Mary Melaragno was out of sorts and running late. She insisted that she’s never late, but right before leaving the office, one thing after another kept popping up. It’s easy to believe both of those statements because Melaragno, in her first year as executive director of the YES House Foundation, is coordinating Dancing with the Gillette Stars in the midst of a pandemic.
“If I were to have a first year doing something, COVID is the year to do it, because all (other) years are going to be a breeze,” Melaragno said. “If you can maneuver this, you can maneuver anything.”
This year’s event with a theme of “Back to the ’80s,” is a celebration of a simpler time taking place in the much more complicated time of 2020. Melaragno had to work closely with Campbell County Public Health to get a variance approved just to be able to host the popular fundraiser.
To accommodate Gov. Mark Gordon’s public health orders and still host one of the community’s largest fundraisers, Melaragno has rented out two halls at Cam-plex this weekend to increase the space to accommodate social distancing demands. The 40,000 square feet of space will allow 75 tables of eight people to enjoy the night’s festivities, for a total of 600 people.
“It’s going to be a bigger change because it’s a bigger area,” Melaragno said. “We’ve had to reconfigure how it’s going to look. The stage is moving, basically going to be in the center of both halls. Cam-plex has been wonderful to work with. We’re going to have the projection screens again and tables have to be 10 feet apart from each other.”
Melaragno said that extra efforts to comply with COVID-19 safeguards are costing roughly $10,000 more than it ordinarily would to put on the event, money that has been offset by a grant from the Wyoming Business Council.
Despite all the logistical challenges, Melaragno is excited and hopeful about the fundraiser and attributes that mostly to the people working alongside her to make it happen. She gushed praise for the three main sponsors of the teams, L&H Industrial, Cyclone Drilling and M&K Oil Co., as well as numerous volunteers, businesses and the community.
The dancers, including the Solid Gold Dancers who provide additional entertainment throughout the evening, also deserve a lot of praise, she said.
“The fact that they give so much of their time — I mean, it’s six weeks of pure dedication to learn these dance moves — it’s truly amazing,” Melaragno said. “It just shows the amount of support we have because they’re giving up their evenings and weekends to learn this.”
The goal is for all of that hard work to be met with generous giving from the community.
“I’m pretty optimistic and like to think that any income is good, because if you raise a dollar, that’s a dollar more than you had,” Melaragno said. “I would like to raise $250,000 because that is what they raised last year, and if we could make it even more, that would be even more phenomenal because there has never been a time that nonprofits need this as now.”
‘Stop, collaborate and listen’
Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but not for the trio of Renae Rearick and Tyler Miller and their choreographer, Lindsay Lundvall. They met at 4 p.m. in the Recreation Center, and there they danced, over and over again, their afternoon divided into discrete chunks that each lasted a single eight-count.
They worked without music for almost half an hour, the only sound of Lundvall’s counting with occasional instruction mixed in. There are dozens of moves, sharp and crisp, instantly recognizable as a hip-hop style. She coached their moves with the giant open space of two halls in Cam-plex in mind, reminding them to make certain moves bigger and bolder so they could be seen.
They took their places in front of the mirror, and this time the music started. An unmistakable bass line, doubly recognizable for those old enough to remember David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” the riff of which Vanilla Ice smirkingly insisted that he hadn’t stolen, note for note.
“Ice, Ice Baby,” though often heralded as a definitive song of the ’90s, technically was first released on an independent album in 1989. In it, Vanilla Ice commands, “Yo, V.I.P, let’s kick it” about 15 seconds into the song, and it is then and there that the duo breaks out into the synchronized steps they’d spent the first 20 minutes of the session rehearsing without music. By the time Vanilla Ice has finished his first couplet, “Stop, collaborate and listen/Ice is back with my brand new invention,” about 15 seconds later, they had exhausted their rehearsed steps. They still had just 2 two minutes of the routine left, and the scope of their undertaking was apparent.
Lundvall pointed out that hip-hop style dancing made for a difficult routine because the pair was rarely dancing together as a single unit. More than 90% of the routine was them doing steps independently but needing to look identical, Lundvall said.
“I feel good about it,” Miller said of the routine at the end of their session. “But we have a long way to go.”
This go-getter, can-do attitude from Miller and Rearick is common of this year’s dancers.
‘Take my breath away’
A dreary and chilly Saturday morning two weeks before Dancing with the Gillette Stars saw state House Rep. Eric Barlow, his wife, Kelly, and their choreographer, Cheryl Ringer, meet to rehearse upstairs at Club Energize.
The trio prepared for an intensive day of practice, and once they began, it was clear that they’d put in a lot of time on their routine, which mixes rumba and East Coast swing set to a medley of hit songs from the movie “Top Gun.” The reason for such dogged practice on this day is that they’d rarely been able to meet in person.
Perhaps in any other year, dance lessons conducted remotely via video chats would seem strange, but not in 2020. This is the year of FaceTime, Zoom and Microsoft Teams to do everything from teaching all levels of school to conducting legislative committee meetings. Learning a complicated dance routine is no exception, as the Barlows have received coaching virtually from Ringer and in person from Jerri Wandler, Ringer’s Gillette-based proxy and longtime Dancing with the Gillette Stars organizer. Ringer lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the technology that COVID-19 has made so commonplace in 2020 has allowed her to work closely with dancers from more than 800 miles away as the crow flies.
Soon after they started working together, the Barlows took a trip to Scottsdale to work in person, which Ringer described as invaluable since it was there that she taught Eric Barlow the ins and outs of leading. Covering those fundamentals early on allowed the Barlows to progress quite a lot in her absence, Ringer said.
Like Miller and Rearick’s session, a great deal of the Barlows’ session took place without music. Instead of just eight-counts, Ringer would often be keeping time to the specific dance steps, using, “Quick, quick, slow” or “triple step, triple step, rock step” to match feet to sound.
One could sense the group’s physical disconnect in minor ways as they practiced, at long last, in the same physical space. The Barlows seemed thrown off just a bit when Ringer would count for them because they weren’t able to rely on her counting in virtual sessions because the delay was too great. They were more comfortable counting for themselves.
Ringer said she’d prepared the routine the same as she ever would, and none in the trio seemed to give a second thought to the new accommodations like performing in the larger space of two halls at Cam-plex.
“We’re prepared because we’ve been practicing in two different time zones,” Eric Barlow said. “We can handle two rooms.”
‘Somebody’s watching me’
Nothing says it’s Monday more than a full day of work followed by a dance practice upstairs at Boot Hill, but that was the case for Joe Maycock, Melissa Younger and their choreographer, Kerry Byrd. There were only two weeks before the performance, so there was no time to waste.
Theirs is a routine that combines Argentine tango, bolero and salsa dance styles over the course of a cleverly composed medley of songs about eyes and watching and seeing.
“I love that they came in with their own stuff,” Byrd said of their musical selections.
After they showed her some songs, Byrd said she began “to hear the dance” that would fit the rhythms of each.
Wandler, who was visiting the group’s practice, pointed out that dancing is just part of the goal.
“The audience is expecting not just this beautiful dance, but this theatrical experience,” she said.
The scene they’re playing out becomes apparent: Younger’s character is pursuing Maycock’s character in a schoolyard flirtation, one that Maycock’s character decidedly does not want.
Maycock is seated across the stage, and Younger sees him from a distance. She primps, fixes her hair, rises up on her tiptoes and extends her arm straight up, waving across the way to Maycock by just the rapid fluttering of her wrist and batting her eyes at him. He’s disinterested and shakes his head in disgust, but she’s undeterred, as she gives a little shimmy and stalks up to his table, then behind him. She’s covering his eyes with her hands from behind, as if to say “Guess who?” and he rips her hands away from his face, showing his eyes opened wide and scared.
These theatrics start off their routine, as Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” kicks in at Michael Jackson’s chorus lines, and instantly one can’t help but feel transported to the mid-1980s. The lyrics mix with theatrics in a live-action music video, revealing the related themes of eyes and watching and seeing, and they repeat the scene before every single time they dance. Learning dance steps doesn’t necessarily mean one has learned to “perform,” and this practice is ensuring that the performance, all aspects of it, will be nailed down, top to bottom.
“It’s a lot of work, but not as taxing on my emotions as I thought it would be,” Maycock said.
To watch the dancers in the midst of their practice, it’s hard to remember that this isn’t their day jobs. They are not professional dancers or stage actors, they’re optometrists. Maycock and Younger can’t help but revert to their comfort zone when Byrd complains about the earpieces on a pair of new eyeglasses. Suddenly, the dynamic of the session flipped and the doctors were the more knowledgeable in the room. Maycock took the glasses and bent the arms just a bit to adjust the fit for Byrd.
Then the break was over, and Byrd was back in control of the room, putting them through their paces.
In less than a month, voters will decide whether four judges in the 6th Judicial District should continue to serve.
District Judges John R. Perry and Thomas W. Rumpke are up for retention, as are Circuit Court Judges Wendy Bartlett and Matthew Castano.
According to the Wyoming State Bar’s judicial advisory poll, conducted this spring and released on Thursday, the four have varying levels of support from Wyoming attorneys, from average to unanimous support.
The poll is conducted every two years to get feedback from attorneys on how the judges are doing and whether they should remain in office.
District judges are up for retention every six years and circuit judges are up every four years.
Attorneys were asked to score judges in 11 categories on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being strongly disapprove and 5 strongly approve.
Overall, 91.1% of attorneys thought Perry should serve another term, while 79.7% of attorneys thought Rumpke should be retained. The average score for a district judge up for retention was 86.4%.
As for the Circuit Court judges, 100% favored Castano’s retention, while 84.6% were in favor of Bartlett’s retention, which is right about the average for the 14 circuit judges. Castano was one of four judges to have 100% of attorneys in favor of his retention.
William Edelman, a district judge in Johnson County who serves the Fourth Judicial District, had the lowest approval rating of any judge, with just 51% of attorneys supporting his retention.
Perry scored above average in all 11 categories and scored between 4.42 and 4.6 in each area. He scored highest in integrity and ethics, with nearly 79% of the 90 attorneys surveyed strongly approving.
There were 118 attorneys who were surveyed about Rumpke, and 12.3% of them strongly disapproved of his courteousness and politeness, but he scored highest in his preparedness for court proceedings with more than 89% either approving or strongly approving.
Bartlett’s highest marks came in integrity and ethics and preparedness for court proceedings, with 73% of attorneys strongly approving of her work in those areas. Her lowest score was in open-mindedness and impartiality, with nearly 16% of attorneys either disapproving or strongly disapproving.
Castano received high marks in all 11 categories, with his highest score for his attentiveness to arguments of counsel. He got a 4.84 out of 5 in that area, with nearly 89% of attorneys strongly approving.
Wyoming Supreme Court Justices Lynne Boomgaarden and Kari Gray also are up for retention and will appear on the ballot. They were both appointed by former Gov. Matt Mead.
Justices stand for retention every eight years.