Ohio Valley ‘Stars’ Shine For Kids With Autism

Just like its nationally televised counterpart, Dancing with the Ohio Valley Stars promises to be a night of outstanding dancing and fun. There will be a panel of celebrity judges, a performance by a popular recording artist and a fierce yet friendly spirit of competition.

Unlike the ABC sensation “Dancing With the Stars,” however, all the money raised at the local event will go to a charitable cause, to help provide much-needed therapy for children on the autism spectrum at Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling.

Kathy Shapell, Augusta Levy founder and director, is an avid fan of “Dancing With the Stars,” which is why she decided to stage her own contest two years ago as a fundraiser. Now in its third year, the event has outgrown its previous venues and is slated to take the Capitol Theatre stage at 7 p.m. Nov. 2.

“It is heartwarming that so many people in the community are willing to step up to volunteer their time to benefit local children with autism,” Shapell said, noting seven prominent members of the community agreed to be contestants and are partnered with seven professional dancers from four local studios, all of whom are volunteers.

She added she is looking forward to seeing what this year’s contestants and their partners have put together for the audience.

“It’s a terrifically fun night! Each year, the audience is surprised by the level of talent they see at the show, and we always have little surprises throughout the evening that keep everyone entertained,” Shapell said. In addition, Nashville recording artist and Ohio Valley native Joe Zelek will perform, and the inaugural-year winning contestant, David “Bloomdaddy” Blomquist, will serve as the master of ceremonies.

This year’s “all-star lineup” features: Barry Allen, Ziegenfelder Co. vice president of marketing and sales; Brian Davis of WTRF-TV 7; internist Dr. Andrew Etzel; Liz Hofreuter-Landini, head of Wheeling Country Day School; podiatrist Dr. Jason Newton; personal trainer Chauncey Hull; and Zak Zatezalo, an attorney with Bordas & Bordas.

The professional dancers, who are charged with picking the music, choreographing their dances and teaching their partners, are Lacey Baker and Lindsey Bugaj from Turn It Out Dance Academy in Bellaire; Megan Campbell from Toni Zeakes Performing Arts Center in Wheeling; Caleb Cooper, Chelsea Loy and Devyn Stidd from Take a Bow Dance Studio in Moundsville; and Kristin McCombs from the Dance Workshop in Barnesville.

Allen said he was so excited to become a contestant, he canceled his plans for the weekend of the event and cleared his busy travel schedule in order to devote time to rehearse.

“It’s for a great cause,” said Allen, who admits he isn’t a great dancer but loves to dance. “I’m really competitive, so I really want us to do good. Quite frankly, I expect us to win.”

Cooper may beg to differ. The returning champion, he said he and partner Hofreuter-Landini are going to take home the coveted 3-foot trophy. “I want to win. I mean, I really want that trophy,” Cooper said, flashing a big, winning smile.

All the couples have been practicing for about a month and have one last week of rehearsal before the big night.

Bugaj, a first-grade teacher at Warwood School by day, said teaching an adult how to dance from scratch is not easy, but she has been thoroughly impressed by partner Allen’s dedication.

“He’s one of the hardest workers. If he could practice every day, he would, and I love it. It’s going really well and we’re having a blast,” she said.

Etzel also is having fun with the experience.

“The biggest surprise was that Miss Toni cut out the part of the routine where I do a full split and catch two flaming batons with my teeth. Opted for more Cha Cha. Whatever,” he joked in an email interview. He added partner Campbell “has a great sense of humor, keeps practice light and is fun to be around even when the hours get a little long.”

Hofreuter-Landini said the lessons Cooper has taught her have a much deeper significance than she expected.

“He’s taught me no man is an island in a way that no professor or work experience has ever taught me,” she said. “He’s taught me that following means not only letting the other person lead but letting them have control.”

In return, Cooper said Hofreuter-Landini has taught him how to be a better teacher to his students at Take a Bow. The biggest challenge for the dancing pair, Cooper said, was getting the “strong” and “independent” head of school to loosen up and perform “dainty” dance moves. She has caught on quickly, though.

Shapell said a pre-show event with heavy hors d’oeuvres provided by Ye Olde Alpha will take place in the Capitol ballroom. In the main hall starting at 7, the first four couples will dance, followed by an intermission and the final three couples. Zelek will then entertain the audience, followed by a special dance performed by Manuel Miller, the Augusta Levy Learning Center’s first graduate.

The judges – Jill Ruff, owner of Marietta Dance Academy; David Allinder, publisher of IN Wheeling magazine; and Kristen Allodi, choral director of Wood County Schools – will comment after each performance, but the winners will not be announced until the end of the evening. A people’s choice award – decided by audience members – also will be presented.

Shapell said the learning center needs to raise money to help families who could not otherwise afford the therapy their children need to succeed. The center’s therapists provide evidence-based treatments, such as applied behavior analysis, and the center is one of only a few in the state to provide them.

“Without community support, we would not exist. … All the proceeds go to providing highly specialized services to area children to propel them to reach their highest potential,” Shapell said.

Etzel said he is happy to be part of supporting the center, no matter who takes home the trophy on Saturday.

“Every star, in my estimation, can put one in the win column for getting out there, learning a dance and performing. Every pro and every studio should be proud of the time and effort they are putting into teaching the star to dance and making Dancing with the Ohio Valley Stars a fun and exciting event to watch,” Etzel said. “However, the Augusta Levy Learning Center is the true star of the show on Nov. 2! … The more I learn about (it), the more I realize how truly exceptional the program is and how lucky we are to have it here in our community.”

Tickets are available in person at the WesBanco Arena box office or charge by phone, 800-514-3849. The night of the event, tickets will be sold at the Capitol Theatre box office beginning at 5:15 p.m.