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Dads pushed out of their comfort zone to join daughters' dance class

They were carpenters, construction workers, ad salesmen, desk jockeys.

And for one spectacular night, at least, they were also dancers.

A dozen little girls, ages 4 through 6, got the dance partner of their dreams when the Jo Emery Ballet School decided to invite dads, grandfathers, uncles and godfathers along for the ride at the school's annual student performance, "Dances with Dancers."

None of the men had danced before or at least not since high school.

Tim Herron, partnered with his 6-year-old daughter Katie, says his dance background was "zero."

But he had attended a number of shows that included his wife, Anna, who has danced with the related Tacoma Performing Dance Company for nearly a decade.

"They both worked on me for a while," he says of his wife and daughter. "It became clear that this was important."

Asked how she persuaded her dad to dance with her, Katie didn't say a word. She just smiled the kind of smile designed to melt a daddy's heart.

Allen Austin, who teamed up with his goddaughter, 4-year-old Simya Gibson, says dancing was the farthest thing from his mind.

"I never danced before," he says. "I'm a carpenter."

But again, the smiles won out.

Austin wasn't the only one taking a chance on something new.

"I've never done anything like this before," says Jo Emery, the ballet company's artistic director. "I was thinking about how people have gotten so much into their families."

She decided to try out the concept on one of her classes.

And with the end-of-the-year recital scheduled to take place just a little over a week before Father's Day, the timing seemed right.

The performance was scheduled for June 12, but the dancing partners spent months rehearsing, beginning in April.

Each Saturday, the young dancers and their partners gathered at the company dance studio in South Tacoma. Emery made sure every girl in the class found a partner either a dad or another male relative or family friend.

The dance is set to an Elton John instrumental song called "Pacifier," a jazzy, bouncy number.

"I tested it on my husband," says Emery. When she decided he could dance to it, she knew it would work for the dancing dads.

The movements include lots of lifts girls ride on their partners' shoulders in one part of the performance. At another point, the girls huddle together in a circle, then take off running toward their partners.

"Jump up, ladies, way up," Emery advised them.

The guys grab the girls with both hands and swing them high. It's a classic move, one that every little girl comes by naturally. The girls break out into big smiles every time.

Herron says he's glad the dance didn't include any major technical dance moves. There are no big leaps or fancy turns.

But he says the dance studio sometimes felt "more like a weight room" as they practiced lifting their partners.

Todd Gainey, who danced with his 6-year-old daughter, Amber, says swinging his pint-sized partner around definitely helped him get in shape.

"It shows how out of shape I was," Gainey says.

Despite the physical demands, the show attracted grandfathers as well as fathers.

"When my daughters were young, I didn't have time to do anything like this," says Tom Rutkowski, who danced with his granddaughter, 6-year-old Rylee Reese.

"Now I can spend the time. For the first time, I'm learning to dance. It's been fun."

Joe Geier was there for his granddaughter, 5-year-old Helaena Biller.

He says his biggest problem in learning to dance was remembering to time the movements correctly.

"Either she or I would forget which came next," he says. "Doing the movements wasn't bad. It was just getting them in the right order."

Geier says he was apprehensive when he first got invited to be Helaena's dance partner.

"I don't have any dancing background," he says. "But for her and for grandma, I said I'd do it."

And he's glad he did.

"It's going to be a good memory for us," he says. "It's a memory I'll have for a long time."

(c) 2009, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.).