CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - What would it take to get you on a dance floor, just you and a partner under the spotlight, in front of nearly 1,200 people?
The thought would turn some dance-averse guys into sweaty puddles. Commercial real estate broker John Culbertson's motivation is the warm memory of his sister Ruth Samuelson, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner and state legislator who died of ovarian cancer one year ago.
For her, and for the chance to raise money to fight the aggressive disease, Culbertson and Charlotte Ballet dancer Sarah Lapointe will be among six teams to compete March 3 in the Ballet's sixth annual Dancing with the Stars of Charlotte Gala. They'll dance against pairs that include Carolinas HealthCare System CEO Gene Woods and Central Piedmont Community College President Kandi Deitemeyer.
"A friend of mine on the (Charlotte Ballet) board called and asked if I would consider doing it," Culbertson said. "I immediately said 'sure,' without really being sure of what I was agreeing to do. Her remark was that she'd never had anyone commit so quickly. That's when I knew I was in trouble."
He and Samuelson, Charlotte natives, were especially close siblings despite their political differences – she was a Republican leader while Culbertson is an active Democrat. "Ruth was just someone I could get along with, and we saw the world very much alike," he said.
At 52, Culbertson is an avid cyclist who happily dances at parties and wedding receptions. But his only formal training was in middle school at Promenade of Charlotte, where he learned the foxtrot and the cha cha.
Twice-weekly rehearsals with Lapointe, who Culbertson said flows across the dance floor "like water," were something else. He was afraid their pairing would look like Snow White-meets-Frankenstein in size 12 shoes.
Instead, he's left their morning rehearsals giddy with excitement.
"It's been fantastic," he said. "It's the mental challenge of learning how to dance, and the discipline involved. I think we all know the ballerinas are beautiful and extremely talented, but until you're in their shoes and see their dedication, you can't really understand it. They're like Olympic athletes, and it doesn't happen by chance."
Lapointe, who has danced since she was 2, is a rising star at 20. After earning regional and international awards, the Maryland native was a guest artist with the Washington Ballet in 2015 and joined Charlotte Ballet at 18. Dance Magazine named her among the "Top 25 to Watch" last year.
For the upcoming competition, Lapointe choreographed their routine and taught Culbertson the steps. For 3 minutes and 15 seconds, they'll be a team on March 3.
"I love working with John; he's so excited about doing this," Lapointe said. "Every rehearsal, we've improved a lot. It's definitely taken a bit of time to get everything together, and we don't have that much time, but I'm very impressed that he takes every direction I give him and applies it in the studio."
The event at Knight Theater, which pairs corporate and civic leaders with Charlotte Ballet dancers, is sold out. Pairs will compete for two awards, one decided by judges and the other for the most money raised to be split between the Ballet and a local charity.
Carolinas HealthCare System's Woods will dance with Charlotte Ballet's Sarah Hayes Harkins for the Eugene Woods Sr. Multiple Myeloma Fund; civic leader Patty Lambert with dancer Juwan Alston for Community School of the Arts; Barings managing director David Secrest with dancer Elizabeth Truell for Levine Children's Hospital; PNC Bank executive Jennifer Green with dancer Drew Grant for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation; and CPCC president Deitemeyer with dancer James Kopecky for CPCC's Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Culbertson and Lapointe have raised more than $98,000 for ovarian cancer research at Levine Cancer Institute, ranking third so far. Culbertson's gut tells him dancing for his sister, to fight the cause of her death, will be a life-changing event.