When the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona launched its “Dancing With The Stars Arizona” event several years ago, local philanthropist and Paradise Valley resident Linda Pope was one of the first to be approached to dance in the fundraising competition.
“They asked me to be a celebrity dancer and although I had taken dancing since I was 2 1/2 years old, I had never tried ballroom- or Latin-style dancing,” Pope said. “But I wanted help, so I went all in and started dance lessons with the professional dance instructor assigned to me. Little did I know, I would come to fall in love with ballroom dance and have been dancing ever since.”
Pope won the “Judges Choice Award” that year in the female category, wowing the audience with her Cha Cha Cha and Tango dance with Ryan Freeman, her professional dance partner and instructor.
Pope was so passionate about ballroom dancing she began to compete around the country in amateur dance competitions, known as ProAm. Her favorite style of dance is Latin, in particular Rumba. She says her first competition almost killed her, as she made it to the finals in all rounds, meaning 100 entries turned into 340 times to dance in just two days with all of quarter-final, semi-final and final rounds.
She won 45 first place awards and placed second or third in her age category in the others. She competes in about six national competitions a year and when training for them takes two hours of lessons, four to five days a week.
For those that know Linda Pope, among her special talents are an abundance of creativity and a constant flow of ideas. She has helped many of the Valley’s nonprofit organizations by infusing annual events with her own signature style and tremendous fundraising ability. She and her husband Bill Pope are co-chairing the VIP Celebrity Super Bowl Party, along with Erika and Matt Williams, which they hope will help Arizona stand out in Super Bowl history.
According to Danelle Collier, special events manager with the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona, “The year Linda chaired our Dancing with the Stars Arizona (DWTS AZ) gala, she took the event to an incredible new level, raising over $900,000. Many of her fabulous ideas from that year have been carried forward to help make DWTS AZ an iconic Valley event, not to mention the many lives that have been saved with her help.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Pope came up with several concepts for ballroom dance-related shows. Shows like “Dancing With The Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” have been capturing the hearts of millions of viewers for years, but neither of these focused on the emotional rollercoaster and passion of dancers competing in the ProAm world.
With an inside view as a ProAm competitor herself, she knew these stories would make for compelling television. They have it all – intricate dance numbers, crazy personal lives, glitzy costumes, drama, the exuberance of winning and heartbreak of defeat.
Enter Simon Fuller, the creative genius behind “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” Linda was introduced to him by Eric Sherman (who managed Steven Tyler, a judge on “American Idol,” at the time). She presented a large view of the many entertaining areas of dance, including the almost billion-dollar-a-year-industry of ballroom and Latin dancing and competitions.
Every walk of life is represented in this world, where competitions happen 48 weeks out of the year, with an average of 9,000 to 18,000 entries or “heats” of dancing held at each.
She knew multi-millionaires, social workers, brain surgeons, enlisted military and lawyers addicted to this vigorous sport and who competed regularly. Fuller and his show producers traveled to one of the largest competitions, held at the Arizona Biltmore, called Galaxy Competition. They were blown away.
Pope and Fuller formed a company called Dance Dance Dance and began work on a sizzle reel to pitch to major networks. All networks that were pitched expressed interest, but TLC’s bid incorporated international viewing. Their show, titled “Ballroom Blitz,” has already aired in 10 countries, being most popular in the Netherlands and Asia.
One of the professional dancers, Inna Berlizyeva of Imperial Dance Studio in Scottsdale, was visiting her mother in the Ukraine and turned on the TV to watch her episode in her native language.
“Ballroom Blitz” is debuting in the United States on TLC, Nov. 26, from 1 to 7 p.m., in a marathon format.
While the dancers hail from across the country, several are Valley residents, including Carrie Schnepf, Jan Montague, Rose Dimov, Jim Garnick and Olivia Pena Anderson. Local dance instructors include Inna Berlizyeva, Yavor Genev, Igor Ustymovych and Decho Kravev, many of whom hold national dance titles.
Pope is understandably excited for the show’s premiere this month. “This show represents the birth of big dream for me and to see it come to fruition is extraordinary. So many people have been involved in the process – we are all so truly grateful and can’t wait to see the premiere. I may be a bit biased, but it really is a spectacular show.”
“Ballroom Blitz” debuts on Wednesday, Nov. 26, from 1 to 7 p.m. on TLC (CenturyLink channel 251; Cox channel 42; DirectTV channel 280; DISH channel 183).
The Scottsdale Independent is available for free every Wednesday.