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Dancers happy to participate in annual benefit

An Horry County School Board member has enjoyed being a student again, this time on the dance floor.

Karen McIlrath has joined 13 other members of the community taking part in the firth annual “Dancing with the Horry County Stars” at 8 p.m. Saturday at Grand Dunes Marina Inn in Myrtle Beach. The evening matching each of these “stars” with local professional dance instructors raises funds for the Horry County K-12 Foundation and Business/Education Expectations Partnership/ Early College High School, based at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in Conway. BE2 helps students with average grades aspire to higher academics in college.

In a practice last month with the music cranked on the speakers, McIlrath and her partner, Juan Gonzalez, owner of the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Myrtle Beach, went through their number with the studio to themselves as her maroon dress twirled with each spin.

McIlrath shook her hips with a little hustle amid some turns, cuddles and drops, as Gonzalez led her across and around the parquet. After a high-five exchange and thinking about the final grand dance under all the lights this weekend, she said everyone watching will “see something they wouldn’t expect from me.”

Adding awareness

No matter who raises the most money for this cause, McIlrath sees a win in this from helping raise awareness about its mission as well as a high school robotics program for which she assists as a member on a steering committee. Pressing on with dancing also adds its own flair to her treatment for two autoimmune diseases diagnosed since her election in 2010 to represent District 2 on the board of education.

Coping with skin and nerve discomforts that make routine things such as sitting and walking aggravating, McIlrath said she works hard “to look and happy and healthy,” especially because friends have told the mother of three that she can inspire others by her confidence and conviction in her public service and in dancing.

“I love to dance,” she said, crediting her husband of 25 1/2 years, James McIlrath, for sharing in a pastime they started in August.

McIlrath remembered fondly attending the 2011 “Dancing with the Horry County Stars” gala, where fellow board member Joe DeFeo strutted his stuff, and later encouraged her to carry the torch this year.

A fan of such dancing movie staples “Dirty Dancing” and “Shall We Dance” McIlrath called disco and swing her favorite styles.

“It’s such happy, uplifting medicine,” she said.

Hooking up with Gonzalez also made the deal to dance sweeter.

“He makes me laugh,” McIlrath said. “He is encouraging, supportive, positive and funny, all at the same time, while pointing out things. He is like a coach. ... Juan is the best dance partner a girl could have.”

McIlrath said she wants to keep dancing in her fold, with her husband, because the sport, the activity, “has been good for my spirit and my mind.”

Gonzalez, who also danced with “stars” earlier this year in similar benefits in Georgetown and Brunswick counties, has appreciated McIlrath’s dedication in “transforming” in their rehearsals, and her “I didn’t know I could look and move like that” reaction has rewarded him.

“It’s your magic touch,” she said.

Fitting style, personality

A dance teacher for 20 years, Gonzalez said with every partner he takes, “I want to fit her style, her personality” into their collaboration, and McIlrath, like others, “has a personality busting to get out” for everyone to see on the floor.

“She is going to soak it up,” he said a month ago.

Stepping out with this form of recreation also doubles or triples its value, in Gonzalez’s eyes, especially because learning a routine, with specs, brings an added, different element to the process

“Dancing just keeps you young,” he said, to which McIlrath added, “It makes you happy.”

Marsha Grifffin, who has coordinated “Horry County Dancing with the Stars” since its founding in 2008, said the event raised $122,500 last year, and she hopes $150,000 comes in sight this time around.

Having a second telethon – with the show airing live on WWMB-TV 21 – and with “Legends in Concert” in Myrtle Beach carrying a live stream broadcast that night, widens community exposure for BE2.

Scheduling the gala every year, Griffin said more female dance “stars” emerge, but she keeps the roster balanced with a 50-50 gender split. The team of dancers and pros also have had numerous meet-and-greet fundraisers this fall to promote the show.

Griffin also remained grateful heading into last weekend for one extra role women have played in this countdown to the big event.

“My three top moneymakers are all females,” she said.