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Couple doing the cha cha to raise money for dementia research

DanceAlzheimer's DiseaseAlzheimer's AssociationRidley ScottMother's DayDebbie Phelps

Jodi Levitan still gets choked up when she talks about her father, Jack Fisher, of New Orleans, who died of dementia at age 90 on Father's Day of 2012.

"It's hard to talk about," said Levitan, 58, of Poplar Hill. "It's a terrible disease."

On April 12, Levitan and her husband, Scott, will dance the cha cha and Western swing as a tribute to her father and to raise money for research into Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

The Levitans will be among at least a dozen couples from around the Baltimore region who will dance in the annual Memory Ball, a black tie gala sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association and this year themed "Dancing Stars," at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, 700 Aliceanna St., from 7 p.m. to midnight.

Jodi Levitan said she will be thinking about her parents, who were married for 64 years. Her mother, Dotsy Fisher, who was her husband's caretaker, died of cancer on Mother's Day of 2013.

"They liked to dance," Levitan said.

The gala, emceed by ABC2 news anchor Jamie Costello, will feature a cocktail reception, full-course gourmet dinner and dancing to live music by Highway Star.

But the real stars will be people like Scott Levitan, 59, senior vice president and development director for Forest City Science and Technology, and Jodi Levitan, a compensation consultant at Exelon Corp., formerly Constellation Energy.

These days, you can find the couple at the Towson Dance Studio in Timonium, as often as four days a week.

"We take lessons," Jodi Levitan said.

And, they are amassing financial pledges from friends, family and colleagues at work.

"So far, we've raised $10,900 she said, adding that Latter & Blum Realtors in New Orleans, where her father was a longtime real estate agent, has donated about $10,000 alone. The company gives an annual employee award in her father's name, she said.

Other participants, who will dance before a panel of celebrity judges, include Jan Braun, co-owner of ReDeux, a consignment shop in the Wyndhurst Shopping Center in the Roland Park area; Dr. Jack Henningfield, vice president of research and health policy for Pinney Associates and an adjunct professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Henningfield's wife, Lucy, a retired modern ballet dancer, chairman of the board of directors for Baltimore Ballet and a board member of The Walkden School, and Hopkins' Dr. Frank Frassica, an orthopaedic surgery professor, and Dr. Deborah Frassica, associate professor of radiation oncology and molecular radiation services.

Past Memory Ball dancers and/or judges include former Olympic skater Dorothy Hammill; Tony Foreman, co-owner of area restaurants including Petit Louis and Johnny's in the Roland Park Shopping Center; and Molly Shattuck, former Ravens cheerleader and author.

Judges for this year's Memory Ball will include Maryland First Lady Katie O'Malley; Debbie Phelps, director of the Baltimore County Public Schools Foundation and the mother of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who trains in Mount Washington; Stan Stovall, news anchor for Baltimore WBAL-TV 11; and Everyman Theatre's artistic director, Vincent Lancisi.

The Dancing Stars will vie to win the Judge's Choice Trophy presented to the dancer with the best technical skill, and the You're Our Star Trophy, awarded to the dancer who raises the most money for the Alzheimer's Association.

Dancers can earn votes online at http://www.alz.org/maryland before the event and by the audience at the ball, for $1 per vote.

Tickets are $300 and corporate packages are available. A crowd of about 800 is expected, said spokeswoman Caryn Sagal. Proceeds will benefit the Alzheimer's Association's programs and services for more than 86,000 Marylanders who suffer from Alzheimer's and related disorders.

For Lucy Henningfield, 58, of north Roland Park, the upcoming ball brings back memories of her grandmother, Lula Lloyd, who died at age 90 of dementia in the 1970s, when Henningfield was a teenager. She recalls her grandmother as a strict, religious and good-hearted woman of Cherokee descent, whose husband ran a general store in Bridgeport, Ala.

Henningfield's father and uncles used to tell her funny stories of how their mother would chase them through cornfields with a switch.

She also recalls how hard it was to care for her grandmother at a time when "people didn't know what they know now" about memory disorders.

"It was a real stressful time," Henningfield said.

Henningfield may have a leg up on the Memory Ball competition, as a former professional dancer, if only because she is used to being on stage. She and her husband, 61, took up ballroom dancing about 10 years ago and will be dancing a bolero — a first for the Memory Ball — to the Celine Dion song, "My Heart Will Go On."

Heningfield is glad to do her part to help fight dementia.

"It's such a terrible way to lose a person, when they don't remember you," she said.

For Jodi Levitan, the Memory Ball is more than a good cause — it's a kind of therapy for her because she often finds it too painful to discuss her parents after they died within a year of each others.

"I still miss them terribly," she said.

Levitan cried intermittently as she spoke of her mother, who enjoyed being her husband's caretaker ("That kept her going," Levitan said), and about her father, who was coping with dementia until the couple was forced to evacuate New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"He was never the same," she said.

"This has been very helpful to me to talk about him," Levitan said. "It's really helped me remember how he was before dementia. He was a vibrant person.

"It keeps getting better," she said. ""I can talk about him a little more every day."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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