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'Dancing for Special Stars' fundraiser sells out Empire Arts Center

Alison Wilhelm and Kelly Thompson perform at the Dancing for Special Stars benefit At the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks Tuesday night. Herald photo by John Stennes.

"Dancing for Special Stars," a fundraiser for Special Olympics North Dakota, packed the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks on Tuesday night.

At the 2nd annual event, 11 couples swung, cha-cha-ed and did the splits in front of a sold-out house.

"Dancing for Special Stars" is modeled after ABC's hit dancing competition, "Dancing with the Stars." It matches local "celebrities," such as Urban Stampede owner Kelly Thompson and Rhombus Guys owner Matt Winjum, with dancing instructors and students including Alison Wilhelm and Becky Bjorg.

The evening included two hours of dancing routines -- only one sprained ankle resulted -- punctuated with jokes from Master of Ceremonies Rick Gessler, human resources manager at Altru Health System.

"Special Olympics has a ton of money," Gessler said to the crowd, lowering his voice and cupping the microphone. "The problem is it's still in your pockets."

Audience members could use tickets equaling the price of admission -- $25 -- to give their favorite couple points. They also were able to purchase extra points for $1 apiece and cast bids on silent auction items as part of the fundraiser.

Joan Oncken and Marcellin Zahui were the couple to win the mirror ball trophies for dancing "salsa with flair." Oncken wore an aqua halter dress, which Zahui matched with his vest and tie. She works for Forks Equipment, the local John Deere dealer. He is a professor of mechanical engineering at UND.

Oncken dedicated her dance to her brother, Francis, who was born with cerebral palsy.

The total amount raised was not announced Tuesday night. The 2010 event raised more than $13,000.

Gulya covers education. Reach her at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send e-mail to