In the 30 years he spent as a drunk, Dan Colombo never thought he'd ever be dancing, let alone in front of an audience. But that all changed three years ago when he and several other recovering addicts decided to put on a variety show, just on a whim.
The group had so much fun, they did it again. And again. And Mr. Colombo has been regularly appearing on stage ever since.
Today the group of performers has a name -- Recovery Friends Care -- and nonprofit status as a fund-raising organization. As amateur dancers, singers, musicians and comedians, they pull together shows to raise money for scholarships to addiction-treatment programs, for emergency needs of people living with HIV and AIDS and for addiction-prevention programs.
Next Sunday, they'll be performing at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood in "A Las Vegas/Broadway Salute," a fund-raiser for AIDS patients in Harford County.
The performers number more than 50 today and include friends and family members of former addicts. But its core -- those who keep coming back to perform in show after show -- are people in recovery.
Their reward is not financial, but something bigger, they all agree: self-esteem.
Self-esteem keeps them "clean" -- from alcohol, drugs, gambling, co-dependency. Whatever the addiction, this gives them another incentive to beat it, they say.
"When you get into recovery, you're able to give something back," says Mr. Colombo, an unemployed chef who has been sober four years now. "It's a healthy feeling. And it helps me get through the day. I do today what I need to do to keep sober. This is part of that."
RFC members prefer to identify themselves as "people living in recovery," rather than by their addictions.
"The kind of addiction isn't what's important; the fact that we are recovering is," says Michael Burke, the 49-year-old organizer of the group, and its chief inspiration.
Mr. Burke developed a career as a hairdresser and entertainer despite a lifelong addiction to alcohol. As a young man, he toured the country with a group of performing dancers in variety shows and later trained under noted costumer Don Foote of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In the 1970s he was co-director and co-choreographer of roller skating shows for the Starlight Arena, an Edgewood-based organization that performed locally at colleges, the Baltimore Arena and "Sunfest," Ocean City's annual end-of-summer festival.
During the disco era, he toured the East and West coasts with world roller-skating champions. But during it all, he admits, he was "powerless to alcohol."
In 1987, he entered a treatment center for 30 days and he says he hasn't had a drink since. As do others in Recovery Friends Care, he regularly attends a 12-step recovery program for continuing support.
Now that he's sober, he says, he's more creative than he was when he was drunk. And all his experience in costuming, hairdressing and choreography can come together in RFC performances, which not only use his talents but also keep him sober.
During a recent practice session at Bel Air Athletic Club's dance studio, Mr. Burke tapped out the beat of "Applause" and screamed commands over the music to the 14 dancers rehearsing the Broadway number for Sunday's performance.
Some of them looked more like candidates for a football field than a dance stage.
"Now walk back nice and tall," he ordered them while marching in place with an exaggerated grin on his face to remind them that showmanship is part of performing.
His charges were less agile, less graceful than he, but no less determined.
"For a fellow that drank for 30 years and could do nothing, this is really uplifting," said Mr. Colombo, noting that the physical activity alone is a critical change for someone who spent years "doing nothing but sitting around and drinking all day."
"Our show celebrates freedom of people who have gotten back up," says Mr. Burke.
"Our message is: 'You don't have to die of addiction. There is life after recovery.' "
The message travels not only in their music -- which includes songs like "Somewhere," Barbra Streisand's tribute to AIDS victims -- but in the performers themselves, most of whom have had little experience singing or dancing before meeting Mr. Burke.
"None of us knew what we were doing when we started out," says Kim Schilpp, a 34-year-old Bel Air woman who has been in recovery more than six years.
She was among the initial group of people in a 12-step recovery program who decided to put on a show for their own amusement.
"Everyone was at the same level. We all started out knowing nothing. It was sort of like an aerobics class," she said.
But then Mr. Burke's choreography kicked in, and his hand-made Las Vegas-type costumes were incorporated into the act.
And before long, the group of amateurs were feeling a lot like professional performers. They began to think that perhaps they could do more than just entertain fellow members of recovery programs.
Last winter, they held their first AIDS fund-raiser at McComas Hall in Bel Air, and that success led to a countywide benefit for AIDS in the spring at Joppatowne High School.
They also have performed on behalf of Haven House, a halfway house for recovering men in Northeast, Md., that was threatened with closure because of insufficient funds.
Since February, when the performers began their official fund-raising efforts, Mr. Burke says, they have raised about $10,000 from ticket sales.
Next Sunday's proceeds will go to emergency assistance for AIDS patients through the show's co-sponsors -- the Visiting Nurses Association; Harford County Health Department; Harford County HERO; and Oremed, a home-care supplier.
Health Department figures indicate that there are 33 people in Harford County living with full-blown AIDS, many of whom need financial assistance for housing, utilities, transportation, food and other necessities not covered by health insurance.
The dancers will be performing four production numbers Sunday, including selections from the Broadway shows "Applause" and "West Side Story" and a spoof on the movie "Sister Act."
The 70-minute show will also include several soloists, a band, country musicians and comedians.
Almost all are Harford County residents, and most of the performers are people in recovery.
"It's wonderful," says Mrs. Schilpp, one of the dancers. "When the music clicks on, you know what you're supposed to do. You just let it fill your soul and give it all you've got."
L "You feel like a star, even if just for a moment," she says.