Russo's 'Star' turn celebrates personal passion, arts in Cincinnati

Regina Russo gives one of the red walls at Cincinnati Ballroom Company’s Oakley studio a “don’t mess with me” stare. She is dressed in all black, save for a red-and-black bandana on her head. A few beads of sweat dot her hairline and nose. She doesn’t shake them loose.

She travels across the speckled wooden floor, her quick-stepping feet a blur in gold strappy sandals, her head high and eyes focused first on one wall, then another as she twists and turns her way through the solo section of the cha-cha dance routine she’ll perform as part of the Cincinnati Arts Association’s Dancing for the Stars competition and scholarship fundraiser.

For Russo, the Cincinnati Art Museum marketing director and former FOX19 reporter, the celebrity dance competition, now in its sixth year, is about more than nailing rock-step patterns and drops. It’s even about more than the thousands of dollars of Overture Award scholarships that the competition makes possible.

“It’s like a dream deferred,” says Russo, 44. The Hyde Parker grew up in Detroit, watching every musical she could find and choreographing dances in her bedroom, inspired by the work of Debbie Allen and Judith Jamison. “I always, always, always wanted to be a dancer.”

But her parents couldn’t afford extras like dance lessons, so it wasn’t until college that Russo found an outlet for dance. She joined Purdue’s Jahari Dance Troupe, but never got formal training. After college, she dropped the dream entirely, and only in the last few years rediscovered dance through the Cincinnati Ballet’s Rhythm and Motion class.  

Then she was asked to join the 2012 “Dancing for the Stars” line-up and partner with Cincinnati Ballroom’s Brian McNamee. With roughly six hours of rehearsal time to learn one of the fastest professional dances and choreography that takes many dancers years to attempt, Russo says she loves the pressure.

“It’s equal parts thrilling and nerve-wracking,” says the mother of two. “It’s stretching me in areas that I’m not comfortable.”

“Regina is a super-hard worker and intensely focused,” says McNamee, 29. A ballroomer since just after he turned 19, the dark-eyed, dark-haired dance-floor Romeo charms students as easily as judges and audiences. One minute he offers precise instruction on where Russo needs to focus her eyes; the next he is hiding behind a red pole to keep her from seeing him as she finishes a turn. When she can’t instantly spot him, he laughs a soft and gentle rebuke. She fills the room with her deep chuckle that is half-giggle, half-cackle, all Regina.

“She’s a lot of fun to work with,” McNamee says. “It doesn’t bother her if I say, ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again,’ even if it physically hurts.”

For DFTS competitors, the challenges are more than physical. They must juggle work and family demands while quickly getting up to speed in an art form that matches figure-skating moves’ complexities. “It’s as mental as it is physical,” Russo says.

She takes satisfaction in knowing that her work will pay off for a young artist in need. “I know what it’s like to be a young person who has a deep desire to do something and not have access to it,” she says. “Someone is going to get one of these scholarships. They are going to fulfill a dream. This is going to dramatically transform somebody’s life.”

DFTS instigator Steve Finn, Cincinnati Arts Assocation’s director of education and community relations, credits the one-night dance competition for helping not only provide the majority of funding for Overture Awards scholarships, but raise awareness of it as well.

Since the founding of the Overture Awards, region’s largest high-school solo arts competition, nearly 350 students have received more than a half a million dollars in scholarships—annual winners in six categories each take away $2,500 scholarships. That support has helped young artists attend dream colleges like Harvard, Yale, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Rhode Island School of Design, CCM, UC DAAP, Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, University of Southern California and New York University’s Tisch School.

For Overture competitors, though, money isn’t the only benefit. “It’s really prestigious to make the semi-finals,” Finn says. “It validates kids’ dreams. It helps them to solidify their career paths.”

He hopes to expand the CAA’s efforts to encourage young talent in the region this year with the first-ever Next Pop Star competition. The Next Pop Star will feature just two categories, and they won’t be the traditional classic arts that have dominated the Overtures of late. One will be vocal music, pop; the other, non-classical dance. “We hope to serve a whole different segment of kids,” Finn says.

Adding the DFTS competition exposes a new and engaged audience to the power of the Overture Awards—this year, the Overture dance winner, a tap dancer and aspiring Rockette, will perform at the event.

Finn sees benefits to DFTS’ growing competitiveness and ability to attract sold-out crowds. (This year’s show is already sold out.) “The first two or three years it was low-key,” he says. “Now it’s rowdy. There is so much enthusiasm.”

For dance teachers like McNamee, who runs Cincinnati Ballroom Company with his dance and romantic partner Leigh Bradshaw, it’s a chance to show off and share the fun of ballroom dance. For Russo, it’s a chance to do more than revisit her childhood dream.

She hopes her hard work will help keep a dream from being deferred, and she knows that ballroom has opened up a new world of opportunities for her that she’s not ready to let go. Stories of McNamee’s 80-something competitive dancers whose fancy footwork keeps their bodies and minds sharp inspire her to keep on a ballroom path and bring others along with her. “It’s something I can teach my kids,” she says as late afternoon sunlight streams into the Oakley dance studio.

She looks at the floor scuffed by thousands of steps and missteps, countless hours of posing and posturing. She thinks of the surprises in store for her friends and supporters at the competition, from her costume to her choreography. And she wipes the sweat from her nose, revealing a hint of a smile.
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