

While tackling complicated moves, the couples easily laughed at each other's missteps and kept on dancing at a rehearsal last week.

The Clarks put together a vignette to introduce their tango. As the seductive music starts, he is reading a magazine, oblivious to the woman trying to lure him into "Por Una Cabeza," music featured in "True Lies" and "Scent of a Woman."

"I figured if Arnold could do it, I could, too," said Roger, referring to the actor and former governor of California.

Roger is the leading man in their duet, but his wife is driving the train, he said.

"The idea is to go out and have fun and not step on my wife's toes," he said. "And, to do what she tells me."

They have found they truly enjoy dancing and are likely to continue with the pastime.

"Most people will stay with it," said John Dawson, owner of Studio DNA in Pikesville and one of the competitors. "They take a few lessons, learn to move together better and find they really like the exercise."

Dawson stepped up when Heidi Slacum's first partner bowed out.

"As soon as we met, we gelled," said Slacum, whose grandmother, a lifelong dancer, has Alzheimer's. "I am high energy, but John helps me to slow down, breathe and smile."

The gala could raise as much as $200,000 for Alzheimer's research, much of it generated by the dollar-a-vote contest for the favorite dancing stars. One pair has raised nearly $30,000, even before the first note is played. The totals should climb higher as voting continues throughout the evening.

Sharlat promises a showcase of ballroom talent and "a lot of shameless promotion" as dancers vie for votes. The competitors have all received complimentary lessons from area dance studios and rehearsed long hours in the last few months.

Information: http://www.alz.org/maryland or 410-561-9099.


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