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Friday, June 21, 2024

Gainesville ‘Dancing With The Stars’ raises money for new local arts building

Dancers competed Sunday in the Dance Alive National Ballet event

A photo of Dance Alive National Ballet's plans for its new arts building hanging in the studio on Monday, April 1, 2024.
A photo of Dance Alive National Ballet's plans for its new arts building hanging in the studio on Monday, April 1, 2024.

Some of Gainesville’s most accomplished residents danced, flipped and raised money at a  “Dancing With The Stars” competition Sunday. 

The fundraiser, created and hosted by Dance Alive National Ballet, attracted about 500 attendees who watched contestants showcase their dance moves. The chosen competitors for the event, also known as the Champagne Gala, were paired with professional dancers from the company in September 2023 and have since prepared performances in hopes of impressing the competition’s judges.

One of three judges was Lisa Niemi Swayze, the widow of famous dancer and “Dirty Dancing” actor Patrick Swayze, who has created a name for herself through her choreography, acting and directing.    

The competition, which took place at Legacy Park, awarded three specific prizes to dance couples: best dance, biggest cheer squad and most donations. Besides these main prizes, each dancer also received a special award for their performance.   

One of these prizes included the “Caliente Award," which competitor and fitness expert Fitz Koehler scored after her rendition of “Proud Mary” with her 18-year-old partner, Tucker Gokey.   

Before the dance event, the Gainesville resident was tied with fellow competitor Larry Smith for most donations and had joked about a one-on-one rivalry.    

“I'm neck and neck with the surgeon — a lovely man — for most donations,” Koehler said. “But at the end of the day, I’m rooting for him to bring in supporters and funding too.”   

Supporters and attendees were able to vote, in the form of donations, for their favorite competitors until the winners were announced at the end of the event.

Smith took home both the biggest cheer squad and the most donations prize this weekend, despite Koehler’s efforts to surpass him. However, the Tina Turner-twister could be seen cheering loudly on the sidelines, dampening the dispute.   

While this friendly battle may have spiced up the competition, Koehler has fought much larger and tougher battles before.    

In 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.    

“Defeating cancer a few years ago turned me into a yes-woman,” Koehler said. “I always say yes to anything that comes my way because life is short.”

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Her tendency to say yes became important when her dance partner was switched in the middle of preparation for the competition. 

“I was paired with Tucker at the last minute, and I’m so grateful for him coming in because he’s the perfect partner for me,” Koehler said. “Whenever I’m holding his hand, I feel like I’m doing the right thing."    

Koehler isn’t the only competitor with great appreciation for their partner. Artist Jenna Horner described her 52-year-old partner, Andre Valladon, as “the king of it all.”    

“My partner is incredible. He’s the longest male dancer in the company and won last year’s competition,” the 32-year-old said. “We feed off each other and learn at the same pace.”    

Horner has also balanced her emerging non-profit art business, Mindful Messages, which just completed its inaugural mural project at Fort Clarke Middle School.    

“It’s kind of hysterical because I’ll come from a meeting to ‘Dancing With The Stars’ rehearsal to paint and then to work on huge projects,” Horner said. “I’m living in two different worlds.”    

Before the competition this weekend, the artist said she was excited to see everyone's routines, and couldn't wait for the crowd to see the cherry on top of her dance.    

That cherry was an added hip-hop portion to the end of her dance.   

Just as the audience suspected the couple had finished their performance, Doja Cat’s remix of Elvis’ “Hound Dog” began to play, while Horner continued to walk her partner like a dog and shimmy around the stage.   

The couple received the “Rockstar Award” for their performance.    

“I'm a huge fan of uplifting any arts in town,” Horner said. “Dance Alive is filled with incredible performers and something I wanted to invest time into.”  

Dakeyan Graham, another contestant, performed a Michael Jackson-inspired dance.  

Graham said his partner, Rachel Ridley, gave him a voice in the choreography and dance styles, which helped him learn even better.  

“Rachel adapted the way she taught to the way I learned,” The 39-year-old said. “She's been so gracious and a great teacher.”  

Graham also praised the owner of Dance Alive’s Kim Tuttle, who attended all rehearsals to encourage dance couples, and give them helpful tips on their technique.  

“It's one thing to be a great dancer; it's another to be a great person,” Graham said. “Kim Tuttle is a pillar in our community, and that is reflected in the dancers who perform for the company.”  

Graham and Ridley took home the “Stage Presence” award this weekend, and while the former teacher is unsure about his future in dance, he said he hoped to continue being a community partner for Dance Alive.  

“I've always wanted to take dance classes,” Graham said. “Who knows, maybe this is the start of something incredible?”  

About $200,000 raised by performers and at the event will go toward Dance Alive’s budget and funding for a new building dedicated to the arts. Owner Kim Tuttle expects the project to transform Gainesville into a center for dance, music and entertainment in Florida.

“Community outreach is not just to entertain; it's to educate about art — especially for younger generations,” Tuttle said. “Art is always movement forward.”    

The 76-year-old pianist said she is proud of how far the professional dancers and the stars have come in the six-month practice period. She expressed excitement for the couples who are non-dancers and have worked hard while becoming friends with their partners.    

“One of our competitors, Thomas Delaney, came into the studio just the other day and said he went to a wedding with his wife. And he danced the whole night long,” Tuttle said. “The arts are transformative and impactful.” 

Contact Madilyn Gemme at mgemme@alligator.org. Follow her on X @madilyngemme.

 



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