Pros and regular Joes on their toes: Minnesota Ballet fundraiser pairs company members with Duluth community for a night of dance

Gabe Mayfield and Emily Reed perform a Disco Remix during the Minnesota Ballet Celebrity Dance Challenge at the Marshall School Fregeau Auditorium in Duluth. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH — 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. The lineup for this year’s “Dancing with the Stars”-esque event at Marshall School in Duluth 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 Queen’s “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 emphasize 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 instinct 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)” against a moody backdrop included dips and rolls.

For Amundson, the key to winning was easy.

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