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2007 U.S. Open Special Report

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The dream of me going to the U.S. Open started in 1999 when two of our club co-founders competed in California in the Masters division. Then in 2000, it was Austin Murrey's turn to compete in the Open and he and Michelle Kile took 3rd in Young Adult. Others from around Wichita have gone to the Open since I started West Coast Swing in 1998, including Rex and Pam Sturdy, and Carol DeVault (a one-time California resident).

When the year 2007 began, one of my main goals was to go to the U.S. Open, because it was the 25th anniversary, and I wanted to see not only the history but also the great dancers from California and around the country that have made the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships THE biggest event in swing dancing today.

But it initially didn't turn out that way, even though I went to my first USA Grand Nationals on Memorial Day Weekend in Atlanta. I wasn't sure how I was going to have the money to go, because I would have to do something I've done only once--fly. After I received help getting a loan from Citi Financial, I was set. Weeks before that, I found a website called Bill-Me-Later.com that had offers that included flights and hotel rooms (courtesy of Hotwire.com) that I would not have to pay anything for 90 days. I thought "why not?"

In fact, the week after Dallas D.A.N.C.E. 2007, I decided to make my move. Something inside me said, "how bad do you want it?" That was before I made my first flight reservations ever on US Airways. I also made hotel reservations for an Extended Stay America hotel that just happened to be next door to the Honda Center arena at the Anaheim city limits.

After over two months of waiting, the time finally came last weekend as I flew for the first time in 26 years on a flight for Orange County, California. My first flight from Wichita to Phoenix was on a regional jet that was very smooth and pleasant. You have to know, I was very nervous and anxious about this, because I didn't want anything to go wrong on the flight (and it didn't!); I saw the amazing view from over 32,000 feet and all I can say was "WOW!"

The second flight was different, a 737 from Phoenix to Orange County was a little rougher; in fact, it got to the point that the landing had to be aborted due to excess tail wind. As the plane was directed back up, I was scared for my life. I literally hung on to my arm rest and the seat in front of me in tremendous anxiety. The most amazing part was that there were several crew members that were on the plane and went through the situation like they were used to things like this.

The main pilot did one super job landing that plane under extreme circumstances, and that fired me up as I got my luggage and shuttle to the hotel. When I finally got to my room, I knelt and thanked the Lord for His hand and protection in that difficult situation. After catching up on the Hawaii-Boise State football game, plus a hot bath, the time came for me to go to the Anaheim Marriott--home of the 2007 U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships.

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When I got to the hotel, I was impressed with the look, and managed to find the main ballroom, get my wristband, and go inside the ballroom. It was "stadium seating" like you see in new movie theaters, only it was regular chairs taking most of the seats, while tables were on floor level. And the dance floor--oh, my!--full to capacity, nearly 5,000 square feet taken by mostly California dancers, but others from around the country. Probably even more full than Dallas!

Now to the main thrust of the weekend--the competiton! Several contests stood out for me--of course, Classic and Showcase, but also Formation Teams, Masters, Sophisticated Swing, Strictly West Coast Swing Finals, Young America, and Young Adult. I'll admit I didn't see the Hand Dance nor the Lindy finals, but after seeing the Strictly Swing Challenge on Sunday afternoon, I'll never make that mistake again!

In Showcase, I've always been rooting for Parker Dearborn and Jessica Cox to win at the Open; but they came close for almost 5 years--second at least two or three times, and a shocking 5th last year. But would this year be their year to claim their first U.S. Open title together?

In Classic, a field of 19 couples danced in the semifinals Saturday afternoon, with the field eventually reduced to 12 for the finals that night. The atmosphere that night was electric and produced one of the best Classic divisions I've ever seen in my nine years of WCS dancing. Any one of those couples in the top five, and even any of those outside the top five, could have won this year--that's how awesome the 2007 Classic division was, period! Champion couples such as Christopher Hussey and Katrina Branson, Kyle Redd and Sarah Vann Drake, Ben Morris and Melina Ramirez, and Ronnie DeBenedetta and Brandi Tobias wowed me and the audience which resulted in several thunderous standing ovations.

There were two couples that I was focused on that night: Jordan Frisbee and Tatiana Mollmann, and Michael Norris and Kellese Key. This was a rematch, of sorts, of the 2007 USA Grand Nationals in Atlanta, where Michael and Kellese won Classic over Jordan and Tatiana, the first time ANY couple had won 1st other than Jordan and Tatiana in 3-1/2 years! And also, Jordan and Tatiana were looking for their FOURTH consecutive U.S. Open Classic title! What would happen? We would have to wait until Sunday night to find out.

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Meanwhile, in the Masters Division, there was a couple that I was rooting for big-time: Mark Harris and Glenda Evans. This was their second time competing together at the Open (Mark's third and Glenda's sixth, respectively) and I was especially rooting for Mark, because he came close last year to a top-5 finish. Dancing to the song "Living for the Weekend" (by the O'Jays), Mark and Glenda appeared to dance with control and elegance. Glenda slightly stumbled at the very end of the routine, but that was the only blemish on their dance. The next night, Mark and Glenda were awarded 4th place for their efforts. One more goal for Mark that's been met; now a 1st place finish next year would be the capper. By the way, the Masters was won again by Chips Hough and Janice Salmon (their 2nd straight and 3rd title in last four years) as they beat out 15 other couples from around America. Congrats not only to Chips and Janice, but Mark and Glenda as well--you did K.C. and Tulsa proud!

Also on Sunday, Sophisticated Swing featured Tulsa's own Jeanne DeGeyter dancing with another K.C. dancer, Rafael Labrado, taking the place of Henry Pulido. Rafael, an instructor at Walters Dance Center in Kansas City, KS (where Mark and wife Mary are co-owners), filled in tremendously. In fact, the crowd started to slowly but surely root for Rafael and Jeanne and gave them a big hand at the finish. For a first U.S. Open, this was a tremendous showing; in fact, he and Jeanne won 2nd place in their division, behind new champions Robert Cordoba and Deborah Szekely--what a show!

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Sunday, November 25, 2007 at around 7:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (9:30 p.m. Central time), it was awards time. Receiving U.S. Open's "Opus" trophy was the goal of every couple competing this Thanksgiving weekend, however, only one couple in each of 13 divisions would get the right to hold that distinction forever.
In Showcase, the moment of truth for Parker and Jessica arrived--would they finally win the Opus or not? MC Robert Royston announced that second place would go to...Arjay Centeno and Melissa Rutz; and that meant that over 5 years of near misses was finally over--Parker and Jessica, 2007 U.S. Open Showcase Champions!! The crowd's response and smiles from Parker and Jessica said it all--they had finally won Showcase and did it in style!

Now for the moment I was waiting for--who would win Classic and hold the Opus? As Robert announced 5th and 4th place, I was anticipating Jordan and Tatiana and Michael and Kellese being the final two couples, but a big surprise came when Jordan and Tatiana were announced in 3rd place! Finishing in 2nd was Ronnie DeBenedetta and Brandi Tobias and I had to admit that they were better than Jordan/Tatiana (not a put down on them) on this weekend. But one couple remained--1st place, U.S. Open Champions in the Classic Division. First place goes to...

MICHAEL NORRIS AND KELLESE KEY! The crowd that remained in the building cheered as the new U.S. Open Classic champions made their way down to the floor to receive the Opus. I said to myself, "Michael and Kellese pull off a stunner!" That's exactly what it was--a stunner. But at the same time, they had everything the judges were looking for and got enough votes to win. Believe me, like I said earlier, any one of the top 5 could have won it--this was that good and certainly worthy of the U.S. Open. I'm so glad I came to Anaheim this year, and it was the culmination of quite a year for me.

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I had taken my first two (and last two) Greyhound bus trips from Wichita to Atlanta, then Atlanta to St. Louis, then my first Amtrak train from St. Louis to Newton, Kansas. After driving to Dallas D.A.N.C.E. and OKSSDA in OKC, I finally took to the air flying to Anaheim for my first U.S. Open. So, you can say that it was a year of "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" for me. Even though I didn't go to Grand Prix in K.C. this year, I hope I will get to come back to K.C. next summer. And also, I hope to somehow make my way to Houston for America's Classic in January of 2008, even if it's for a single day.

If the 2007 U.S. Open is any indication, 2008 ought to be the year that says "you haven't seen anything yet". Not bad for somebody who turned 40 in 2007 and will be celebrating 10 years of WCS dancing this coming February 9th, 2008. Hope to see you down the road, and as Robert Royston always says, "we'll see you on the dance floor!"

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