Dancing With Our Stars

By Robert Plunket Photography by Rebecca Baxter January 1, 2011

It’s taken 11 years, but they finally asked me to be one of the contestants on “Dancing with Our Stars.” I can’t imagine what took them so long. They’ve gone through everybody in town, even a blind man.

What’s the problem? Do I not seem graceful enough?

“Dancing with Our Stars” is the local version of the TV show that is so enormously popular. Just think—ballroom dancing used to be the squarest thing imaginable, the pastime of old ladies with too much time on their hands. And now it’s become the coolest thing imaginable.

Every egomaniacal celebrity lusts after it, and the country’s current heartthrobs are given birth there—like that guy Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

“Dancing with Our Stars” is considered one of the must-attend parties of the year. Everybody in town shows up—the social set, the ballroom dancing crowd, the richer gay men. Even Wells Fargo bought a table. It benefits the Community AIDS Network and provides funds for patient care and education. The take this year was $93,000; almost $1 million has been raised since the first event.

Like this year’s other contestants, I told everybody, “Oh, I’m so flattered to be included. I just hope I make it through without falling down.” But in my inner recesses a thought was forming: “I’m going to win this thing. And win big.”

It wasn’t going to be easy. That much became clear during my first practice session. Each contestant is assigned a professional ballroom dancing partner, and I was lucky enough to get Margaret Burns. Everybody knows Margaret. She’s from Jamaica but was trained in New York and London. In the past editions of “Dancing with Our Stars” she’s danced with the following people: Howard Millman, Cliff Roles and Dr. Todd Horiuchi. Lately she’s been

expanding her horizons and is now selling Mary Kay products on the side.

The first thing Margaret did was gauge my skill level and natural ability, trying to find a style and rhythm I could connect with. Three sessions later she was still trying. Classical ballroom dancing of any sort proved painful, both for my ego and Margaret’s feet. I could manage a slow foxtrot if I counted out loud, but neither of us could see that winning any prizes. Latin rhythms were showier but trickier; my rumba drew worried looks from the other people in the studio, and one of them brought me a chair and a glass of water.

Still, if I were younger and considering my career in life, I would definitely talk to the guidance counselor about ballroom dancing. I love the lifestyle. You show up for work around 10 a.m., do your stretches, then dance all day with interesting people like me. Certain nights of the week there are dance parties, and every weekend there’s some competition, maybe in Miami or Jacksonville, so you’re in the car, heading off to a new adventure, where you’re dancing, judging, or just doing hair and make-up. Sleep time is hard to find; Margaret has to pencil it in in her appointment book.

I was rehearsing at Wilson Barrera’s DanceSport, down behind Kane Plaza. Wilson is from Brazil, and he and Margaret used to be married. Their daughter, Natasha, goes to Sarasota High. The other instructors I got to know well included Elizabeth Cartier, who has an “ice queen” aura to her when she’s performing but is actually very sweet and giggly (sometimes she brings her cat to work), and Max Lototskyy, our own version of Maksim, who is also from the Ukraine and also has a look of deadly experience in those heavily lidded eyes. He gave me a lot of tips on how to look sexy on the dance floor.

But we still weren’t finding my dance.

Then, as we were going through a random list of songs on Margaret’s laptop, we came across Baby’s Got Back, that rap song that starts, “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” I began “getting jiggy” with the beat, and the next thing you know, Margaret and I were looking at each other and slapping our foreheads.

Of course!

The rehearsal period was long and arduous. Once we got our routine figured out, I had to go over it and go over it. This I did in the kitchen every evening, dancing with the dog. After a while he knew it better than I did.

Thank God, Margaret turned out to be a very good choreographer. Our dance depended on a lot of what are known in the business as “reveals.” That means that at a certain moment, something is revealed to the audience that enriches and enlarges the artistic theme you are building upon. In our case the most important reveal was a large plastic butt that Margaret found online for $10 and which was so frighteningly realistic that many in the audience actually thought it was Margaret’s real butt, a misapprehension she was only too happy to encourage.

I was still recovering from open-heart surgery, and when I noticed that people had a natural sympathy for this, I played it to the hilt. “Not bad for somebody who had a quadruple bypass just 12 weeks ago, right?” I would remark to anybody who happened to watch. I made a mental note to insist I be introduced this way. “And next, recovering from open-heart surgery, please welcome . . .”

One of the other contestants was also rehearsing at Wilson’s, and we would eye each other warily from across the ballroom. It was Penny Hill, the mortgage broker. She and Max were doing a James Bond routine, where she came out and slunk around and he tossed her up in the air, in circles, and through his legs. I didn’t like it one bit. It was much too polished and professional, and Penny’s body was just awful—too long and slim and perfectly toned. Oh, well, I thought. At least she doesn’t have a great big plastic butt.

After one month of very hard work and several blisters, a stubbed toe and strange pains in my shins, the day of the event arrived. All the contestants showed up at the Chelsea Center for rehearsal, and even though I had met them, I hadn’t—except for Penny—seen their routines. Everybody watched each other, feigning pleasure but with an eagle eye.

“Yikes,” I whispered to Margaret. “Have they been living in the dance studio?”

They were all good. So good it was hard to pick an obvious winner. Anand Pallegar and Elizabeth did a Bollywood number that was very tricky and complicated. Dr. Jill Morris, the prominent dentist, dancing with Sid Pocius, performed a graceful routine; she had the disadvantage of having to go first. Dr. Russell Samson, the vascular surgeon, was the blind man. It turns out he’s not really blind; it was an homage to Al Pacino’s tango in Scent of a Woman. Samson danced with Sonia Ragan. The other couple included Frederic Palluel, who was the French ice dancing champion and performed in the Olympics, and his professional partner, Ivanka Varga.

Before the contest itself there were a lot of other activities—taxi dancing with the proceeds going to CAN, dinner, various exhibition dances—so that when you finally had to perform, all your nervous energy had been spent and you were in a meditative state that I’m sure the people on death row feel, where the end has finally come and you have no choice but to embrace it. I reached over to tenderly fondle Margaret’s hand.

“You’re on,” she hissed. “Get out there!”

I wish I could remember my triumph better, but it was all a blur. I do remember coming out in my costume, which was a purple hip-hop outfit from the New York Connection next to McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre on North Tamiami Trail. I strutted around, waved to the crowd, grabbed my crotch—it was very effective.

Then the music changed to Dancing Cheek to Cheek, and Margaret came swirling out very gracefully and tried to seduce me. I pooh-poohed her attempts—that is, until she dropped her cape to reveal her enormous and shapely prosthetic butt. The beat started. And that’s when I flashed my gold grill—gold caps over my teeth—and hopped toward her with a lascivious grin.

I don’t know if it was the butt, the crotch, or the grill. But by that time we pretty much had them. We threw in a couple of hustle steps, did the “butt shaker,” and ended up with some spanking and thong-snapping. The applause was riotous.

Oddly enough, we didn’t win. That honor went to Dr. Tanya Schreibman, the medical director of Community AIDS Network, who I must say was very good. And Dr. Samson took home the fund-raising honors. As for me, well, I got to keep the grill.

I can’t wait to see who they will have next year. I think we should start putting pressure on the committee to get certain people, just the way the public puts pressure on the TV show. My dream team of contestants would include Victor de Renzi, Rich Swier Sr., Kathy Dent, Nancy Krohngold, Jean Weidner and Fredd Atkins. Any names you might want to suggest?

I will say this about ballroom dancing—it really does open a whole new world to you. You meet people you never would have met, it’s great exercise, and there’s nothing quite like the thrill of mastering a new step. Plus I’ve rediscovered the fun of gliding around a dance floor.

And because of this, Margaret and I are now selling Mary Kay cosmetics! Yes, we’re hosting Mary Kay parties for both women and men—they have a men’s line—during which we will give you a facial and provide skin care advice…and, incidentally, sell you Mary Kay products. And just think—all this because of ballroom dancing. (For an invitation to our next party, call me here at the magazine: 941-487-1105.)

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