It was jitters, not the jitterbug, that overtook several local business leaders Oct. 23, as they watched professional ballroom dancers and instructors at Fred Astaire Dance Studio demonstrate the rumba, waltz, samba, tango and salsa.
They knew they were next and none have had any real dance experience. But they have months to prepare before performing in front of a live audience and they are willing to face their nerves and a panel of judges in March in a local "Dancing with the Stars" competition for a good cause. The dance-off will benefit ElderHouse in Norwalk, a not-for-profit adult day center serving seniors in Norwalk, Westport, Weston, Darien, New Canaan and Wilton.
ElderHouse has been a part of the Fairfield County senior community for more than 35 years, helping older adults remain in their own homes, and delivering peace of mind to caregivers.
"Zero. Nothing. Making a fool of myself at a wedding," is how Gus Pappajohn, of Westport, described his dance experience. "It's an opportunity to do the right thing for a great cause; it's an opportunity to meet new people and experience some new adventures."
Pappajohn, owner of A. Pappajohn Co. in Norwalk, said he hasn't watched the popular ABC television show "Dancing with the Stars," which pairs inexperienced celebrities with professional dancers, so the first taste of what he's in for came when the pros, Kristina Schlegel and Pierre Fitzenberger, demonstrated the rumba.
"I'm sweating," said Cindi Bigelow, president of Bigelow Tea in Fairfield.
Like the others, Bigelow has never studied any form of dance, but she hopes she has a secret advantage.
"My mother was a Rockette," said Bigelow, who was paired with pro dancer Alexander Vachev. "I don't have her legs. If there's a way through osmosis, then maybe there's some chance.
"This is about fun and ElderHouse."
Bigelow didn't follow in her mother's footsteps, but at least one of the local dance competitors has "performed" at Radio City Music Hall. Kathy Sirico, owner of Gregg and Tony Salon in Westport, said she and a friend toured the famed Manhattan auditorium and "we did our line kicks." They got a round of applause from the janitor.
Sirico and her partner, Matthias Kruschel, have not selected the style of dance that they will take on for the competition in March at the Inn at Longshore in Westport, where the ElderHouse fundraising gala will take place.
"We'll have some tryouts and see what style works best," Kruschel said.
"It's important to see what they feel comfortable with," said Vachev, who will pull double duty. He was partnered with both Bigelow and Ruthann Walsh, director of corporate responsibility for Pepperidge Farm in Norwalk.
Vachev said the competitors will get about 15 lessons of 45 minutes each to learn how to ballroom dance and to put together the competition choreography. They will each perform a two-minute show routine at the gala, said Vachev, who was involved with versions of the "Dancing with the Stars" television show in Bulgaria and Vietnam.
Joan Blumenfeld, a private practice geriatric-care manager and a student at Fred Astaire Dance Studio, told the competitors, "Doing good will never have been so much fun."
She said she went to the studio just to learn the Viennese waltz two years ago and never left.
"No matter what happens out there, I'm going to look good," Pappajohn said. "I've got Kristina. I can trip five times and I'll still look good."
"Dancing is a fun thing to do, but it's also one of the healthiest hobbies you can have," said Gina Goethche. "It's way more entertaining than being on a treadmill."
Denise L. Cesareo, executive director of ElderHouse, hopes the "Dancing with the Stars" gala will raise $100,000, but Nancy Romberg, the event chairwoman and vice president of Fairfield County Bank, has set her sights on a higher number.
"I think we're going to raise more than that," she said.
Donors and supporters will have an opportunity to vote and contribute online for the dancers of their choice. A Best Friend to ElderHouse will be awarded to the star dancer who raises the most on-line pledges.
For tickets and information about the "Dancing with the Stars" fundraiser, call 203-847-1998 or visit www.elderhouse.org.