Monday, March 15, 2010

Ballroom benefit


By Robyn Bradley Litchfield

Dressed in a casual but elegant black number, Alabama's first lady Patsy Riley seemed to float across the floor with dance partner Jim Williams leading her through such classic ballroom steps as grape­vines and telemarks.

It's a dream come true for Riley, one of eight contestants in the third annual Dancing With Celeb­rities, a gala fundraiser benefiting the American Cancer Society's Re­lay for Life. For about 20 years now, her husband, Gov. Bob Riley, has given her dance lessons for her birthday.

"We were supposed to take les­sons together and just haven't got­ten around to it," she said. "So I have really enjoyed this. It's such a wonderful event, which makes it even better."

Dancing With Celebrities will be Saturday at the Capital City Club. The evening will include a social hour and dinner.

Riley has been working with Williams, who owns the Fred As­taire Dance Studio in Montgom­ery, since January and was ready Tuesday to add music. The two­some strutted their stuff, perform­ing a fox trot to Manhattan Trans­fer's "Sunny Side of the Street," a number Riley picked because of its positive message.

"I thought I knew how to dance -- but I was sadly mistaken," she said.
But Williams quickly pointed out that most people are their own worst critics. He added that danc­ing lessons aren't really about how much you learn.

"It's about being with each oth­er and having fun," he said.

Until Riley began lessons with Williams, she said she and the gov­ernor might occasionally dance, but it has been more "like teenag­ers at the prom."

Dancing with Williams, how­ever, is another story, she said with a laugh.
Still, she and the other contes­tants (BJ McCullough, Sally Pitts, Dr. Pam Strickland, Melissa George, Leah deButts, Richard Fiore and JimmyVarnado) have re­hearsed for weeks to prepare for the competition. The one who raises the most money will receive a trophy, but all of the dancers will know that they have been part of raising money to fight cancer.
For three years now, Williams has donated to each competitor 15 40-minute lessons and a profession­al partner for the performance.

"These celebrities really step out of their comfort zone, and they always do a good job," he said. "And I've got to hand it to my staff. They are great at getting every­body ready for the event."

And what an event it is. Sherry Nath dreamed up Dancing With Celebrities after seeing how suc­cessful ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" had become. The 2009 event raised $33,400, and this year's goal is $50,000. Recruiting contestants is actually the easy part, she said.

"Most people ask to dance with us," she said. "I am really excited about this year's group. It's the most we've ever had."

Many people have wanted to get involved and support the effort.

Riley said, "Every person you know has been affected -- in some way -- by cancer."

The devastating disease touch­ed the state's first family several years ago.
In September 1998, she said, "Our world changed forever when the word 'cancer' entered into our lives through our daughter Je­nice."

Jenice Riley died the summer of 2001, after a three-year battle with cancer. Now, almost a decade later, her mother and father are more de­termined than ever to do what they can to fight cancer.

Nath said money raised thus far through Dancing With Celebrities has allowed the American Cancer Society to do further research, to educate the public and to conduct several new clinical trials. She hopes that with money raised Sat­urday, the organization can start a new clinical trial in Montgomery.

Riley said that this particular event is inspiring not only because of its connection to cancer.

"It's also a way of introducing people to a new way of relieving stress and a fun way to exercise," she said.

The first lady is a firm believer in trying new things and never giv­ing up on learning. She is a busy wife, mother and grandmother who is on the go. The Rileys have three grown children (Rob Riley, Minda Riley Campbell and Krisa­lyn Riley Crye) and eight grand­children. Dancing has been a way for Riley to step back and really get lost in the music and the dance steps.

As a family, the Rileys are more than happy to get involved.

"Anything that we can do to find a cure, revise the treatment, we will do it," Riley said before try­ing "Sunny Side of the Street" one more time with her dashing in­structor.

Standing on the sidelines Tues­day, Nath watched Riley rehearse with Williams and said, "We'll stop this disease one of these days."

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