I was working in a failing fast food restaurant in Anchorage when I saw the classified ad for dancers. I don’t recall what the ad said exactly, but it sounded glamorous and dreamy and just what a starry-eyed, newly turned 19-year-old with no idea of what she might do with her life would wish for.
I joined roughly 40 others at a new dance studio and learned that after several weeks of lessons and practice, four of us would be chosen to be the instructors at the new Fred Astaire Dance Studio. Oh, how I wanted that job. But as the case seems to be when something sounds too good to be true, there was just that one slight catch — those lucky four would be paid commission only. Which meant to survive you had to sell a lot of dance lessons. A lot. Didn’t deter me. I practiced with everything I had and when the day came, and the little folded papers were distributed, I had one of four that said “yes.” Every day from 9 to 5, we practiced steps from the fox trot, waltz, cha cha, swing, rhumba and tango. It was hard. Really hard. But after months of dancing by day, waitressing at night and choosing between paying the rent and eating, I sold my first package of lessons to a retired gentleman. Mr. C. paid $1,500 — just under $5,400 in today’s economy — for a package that would get him the basic steps in a tiered system of many, many steps that moved from Bronze to Silver to Gold. Mr. C. was overjoyed as he imagined himself in no time gliding around like the studio namesake himself. I knew better. The proficiency he envisioned would come only with many, many more equally expensive packages of lessons. But it would be worth it for him. Right? And I was on my way to fame and fortune.
That, of course, was many, many more years ago than I want to calculate, but I think about it often when I happen to catch “Dancing With the Stars,” and even more so now that the local production of “Dancing with the Coastal Stars” is underway. On Friday, Nov. 3, eight local couples will take the stage at the Newport Performing Arts Center to compete for the audience’s votes — and more importantly, to raise money for the Samaritan House Family Shelter, a Newport non-profit that provides shelter for families with children under 18.
Gabrielle McEntee and Shelby Knife are one of the couples lending their fancy footwork to the fundraiser. When asked if she’d participate, Gabrielle replied, “I want to learn the tango.” She’d studied ballet, jazz, modern dance and had been performing on stage since she was 12.
“I was in the U of O dance department,” she notes. “And it was not just any old ballet, but really good teachers, plus, I teach yoga so it’s not like I don’t know how to use my body. But tango is the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn.” The pair study here in Newport with a teacher and have traveled to Corvallis and Eugene for lessons, but the Portland Tango Festival was something of an eye opener.
“It was awesome,” Gabrielle said. “It really showed me where you could go with the dancing if you kept up with it. It also made me realize, holy cow, we suck.”
Kaety Jabobson and Mark Farley will perform a blues-swing routine. Like Gabrielle, Kaety has an extensive background in ballet.
“It’s been kind of brain hard,” Kaety said. “I feel like I have been making new neurons fire and connect. This is definitely a lot different than the dance I have done.” And while it’s been 20 years since Kaety danced ballet, as she learned the new dance moves, she found herself doing “ballet hands” and “ballet turns.”
It’s definitely given her a new appreciation for the TV show that inspired the coming performance.
“They learn that choreography in like three days,” she said. “It’s a really quick turn-around. I just can’t imagine. We’ve had six months and we still go through it and I end up on my butt.”
As for me, I lasted in the world of ballroom dancing just about long enough to celebrate my first big sale. I taught Mr. C. one more lesson, then hung up my dancing shoes. Ballroom dancing is hard. But some things are even harder.
• For more information about Dancing with the Coastal Stars, go to: https://samfamshelter.org/dancing-with-the-coastal-stars/
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.