Jerel and Tonya Registre never considered themselves ballroom dancers — they didn't even take lessons before their July 2012 wedding.
But on April 13, the Fulton couple will be dancing in front of about 700 people for a cause that is close to their hearts. They will be one of nine couples raising money as part of the Alzheimer's Association Greater Maryland Chapter's annual Dancing Stars Memory Ball at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.
Tonya's grandmother, Rena Newman, is 87. She lives in North Carolina and is a true Southern woman, Tonya said. She also suffers from dementia.
The couple had attended last year's Memory Ball, which raised more than $325,000 for Alzheimer's research, and were inspired by the commitment and the joy from the dancers. Jerel and Tonya were asked to participate in the 2013 ball, but were hesitant at first. The deciding factor came when Newman was unable to attend her granddaughter's wedding in North Carolina.
"Last year, Jerel and I were planning our wedding and I thought she was going to be able to attend," said Tonya, a 1998 graduate of River Hill High School. "As we saw a decline in her dementia, and as I saw the stress of my mom and her siblings, that's when it hit home. It was an eye-opening experience for me."
The Registres hope to raise $10,000 for the Alzheimer's Association. As of Tuesday, April 2, they had raised nearly $8.000. Jerel, 30, and Tonya, 33, are the youngest couple dancing, and the only one from Howard County. They also are only one of two couples that doesn't include a professional.
"We're the sincere amateurs," Jerel said. "The Memory Ball puts a punctuation on drawing awareness to this issue. ... You know how the teachers you remember are the ones you enjoyed? It's the same thing. This is a very serious cause, but it allows people to celebrate the effort that goes into the research that happens, the year-round effort with the Alzheimer's Association."
According to the Alzheimer's Association, the disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country. About 5.4 million nationwide people have Alzheimer's — a disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior — and in Maryland that number is 86,000. In Howard County, it's about 2,800, said Cass Naugle, executive director of the association's Maryland chapter.
According to the association, if the disease remains unchecked, the number of adults over the age of 65 with Alzheimer's will reach 16 million by 2050.
Since Howard County has one of the state's highest populations of people ages 40-54, Naugle said, it'll could be an area further affected by the disease.
"They would be the next generation impacted by the disease," Naugle said. "It points more than ever to the importance of getting involved in some way, so we can make this the last generation impacted."
Tonya's grandmother has dementia, which is more of a broad group of symptoms involving memory loss, Naugle said. About 70 percent of those with dementia have an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Neither classification is "less worse than the other," Naugle said, and both dementia and Alzheimer's are just as devastating to those diagnosed and their families.
"This doesn't just affect older people," Naugle said. "It affects whole families, like this young couple dancing in honor of their family. Young people have these really special relationships with their grandparents, and they see what their parents are going through as caregivers."
Tonya's remembers her grandmother as a woman who baked, hosted Sunday dinners and loved surrounding herself with family. Right now she lives on her own in North Carolina, where Tonya's mother's family lives. Tonya said she doesn't know if her grandmother knows she and her husband are dancing for her.
"She still knows who we are," Tonya said. "I've seen the ups and down and there's still a part of her there, and you hold on to the memories. Right now she's doing pretty good."
'Be present in the moment'
The Registres began rehearsing for the ball in December at That's Dancing in Jessup. Going into their first lesson they didn't know the different kinds of ballroom dances, but instructor Carlos Pabon was patient, Jerel said.
They settled on the tango and are dancing to Yo-Yo Ma's "Libertango." The dance will last only about two minutes, but they said they still will be nervous.
"The only thing I'll be thinking of is the song count," Jerel said. "As I get over the nerves, I'm hoping I'm not so nervous that I forget to be present in the moment and forget why we're there."
Family members from outside the area are planning to attend the event. It could be the last time they see Jerel ballroom dancing, but he admitted as he glanced at his wife that "some people want to continue with lessons."
"Maybe we'll do salsa lessons next," Tonya said. "We'll see."
The biggest thing, Tonya said, is to enjoy the moment at the ball, and to continue raising Alzheimer's awareness in whatever way they can.
"It's something that so many of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives," she said. "You don't learn about the challenges until you're faced with them."
To learn more about Jerel and Tonya, or to donate to their campaign, visit act.alz.org/goto/jerel_tonya_registre.
For more information about Alzheimer's support services in the area, visit alz.org/maryland.