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Minnesota Ballet's fundraiser puts pros and regular Joes on their toes

Gabe Mayfield danced and sang when he performed in the Celebrity Dance Challenge. 2017 file / News Tribune1 / 5
Catherine Wootten and Eric Huie perform a Bollywood dance during the Minnesota Ballet All-Star Celebrity Dance Challenge at Fregeau Auditorium at Marshall School. Huie originally premiered the piece with Suzanne Kritzberg, winning audience and judges' choice. 2014 file / News Tribune2 / 5
Bret Amundson and Alex Loch perform a Contemporary Tango during the 2016 Minnesota Ballet Celebrity Dance Challenge at Marshall School. 2016 file / News Tribune3 / 5
Maude Dornfeld was a double winner at the 2013 Celebrity Dance Challenge. 2013 file / News Tribune4 / 5
Suzie Baer and Dan Hanger perform a Broadway/calypso dance during the Minnesota Ballet Celebrity Dance Challenge. Hanger had started the performance with a ball snake that he quickly passed off to a handler from the Lake Superior Zoo. 2013 file / News Tribune5 / 5

Eric Huie's double-win at the Minnesota Ballet's Celebrity Dance Challenge lasted more than a night, more than a year, it maybe even lasted five years. In 2010, the stylist from A Touch of Plasch paired with then-company member Suzanne Kritzberg for "A Touch of Bollywood" — quick-paced hip-shaking and arm-waving that incorporated feats ranging from the Roger Rabbit to a cartwheel.

The duo took both people's choice, as voted on by the audience at Fregeau Auditorium, and judges' choice.

"It was surprising," said Huie, who went on to perform the choreography or a variation of it during at least three more dance challenges in addition to other ballet events. He has also served as a judge. "It was really wonderful because it's voted on by the audience, which means I did an OK job entertaining them. It was great; I'm not going to lie."

The ballet's 13th annual fundraiser pairs 12 pros with regular joes, who show off their skills in two-minute bursts of choreography. This year's "Dancing with the Stars"-esque event is at 7 p.m. today at Marshall School's auditorium, and the lineup includes a food truck operator (Jonathan Reznick, Rambler), an evening news anchor (Kristen Vake, CBS3), a musician who has mastered the Rat Pack (Todd Eckart) and more.

All the flare

In recent years, the show's celebrities have found ways to bring to the stage more than a well-rehearsed routine: props, other talents, theatrics and wildlife.

Not only did Gabe Mayfield dance in 2017, but the local actor who has performed in shows ranging from the opera "Amahl and the Night Visitor" to the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" also sang Queens' "We Are the Champions."

He won the people's choice award.

Maxi Childs, known for her lounge style, and tenor Marcus McConico also sang during their performances.

In 2013, Dan Hanger of Fox 21 had promised to share the stage with live animals from the Lake Superior Zoo for his calypso-style dance to music from "The Lion King." Ultimately, he could only secure a ball snake — which he held Simba-like when the curtain opened. He didn't win, though — Maude Dornfeld did.

Dornfeld started in frumpy around-the-house wear, but after finding another woman's drawers in the laundry, she tossed the basket and threw off her housecoat and emerged as a disco diva for a performance set to "I Will Survive."

"In my case, I'm not a really great dancer," Dornfeld recalled. "I was just trying to emphasis my other skills."

Dornfeld won both audience and judges' choice that night. It was the first time, she said, she's ever won anything — a point that has become an inside joke at her house. The sweet taste of victory lasted a year, until she returned for the All Star event.

"I went from double winner to 'most enthusiastic,'" she said. "That was a huge ego crusher."

How to win this thing

Huie, who also won the 2014 All Star Celebrity Dance Challenge, said the best performances come from dancers who, regardless of ability, are having fun.

"I love somebody who is committed 100 percent to entertaining," he said, "people who seem to be enjoying the whole process."

Andrea Kuzel of Superior Ballroom Dance Studio agreed. As a dancer and teacher, her first instincts is to look for technique and technical perfection, she said.

"One of the biggest things to remember is that it's a fundraiser and the entertainment value of things," she said.

Bret Amundson, dean of the School of Arts and Letters at the College of St. Scholastica, also claimed both prizes for a dramatic, contemporary tango with partner — both in life and onstage — Alex Loch, who isn't a company member but is company-adjacent.

The 2016 performance, set to Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and against a moody backdrop included dips and rolls. At one point, Loch lept into an embrace, his leg wrapped over Amundson's shoulder.

"I got weirdly choked up," then-judge Jennifer Madill Hagen said afterward. "So beautiful. The choreography was so seamless. It was gorgeous, perfect, hot."

For Amundson, the key to winning was easy.

"Well, my secret is my partner, right?" he said. "And practice."

Amundsen said he remembers Loch being nervous, while he was calm. Winning, he said, was a surprise and a cool feeling. He was especially happy for Loch, who had choreographed the piece.

"I think it takes some vulnerability," Amundson said. "Telling the story and being open to being a little crazier with your body than you normally would be."

Keeps on drawing

The idea for the Celebrity Dance Challenge was originally conceived by the dancers, said artistic executive director Robert Gardner. They found the locally-known, non-pro dancers, and it quickly became a popular event. The auditorium tends to get close to full — not to mention the list of hopeful dancers.

"Now it's gotten to the point where we have people vying to get spots," Gardner said. "We have a waiting list."

Citizen dancers in the past have packed the audience with up to 100 friends, Gardner said. Another offered branded noise-makers. Expect the unexpected audience moment again this year, he added.

Amundsen, a regular at the event, said one of the biggest surprises about performing is audience support.

"They want you to do well and cheer you on and are excited for you," he said. "People think they're going to be judged. It's not that feeling at all. It's a great vibe."

If you go

What: Minnesota Ballet's Celebrity Dance Challenge

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Fregeau Auditorium, Marshall School

Tickets: $30/$35 adults, $20/$25 students at www.minnesotaballet.org or at the door

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