700 Fifth Avenue South, Naples, FL
The red glow from the windows alerts passers-by that something different is going on at the back of the Fifth Avenue South restaurant.
As the patrons finish their dinners at the front of the establishment, two bare light bulbs beckon a crowd to the back.
Every Wednesday since June 23, Vergina Restaurant has hosted an amateur dance contest, bringing a lot of attention to a small dance floor at the end of the bar. The contest is a mix between a high school dance-off, “Saturday Night Fever” and an amateur version of the television show “Dancing with the Stars.”
Couples shake their tail feathers for one $100 and two $50 gift certificates to the restaurant, and an entry into periodic semifinals. The semifinals award a stay at the Inn on Fifth and a spa day. On Nov. 17, a final contest will be held and the winner will receive a cruise. The location of the cruise has yet to be determined, but judging from the lesser prizes, it probably won’t just be a ride up the Gordon River.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Gligor Tuparov, vice president and chief financial officer of the restaurant. “The idea is to rejuvenate Fifth Avenue by offering fresh engagements and to attract younger and different people. Dancing has no limitations.”
Tuparov said there are no professional ringers in the contest, just locals looking to have a good time.
“It doesn’t require any high quality of dancing. Whoever gives the most passion wins the prize. A couple of them may have a few dance classes but it is truly amateur dancing.”
The contest’s name, Dancing Under the Star, is a reference to the restaurant’s namesake, the Macedonian symbol of the Vergina star. In a mural overlooking the restaurant’s dining room, the Vergina star adorns the shields of Alexander the Great and his warriors in battle.
On a recent Wednesday evening, as the restaurant winds down from dinner service, the back of the bar fills with contestants signing up and audience members finding their seats at the bar.
Entertainer Melvin German warms up his voice with some Stevie Wonder as the crowd warms up over a few drinks. Local radio personality Dave Elliott organizes each week’s show.
“I’m blown away with the success of this thing,“ said Elliott.
Most weeks he has about six couples enter, enough to fill the dance floor. As word spread, Elliott was forced to cut the entries off at 10. He picks his fellow judges from the crowd.
“Our criteria are completely arbitrary. We go outside and say, ‘What’d you think of so-and-so?’” said Elliott.
Olga Rykowski, 34, and Ilko Velikov, 42, pictured above in the center, come out swinging as the first of five songs are played for the contestants. The couple’s main competition are Naples residents Alex Pantoja, 44, and Tamara Paquette, 42, a vibrant blonde and a dark, muscular man with a major soul patch and the moves to match it. They were classmates at Barron Collier High School and now are regulars in the contest, dancing as if they are the only ones in the room.
“The first time we entered, it was by mistake. We came here, danced and won it,” said Pantoja.
After an hour and a half of the dance-offs, Elliott gathers the contestants and names Rykowski and Velikov as the winners.
“It’s creating something out of nothing. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that work the best,” said Elliott.
With a packed bar fired up from the contest, Gloria German, Melvin’s wife, christens the rest of the evening with Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary.” As the contestants bask in the afterglow, the audience now packs the dance floor.
“And we’re rolling, rolling. Rolling on the river.”
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Connect with David Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/david-albers