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By John Hageman, Published August 24 2013

Bemidji dancer comes out of retirement to help student

BEMIDJI – Walter Hartell had been in a state of semi-retirement.

The Tentstrike resident has danced for almost all of his 62 years but hadn’t been teaching or coaching for about 10 years. He sold the chain of dance studios he franchised in order to care for his daughter after a traffic accident left her with a traumatic brain injury.

He returned to the ballroom dancing competition floor last year. And he only did it, he said, because he found somebody who has the same passion for dance he does.

The student is Marge Smith, a 77-year-old resident of International Falls who picked up dance within the past 10 years. She began taking lessons from Hartell about three or four years ago.

In many ways, the two seem made for each other.

“I work her hard,” Hartell said from the lobby of Suzy and Hondo Dance Studio in Bemidji Township, where they practice.

And she returns the favor.

For their latest competition, Smith had to learn a Latin style of dance that requires a lot of hip movement.

“She sends me an email, ‘How many times am I supposed to practice this. My hips are killing me,’ ” Hartell recounted. “She’s just religious about practicing. That’s the type of student I’ll come out of retirement for. That’s the kind of person I’ll do anything for.”

If you’re on Gull Lake, you may encounter Hartell dancing on his lawn to the music emanating from his outdoor speakers.

“Boats come by and I’m doing cha-cha. You know, every morning that’s how I warm up and stretch out,” he said. “I just love it. There’s nothing that makes you feel better inside.”

That love for dance has been developed for almost 60 years. He started learning jazz, tap and belly dancing at the age of 3. From there, he took lessons until he was about 14, and had his own studio in Brooklyn Center two years later, teaching students after the final bell at high school.

By age 20, he started at the Fred Astaire dance studios, named after the famous Broadway dancer and movie star.

“And I decided I would do this as a summer job, and gotta tell you, it was the longest summer job I ever had,” he said with a laugh.

After working in Oklahoma and Seattle, Hartell returned to the Twin Cities, and eventually became the franchise owner for the five Fred Astaire dance studios in Minnesota and helped launch the Twin Cities Open in 1984.

At the time, he said, competitions were segregated based on what studio you attended. Hartell wanted to bring all of them together.

“It’s kind of like everybody is a family,” Hartell said. “Everyone gets along so much better now than they used to.”

Hartell helped run that competition for a few years, and turned it over to Twin Cities-based dancers Scott and Amy Anderson after his daughter’s accident.

“I just believed she could recover and she did,” Hartell said. “She still has the traumatic brain injury, but she can walk, she can talk, and she even danced with me.

“You can’t ask for anything more.”

Since, the TCO has burgeoned into one of the largest in the country, Hartell said, and consisted of more than 6,000 entries this year.

When Hartell returned to the competition last month as Smith’s dancing partner, he was greeted by many who said they worked for him in the past, or knew him through the Twin Cities ballroom dancing scene.

“It was kind of like old home week,” he said.

In the 32 single dance events that weekend, Smith received 23 first-place awards, six second-place awards and three third-place awards. She gave a lot of credit, however, to Hartell.

“There’s nobody else in the area, bar none, that is as good as he is,” Smith said.