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Dynamic duos dance for charity
Avkash Patel and Sunita Saini earned the Dancing with the Turlock Stars 2017 Judges Trophy for the best performance thanks to their fun, Bollywood-inspired hip hop dance. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives and even a few close friends took the stage for the fourth annual Dancing with the Turlock Stars event Saturday evening, waltzing and tangoing their way to the most profitable night the fundraiser has seen during its four-year run, and, of course, one of the event’s coveted mirror ball trophies.

In June, 12 “dynamic duos” were paired with dancing professionals to create a dance routine, setting this year’s event apart from its predecessors. In years past, “stars” from the local business, government, education and nonprofit scenes teamed up – and danced – with their chosen professional. This year, however, each inexperienced duo had 10 weeks to learn a routine choreographed by their professional, rather than dancing alongside the seasoned veteran themselves.

Without professional feet to guide them while they danced on stage, each duo rose to the challenge as they performed live in front of 1,100 attendees at the Assyrian American Civic Club on Saturday. This year’s cast included representatives of Turlock’s police and fire departments, a spa owner, a pair of Mexican cuisine specialists and several of the town’s best doctors and dentists. 

The dancing competition fundraiser, modeled after primetime television’s “Dancing with the Stars,” raised money for local nonprofits Jessica’s House, Salvation Army and Covenant Care Hospice.

“This crew is so special because everyone was connected,” said DWTTS Board President Kristin Bettencourt. “They had so much love and trust in each other and the process. The couples who were shaky and nervous, I told them, ‘Just wait and watch it come full circle.’”

Couples had two opportunities to win a DWTTS trophy – by garnering the most votes (which cost $10 each) or by scoring the highest for their routine by a panel of judges. The event raised the most money it ever has, said Bettencourt, surpassing last year’s total of $154,000 and exceeding the Board’s goal of $165,000 for the event. In votes alone, the event was able to raise $113,000.

“It truly takes a village and a community to put something like this on,” said Bettencourt. “When I say Dancing with the Turlock Stars is a family, I mean it, and it’s one that continues to grow.”

The top two winners of the night were Antoine and Anokeen Varani, coached by Gabrielle Aguiar-Forrest, and Avkash Patel and Dr. Sunita Saini, coached by Fabian DeLeon, who took home the 2017 Mirror Ball and 2017 Judges’ Trophy, respectively.

Antoine and Anokeen not only wowed the crowd with their sultry waltz, but were also able to raise $23,234 for the three charities of the night, earning them the event’s top prize. After their dance, the pair reflected on the transition from cleaning teeth in town to cleaning up the dance floor with their moves.

“It has been an extremely amazing experience,” said Antoine. “We got to know a lot of people, and we did something that we’ve never done before.”

“That was the scariest thing of my life,” added Anokeen, holding back joyful tears as she also thanked the duo’s coach, Aguiar-Forest.

The next three top earners following the Varanis were Josh Holsapple and Nansi Masihi ($22,270), JoAnn DiGiovanni and Abe Rojas ($11,830) and Ernie and Sue Peters ($11,117).

And while the other couples’ dances impressed the judges, like Mark and Amanda Alberti’s fun choreography to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Rojas and DiGiovanni’s nostalgic, Turlock High School-themed jive, it was ultimately Patel and Saini who were awarded the trophy for the night’s best performance – a fun, Bollywood-inspired hip hop dance that had the entire audience on its feet.

Patel, a CEO and Master Chess Champion, and Saini, who serves Turlock as a board-certified pediatrician, both said that taking the stage as dancers was much harder than their day jobs.

“I definitely spent more time practicing for this than I spent studying for my medical boards,” said Saini.

Other awards handed out included the Style Icon Award, given to Corey Thibault and Amanda Huff for their sultry, eye-catching costumes, the Outstanding Choreography Award, earned by Jennifer Earl and her brother Mark Earl thanks to an exciting, disco dance and the Excellent Showmanship Award, awarded to Holsapple and Masihi after the pair’s salsa dance to the song “Despacito.” The Fred and Ginger Award, given to the couple with the smoothest routine, was given to Ernie and Sue for their first tender, then exciting, performance.

While DWTTS has continued to grow over the years, going from raising $34,000 during its inaugural event and inching closer to $200,000 each year, Bettencourt only expects the celebration of Turlock’s most giving to get even bigger – especially with the show’s fifth anniversary quickly approaching.

“It sold out again this year, and we want to keep it going,” said Bettencourt. “It’s truly overwhelming to see every year, and when I say I’m grateful and my heart is full, it’s 100 percent true.”