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Conductor swings from Bach to Ballroom

When Diane Retallack takes the stage, she usually turns her back to the audience. Her focus is on the performers before her — members of the musical groups she directs.

After 32 years as artistic director and conductor of Eugene Concert Choir, she’s comfortable in that position, blending into the scene without distracting

from the featured performers.

But last week, Retallack, 63, was stepping out on a less familiar stage as a contestant in America’s largest ballroom dance completion, the Ohio Star Ball Championships in Columbus. On this stage she dresses in hot pink ruffles and lots of glitter, intent on attracting attention. On this stage, she’s a bundle of nerves.

“It was so not me,” she laughs, recalling the flicker of temptation that drew her to competitive dance a decade ago. “The froufrou dresses, the bling, the spray tan, the hair,” she sighs. “At that time I had never really walked in high heels. I didn’t have pierced ears. I didn’t have contact lenses. You can’t do competitive dance in bifocals.”

We are sitting at her kitchen table on a rare Thursday morning when Retallack has not driven to Portland to sweat and swirl through four hours of lessons with two professional ballroom instructors.

“For me, Thursdays are my trip to Hawaii,” she insists. “It’s my wonderful escape, and I just love it.”

On Thursday mornings, Retallack drops her dog Chloe at day care in Pleasant Hill and heads to Portland for 1½ hours of dancing with her first instructor. She catches her breath and a bite of lunch on the drive across town for 2½ hours with a European Dance champion from Prague who is now her competition coach and dancing partner.

She’s back in time to pick up Chloe before an evening at the Eugene Symphony or a rehearsal session with one of her groups. In addition to training for dance competition, she is in rehearsals at the time we talk for a concert by Eugene Vocal Arts and Eugene Concert Orchestra.

“I have no free time,” she admits. “I don’t have a day just to curl up and read a book.”

This weekend’s Ohio Star Ball is the last and largest of eight national competitions Retallack entered this year in a concerted effort to push her performance on the dance floor.

“There is social dancing, and then there is competitive dancing,” she says. “Competitive dancing is a sport. You have to be fit.”

Days begin with a run or weight workout. Late afternoon finds her in a fitness studio for 1½ hour of solo dance practice. In between, she focuses on creative challenges of Eugene Concert Choir and ensembles, working at the group’s Willamette Street offices or at home. She’s often at it until 10 p.m.

“You have to dig deep to follow a dream like this. It’s not just a lark for fun.”

The dream that propelled her into a role she’d never imagined for herself — a flashy dancer in ruffles and strappy heels — emerged at the Lane County Fair a dozen years ago.

By the time a pair of spirited dancers caught her eye at the fair, she had been directing the 100-voice Eugene Concert Choir for 20 years and had expanded the group’s range and concert season with creation of Eugene Vocal Arts and Eugene Concert Orchestra. Her two sons were almost grown.

A Fresh Challenge at Mid-Life

Perhaps she was ready for a fresh challenge.

She was about the same age then as I was in 1989 when I looked up from my reporter’s notebook and bumped into my inner jock — a physical outlet for the competitive energies that had fueled professional goals.

For me, an encounter at a track meet led to competitive race walking; for Retallack, a county fair outing brought a pirouette into dance. For each of us, chance encounters triggered an unexpected introduction to a passion and a person we hadn’t known before. A surprising part of our selves that expanded dreams and possibilities.

Diane had danced a bit as a youth. But then came college and she redirected her focus, achieving a bachelor’s degree in music education, a master’s and then a doctorate in choral conducting.

The dancing fairgoers who ignited her imagination were good, she says. When she asked where they danced locally, she learned about the Eugene Lindy Learners Association. Diane and her husband, UO geology professor Greg Retallack, 64, began attending dance sessions with the Lindy group. They added Sunday ballroom lessons at UO Gerlinger Hall.

The more they danced, the more dancing Diane wanted. Before long, her ambition outstripped his and she signed up for private lessons with a Portland dance instructor who taught in Eugene twice a month. When the instructor hinted at competing as a pro-am dance pair, Diane traveled to Seattle to watch a regional event. That night she cried herself to sleep.

“It was such a departure from who I ever was,” she says. “But I so wanted to do the dancing.”

The contrast between the confident, glittering dancers she watched compete and the image she had of herself seemed a chasm she’d never cross. She could see that there was more to dancing than learning the steps.

“It’s like being in a play. You can’t just deliver the lines; you have to embody the character. Your posture, your demeanor — you have to present an aura of a winner.”

Pursuit of that role has pulled Retallack into a kind of double life. It’s a quick step every day as she whirls from leader to follower, from scholar to student, from creative director to athlete in training. With her first teacher, she studied nine American ballroom style dances, from waltz to cha cha. With the European pro, she added 10 international styles. She began to win medals in her competition category. She advanced to higher levels.

Becoming a Dancer, not a Dabbler

Then came a gift that allowed Retallack to invest even more in her dream this year. An inheritance from her mother’s sister offered the economic support to fund eight competitions. The gift provided professional hairdressers who poof her long brown locks and stylists who frost her body in spray tans and dress her in frills. It funded trips to Orlando, Las Vegas, San Diego, Ohio.

It let her push a dream into reality.

“This has been a big year,” she says. “I started becoming a dancer instead of being a conductor who is dabbling in dance. I became a dancer.”

She intends to stay a dancer as she ages, and she won’t be alone in on the dance floor. The number of senior dancers in competition has been growing steadily, prompting competitions to expand the age divisions in which dancers compete.

Retallack thinks she knows why.

“It is so good for my body, my posture and my health,” she says. At an age when many people begin losing height, she has added half an inch.

“I’m a competitive person and I want to keep going. You have setbacks. You have to buck yourself up. I am constantly reminding myself just doing that is a success.”

For Retallack, there’s more than physical fitness at stake. She hopes to out-dance mental losses as well. Both her mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I have read that ballroom dancing is an activity that may ward off Alzheimer’s,” she says. “It is physical exercise, mental stimulation, balance and coordination. When I get to 80, I’m going to rock.”

Carolyn Kortge is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.

Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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