ST. PETERSBURG - The feathers, sequins and twinkling Christmas lights that filled St. Petersburg's Coliseum Sunday night transported Rose Kazi back to her the grand ballrooms of her childhood home near Havana, Cuba, even though she could only gaze at the dancers through the glass doors in the lobby. Kazi couldn't afford the $70 to $1,495 tickets to Sunday's "An Afternoon in Havana," the first benefit for the newfound St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. But that didn't stop her from dancing in the lobby to the sounds of Cuba's world-renowned Orquesta Aragn, comprised of Grammy-winning musicians and members of the Buena Vista Social Club. It's the music she grew up with, and everything from the smell of roasting pork to men in unbuttoned shirts and gold chains was like a trip back in time, she said. "I moved to St. Petersburg in 1987, but Cuba has always been in my heart," Kazi said. "When I was a girl we would listen to the orquesta and do the Spanish flamenco. I've never gone back. I don't want to even though my family is there, because Castro is still in my mind. There is a lot here that reminds me of all the good things about home."
About 500 people twirled around the historic dance hall's polished, red oak dance floor, drinking sangria, eating authentic Cuban food and smoking donated Davidoff cigars. The event was the brainchild of local dancers, including St. Petersburg resident and ballroom champion Michael Chapman, who hosted the Millennium world dance competition Saturday in Tampa. Chapman was already flying in Orquestra Aragon and showgirls from Havana's Cabaret Tropicana to the area for the competition, and they added another day to their itinerary to help raise money for local artists, Theresa Richardson, one of the event's organizers. Chapman also called in a few friends to help with the benefit - Maks Chmerkovskiy and Tony Dovolani of "Dancing with the Stars" and Mary Murphy of "So You Think You Can Dance." The world's best Latin, Salsa and Mambo dancers and the newly crowned 2013 Latin dance champions performed for the guests, including a special performance by child dance duo "The Untouchables" from "America's Got Talent." The spectacle put a permanent smile on St. Petersburg Arts Alliance Executive Director John Collins' face that didn't disappear even when sampling food. The Arts Alliance, which aims to unite and fund the five art districts in the St. Petersburg area, just got its official letter in February granting the group non-profit status, Collins said. The money raised during the organization's "coming out party" is huge for the community, Collins said. "Artists always need someone to show that they're appreciated, and St. Pete has some of the best artists in the world, but I was also told a few weeks ago that there's more than 3,000 unfilled I.T. jobs in Tampa Bay, and to attract more 20 and 30-somethings to the area we need to be cool," Collins said. "To be cool you have to protect your culture." So You Think You Can Dance judge and ballroom dancer Mary Murphy said seeing the Coliseum dressed as it was in the golden age of ballroom dancing "took my breath away." "I think this is a generation where we're afraid to look bad at any given moment and when you dance you have to throw that to the wind," Murphy said. "When I did my signature scream for the first time on the show, completely uninhibited, people were so taken aback by it and it went viral. I thought to myself, 'How weird,' because we do that all the time at ballroom competitions - we yell, we laugh, we cheer. I didn't know what the big hoopla was. Dance helps you embrace that joy of life." It's that joy that brought Kazi to the Coliseum, and toward the end of the night her persistence paid off. She was allowed into the hall and danced her way straight to the center of the floor. firstname.lastname@example.org (727) 215-9851