Jean West Lewis has mastered a crowd-pleasing rumba that hinges on exchanging smoldering looks with her partner and swiveling limber hips.
When the sultry sound of Michael Bublé's rendition of a 1962 Italian hit, "Quando, Quando, Quando," fills the room April 12 at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, the retired county schools employee will take the dance floor before a throng of 900 people who are already primed for what comes next.
After all, who in the audience at the Memory Ball's Dancing Stars competition — an annual fundraiser of the Alzheimer's Association — won't be familiar enough with TV's long-running ballroom dancing contest to know they're about to see regular people dance like professionals?
The routine the Columbia resident will perform "gets a little sensual with its Cuban hip motion," teased Lewis, whose lithe physique at age 68 belies her years. She said she would have partnered with her husband, Rogers, but his work as a radiologist makes his schedule too hectic.
She signed on instead to perform with Carlos Pabón, who owns That's Dancing Ballroom and Dancesport Center in Jessup.
"I thought we could knock this out in four or five lessons," she recalled saying optimistically before their first practice session. Lewis loves social dancing and figured she would quickly pick up on the choreography.
Twenty-five lessons later, Lewis says Pabón, who has taught for 21 years and has worked with past Dancing Stars competitors, "is a wonderful teacher who is so caring and patient.
"But it is hard, hard, hard to always stay in step," she said. "It's been arduous, but it's all been worth it."
Lewis served for 22 years as the Howard County school system's family and community outreach specialist and remains an active community volunteer. She is raising money in memory of her husband's late parents, Juanita and James Lewis, who had dementia and Alzheimer's, respectively.
The elder Lewises had moved in 2004 from Albany, N.Y., to live with their son and daughter-in-law. They had been married for 69 years when Juanita Lewis died in 2007 at age 88. James Lewis in 2010 at 95.
"She was a sweet woman who saw everything through rose-colored glasses," Jean Lewis recalled. "And he was a gentleman's gentleman who had been a chef in New York hotels.
"But Pop fought all the care and attention, and knew he was struggling," she said. "He would often ask, 'What's wrong with me? Why is it so hard for me to remember?' "
About a year after the couple moved in, Lewis and her husband also took in her mother, Grace Kemp, who still resides with them. At age 92, she is nicknamed "Amazing Grace" and remains a talented tournament bridge player.
"Mom's mind is still active, but she has Parkinson's [disease] and shouldn't be living alone," Lewis said. She added that she and her husband, who have two grown children, still employ the round-the-clock nursing care they'd arranged for his parents.
"We're glad that we could have them all live with us," said the Atlanta native. "We grew up in a time when you took care of your parents."
Finding a cure
The song Lewis will dance to translates from Italian to "when, when, when," which is the question that families of Alzheimer patients are asking in regards to progress in finding a cure.
The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 5.2 million people nationwide have the brain disorder, which is a type of dementia that affects thought, memory and language.
In Maryland there are 97,000 people over age 65 living with Alzheimer's, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the country, according to Cass Naugle, executive director of the association's Greater Maryland chapter. That figure is up from 86,000 in 2013.
"As we see the numbers climb … there becomes a renewed sense of urgency," Naugle said. "Every 67 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer's disease and by mid-century someone will develop Alzheimer's every 33 seconds."
In Howard County, 2,853 of its 272,412 residents have Alzheimer's, up slightly from 2,800 a year ago, she said.
Chapter statistics reveal that only 300, or 2 percent, of Howard's 14,983 residents who are 65-74 live with the disease, but those percentages jump sharply for the next two age groups.
Of the 6,810 county residents ages 74-84, 1,294, or 19 percent, have Alzheimer's. For ages 85 and older, 1,259, or 42 percent, of 2,997 county residents have the illness.
"Jean is a champion for the Alzheimer's Association … and we could not be more grateful for her spirit and dedication," said Kisha James, the chapter's special events coordinator.
The top two performers will be chosen at the event by a panel of five judges, including Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley, and WBAL-TV anchorman Stan Stovall. Those winners and the top two fundraising contestants will all receive trophies.
Lewis is taking her performance seriously, as all dancers do since they have a personal connection to Alzheimer's.
"I believe it is God working [through you]" when you're a caregiver, she said. "He gives you a direction, and then you have to a devise a plan."
She said she had found it helpful to read "The 36-Hour Day," a guidebook on being a caregiver to an Alzheimer's patient that was recommended by a group at her church, Epworth United Methodist Chapel.
"We've had a lot of interesting times," observed Lewis. "You laugh a lot — you have to — and you fall into despair, but you get into a routine."
Last year's performers raised $338,500, according to the association's website. By April 8, Lewis had met nearly 80 percent of her $10,000 fundraising goal and said she expected to reach it before the competition.
Lewis said she's loved every minute of the process and is contemplating continuing lessons with her husband.
"I just hate for this to end," she said.
For more information on the Memory Ball or to donate in Jean Lewis' name, go to alz.org..