HAMLET — There was a bit of Disney magic on the Cole Auditorium stage Saturday night as a father-daughter dance duo took home the Judge’s Choice Award at the third annual Taste of the Sandhills Showcasing Dancing with the Stars fundraiser benefiting Richmond County Hospice.
Six couples began training months in advance to wow a packed audience — and three professional judges — with a Disney-themed dance routine. The competition came down to a tie between Jason and Jessi Graham, and J.C. and Karen Everett after one of the judges had their number 10 scorecard “stolen,” leaving both couples at 29 out of 30 possible points.
Jason and Jessi won the Judge’s Choice Award in the tie-breaking vote for their dance to the Disney classic “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid,” creating a lifelong memory during Jessi’s senior year of high school.
“This is something we will remember for the rest of our lives,” the proud father said.
Jason wore a fish scale-colored sequin jacket with the chest wide open, while his daughter wore a mermaid tail-inspired outfit. Jessi, 17, who has been dancing since she was 3 years old, performed the most elaborate acrobatics of any dancer at the event, all finely coordinated with her beaming father.
Jessi had to remind her dad not to cry when it was all over.
“I did not expect him to (dance) so well,” she said.
The Hospice Choice Award for the couple that raised the most money went to Hunter Smart and Kaiyah Sriratanakoul, who danced to “Let It Go.” The People’s Choice Award went to JC and Karen Everett, who performed a dramatic interpretation of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme song.
The 1 Diner won the Tasty Award for the second year in a row in the Taste of Sandhills competition, which was held before the dancing portion of the evening. Attendees sampled the best offerings of restaurants from Richmond, Moore and the surrounding counties, and voted on their favorite dish.
Proceeds from the event benefited Hospice, which is a nonprofit. The event was moved into the Cole Auditorium this year, which allowed them to sell 200 extra tickets, Hospice CEO Kristina Leyden said.
“It’s an opportunity to show Hospice in a different light,” Leyden said of the event.
The event is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year.
Neal Watkins, chairperson of the Hospice board of directors, said the support of the community is as strong as it’s been in Hospice’s 33-year history.
“Every part of Richmond County is involved in this,” Watkins said while dressed in a Goofy hat and matching shirt in honor of his favorite Disney character with whom he said he has a lot in common. “We didn’t want this to be a Hamlet thing or a Rockingham thing. We set it up to be a whole-county thing.”
Mabry’s Drug and Home Care was the primary sponsor for the night. Tom Smart, the former owner of Mabry’s and former mayor of Hamlet, said he was overwhelmed by the “enthusiasm” for Hospice he saw Saturday evening.
“There’s not many things people in Richmond County support like they support Hospice,” Smart said.
Many of the dancers participated in honor of loved ones who have been cared for by Hospice. Robin Roberts competed in tribute to her father, Robert “Choo Choo” Gainey, who passed away this past summer and to say thank you to the organization that took care of him in his final days.
“They took such good care of my dad and my family,” Roberts said leading up to one of her fundraisers for Hospice. “I’m doing this straight from my heart, in honor of my dad.”
Clint Downer, who danced to “I Wanna Be Like You” from “The Jungle Book” with partner Taylor Lingren, said he wanted to give back to the organization that helped his family when his father passed away. Kaiyah Sriratanakoul has volunteered with Hospice in the past, and Jessi Graham served as a Hospice Youth Bereavement Camp counselor earlier this year.
The judges kept the audience in suspense much of the night. Audience members hung on every word of the judges’ critiques and exploded into applause or groans when the heard the final scores, which ranged from seven to 10. Kim Menna, a dance studio owner with more than 26 years of experience in the performing arts as a teacher and performer, and who has judged all three DWTS events, said the judges scored performances Saturday based on who was having the most fun, their creativity and their rhythmic timing.
“These aren’t pros so we’re not going to be too technical like we would in our world,” Menna said. “It takes a lot of courage to get up and dance in front of people.”
Menna critiqued Justin Clark and Erin Newcomb’s performance because the path of their routine put Newcomb behind the much taller Clark where the audience couldn’t see her dress, but assured Clark it’s “not that you don’t have a great backside.”
Judge Travis Breen told JC and Karen Everett that he loved the drama and intensity they danced with which — along with their elaborate pirate costuming — told a story unlike the other performances. But, Breen said, JC could be more forceful during a sequence where he grabbed Karen tightly, and Master of Ceremonies Joey Bennett stepped in to let Breen know that JC has to be careful with Karen because there’s a “third dancer” on the stage.
This prompted Breen to quip, “So he does know how to grab her!”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]