If U.S. ballroom dance had a Super Bowl, it would be the Ohio Star Ball.
Held for the past 35 years at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio, it's the final big annual competition on the Pro-Am DanceSport circuit, a six-day event for amateurs and professionals. It involves hundreds of contestants, 70 judges, three masters of ceremonies, two DJs — and, this time, one extremely well-heeled Kansas Citian.
Lauren LaPointe has spent the past year preparing for this event.
She's the daughter of an elite, high-profile figure — Julia Irene Kauffman, one of Kansas City's wealthiest women — and she understands that this has always invited a certain scrutiny. "I think everyone is judged. It's human nature to make assumptions about people," she says. "And because of my name, I'm used to being judged on all kinds of levels."
She has come to Ohio to be judged differently.
But she has learned to be judged as a dancer only recently, and she's about to put herself in front of a battery of former competitive ballroom dancers and dance teachers. These judges are, by definition, critical — about technique and costumes and personal appearance.
"The way you look and the costumes you wear are very critical in the judging process," says LaPointe, who has lost 45 pounds this year while also enduring several painful laser treatments to have upper-body tattoos permanently removed. "I didn't want anything to take away from the image I'm trying to portray on the dance floor."
It's an image she has worked hard to build from scratch in a very short span of time — an image apart from the one she inherited in Kansas City.
Don't call LaPointe an heiress. She hates that word. Don't say she's a socialite, either. She hates that term even more. OK, how about philanthropist?
"My family supports the arts in Kansas City," she says. "But my mother is the philanthropist."
In the Kansas City arts community, Julia Irene Kauffman does indeed run the dance floor. A longtime supporter of the Kansas City Ballet (one of her mother's pet projects), she oversees the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation and was appointed to the Ewing Kauffman Foundation board of trustees last February.
Hers is perhaps the first name in local wealth. Julia Irene Kauffman's mother, the late Muriel McBrien Kauffman, married the billionaire Ewing Marion Kauffman in 1962, when Julia was 12 years old; he later adopted Julia, and she took his name. Ewing M. Kauffman, the founder of the pharmaceutical company Marion Laboratories (which reported revenues of $930 million in 1989, the year it merged with Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals; both firms are now part of French-based Sanofi), was best-known as the owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team from 1969 until his death in 1993. After Muriel's death in 1995, her estate was left primarily to Julia and the foundation bearing her name. It was a significant enough inheritance that Julia Irene Kauffman paid $31.3 million in estate taxes the following year.
Lauren Muriel-Marion LaPointe is Julia's middle daughter, from her second marriage to Canadian Richard Wayne LaPointe. (The couple divorced when Lauren was 5 years old. LaPointe died in Canada two years ago.)
LaPointe is divorced and a single mother currently in a long-distance romance with a doctor in California. Her 13-year-old daughter, Brittany, is also a dancer — she had the lead role in the Kansas City Ballet's The Nutcracker several years ago.
"She has beautiful taste and a beautiful home," a friend says of LaPointe. "She really doesn't need to do anything."
So what do you call this 39-year-old woman who happens to be the granddaughter of the legendary Kauffman couple (and the daughter of one of Kansas City's wealthiest women, Julia Irene Kauffman)?
Simple: She's a dancer. A very serious competitive ballroom dancer.
"I set a goal for myself last year, before I even knew I could be a ballroom dancer," LaPointe says. "I wanted to be a world champion."
The Star Ball is the seventh dance competition that LaPointe has entered since committing to her goal in 2011.
"I've gotten a lot of first-place ribbons — second place and third place, too," LaPointe tells me on the third day of the Ohio event. "But the real honor was the opportunity to do a solo number for the judges. Not many new dancers are ever given that chance."
She and her coach and dance partner, Louis Bar, have come here expecting to compete in at least 198 heats, each about 90 grueling seconds. And for their turn away from the usual crowded floor full of fellow dancers, they've worked up a Victor/Victoria cabaret number that involves a quick costume change. "While we're dancing," LaPointe says, "I take off my skirt and wig, and Louis puts them on, and I put on his jacket."
Afterward, LaPointe is pleased with how the solo went. "The audience loved it," she tells me later that day. "We got a terrific response.
"I really expected to be nervous here, but I wasn't," LaPointe continues. "This is probably the biggest competition of the year, and I imagined that the competition could be ruthless. But the coaches and the other competitors have been really lovely, very supportive. It's not the bloodbath that I was dreading."
It's hard to imagine LaPointe ever being nervous. Nothing about her, from the expensive high heels that add to her already imposing height to the amusingly no-nonsense conversational habits she inherited from her mother, comes across as shy. As one of her friends puts it, "She's wickedly funny — and wickedly mean if she wants to be."
Before she started competing at balls, she was organizing them for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and the Kansas City Ballet. She had inherited all the right social credentials, of course, as well as the resources to buy tables at the events. But she also brought ideas.
"She's very creative and imaginative," says Laurie Ingram, publisher of The Independent, the magazine that bills itself as "Kansas City's Journal of Society." Ingram has reported on the Kauffman family since Ewing M. Kauffman made his first million, nearly half a century ago. "But the way that she's channeled this passion for dancing into a career is amazing. She looks great and clearly loves what she's doing."
LaPointe looks good on the floor. She's a determined dancer whose work in the studio shows. "I feel so much more self-confident in all areas of my life since I started dancing competitively," she says. "And I'm much more observant of the people around me and have become a much better listener. Since dancing is all about being in-sync with your partner, it's made me more sensitive to the people in my life."
It's not unusual for a wealthy woman to choose dance as both hobby and cause. Many of the great ballet companies in America have been championed by women with deep pockets (Texas millionaire Anne Bass, for example). And the late Rebekah Harkness — whose husband was a Standard Oil heir and the nephew of Lamon V. Harkness, once the richest man in Kansas City — created a New York dance empire in the 1960s.
But on the road, LaPointe is virtually incognito. "When I meet other dancers on the competition circuit, they have no idea who I am," she says. "It's only when we have extended conversations with each other that I've learned that one of the dancers is actually a Broadway producer and another might be a professional salesman. I tell them that I'm from a successful family of entrepreneurs and I'm a mother. And that's what I am."
"I had already taken some lessons at the Kansas City Ballet School," LaPointe says. But she traces her recent dance obsession to the unexpected death of her father, in 2010.
"I went through a period of depression, then realized that I needed to focus on myself, find a new path, a different journey," LaPointe says. "I didn't think of dance at the time, but when it all came together, it felt right."
It began to come together the day she drove to the Overland Park studio run by Bar. The French-born former Olympic ice dancer has won a dozen national and international dance championships and was a grand finalist at the 2004 Argentine Tango World Championship. If anyone in town could make a serious dancer out of a socialite — one who at first was seeking lessons just to improve her basic ballroom skills for KC's society calendar — it was Bar.
"After a couple of lessons with Lauren, I told her that if she really worked hard, she might want to compete in a few national competitions," Bar says. "And when she started practicing and rehearsing, she announced she wanted to be a world champion. I'm a really tough coach, so I wasn't going to indulge her. I told her she had to make a serious commitment to that goal. And she really did."
LaPointe started her training with three 90-minute lessons a week. (She now averages six lessons a week.) After 10 weeks, LaPointe entered her first competition, the Nashville Starz Dance Spectacular, last January.
Two months later, LaPointe competed again, this time at the St. Louis Star Ball. She danced 140 heats and received the Newcomer Award as the top bronze-level student.
And she hasn't limited her stage time just to other cities. In July, when the New Century Follies fundraiser played the Folly Theater, LaPointe joined a list of entertainers that included Ron Megee, Daisy Bucket, Damian Blake, Annie Cherry. She and Bar danced a sizzling tango.
"I thought she was great that night," says local actor David Wayne Reed, who was at the event. "It was like watching Dancing with the Stars with this local person who has all this gusto and passion for dancing. She was a star."
"I was making a lot of progress fast," LaPointe says. "But I have one of the best coaches in the United States. He works as hard, or harder, than I do."
"Competitive ballroom dancing," Bar says, "is the only sport on the planet where the coach exercises more than the people he trains."
The world of competitive ballroom dancing isn't easy. LaPointe has rehearsed and competed until her feet are swollen and bleeding. And it's not cheap. There are the dresses, for one thing. The top dancers on the circuit don't buy anything off the rack, instead choosing elaborate gowns custom-stitched by a few big-name couturiers. Chris Stephenson, whose New Jersey–based J'ordy line is the preferred name in terpsichorean haute couture and whose pieces fetch thousands of dollars, now counts LaPointe among his clients.
"This is the only sport I know where you're coifed and dressed to the nines and you're sweating like a professional athlete," LaPointe says. "This isn't about pretty people dancing prettily. It's more like roller derby."
Going into the Ohio Star Ball, LaPointe held the second-place position in her category in the 2012 Dancer's Cup Tour and was ranked 14th out of 7,000 dancers on the DanceSport tour. "I won the top Newcomer Award and the Inspiration Award at the Twin Cities Open, based on my performances," she says.
In Kansas City, anyone can become a socialite. Becoming a champion, that's another story.
"I think this has really changed the perceptions people have about me," LaPointe says. "My mother finally realized that this isn't just something to do for fun or one of the projects I've started and not finished, but a very serious goal."
She goes on: "I don't think I'm dancing to step out of my mother's shadow. I see it more as embellishing my grandmother's passion for the dance. It's a way of finding myself and paying homage to her."