LAND O'LAKES — Carolyn Gerow twirled in a black gown with red and white fringe.
Dancing partner Ron Algood was debonair in all black.
Their nerves were high, the music upbeat in the rhythm ballroom dancing competition at the 2006 Florida State Fair. They never expected to win.
"Lo and behold, Carolyn, with her smile and her fancy feet, she did it," he said.
It was her last dance competition.
Just months after the fair, a biopsy identified the illness that had progressively weakened her body for years: inclusion body myositis. Scientists don't know its cause. There is no cure.
She left her job as a nurse practitioner and soon found herself in a wheelchair. She gave up on watercolor class. Grew tired of crossword puzzles. At 66, she compared the emotional toll to circling a drain.
It took a former love to lift Gerow from deep depression.
On her first day at Pasco Animal Services, she arrived in a wheelchair.
What could she do? a staffer asked.
"I said, 'I don't know, what can I do? There's got to be something,' " Gerow recalled of the conversation three years ago.
She had seen an ad in the newspaper about volunteering, and she'd always loved cats.
She met one a few days later that looked desolate and afraid. She spent some time with him. Slowly, he started to warm up. She could see it.
Socializing with cats. It might sound small, but it's not. Helping frightened animals in a scary environment learn that people aren't so bad can make them more likely to be adopted.
It can also help people.
"I do much better as a person if I'm pouring my energy into something, a project," she said. "I got as much out of it as the cats did."
She and Algood, 53, a self-described "recovering cat hater," visit the shelter two or three times a week. They leave after a couple of hours because Gerow's body requires plenty of rest.
She plays with the cats and gives advice to prospective adoptive families. He visits with the families in a special room where they can get to know the cats. He takes photos of the cats for online listings and decorative name cards on their cages. She edits the photos and writes bios capturing each cat's personality.
"My son always asks what I do," she said. "To me, this is it. The cats are my life."
• • •
They have three cats, Crescent Moon, Smokey and Jade, and foster two others for a rescue group in their Lutz home.
Algood teaches dance lessons in the living room, which has been converted to a dance studio with slick hardwood floors and full-length mirrors. Before each lesson, he carts away a massive felt-covered cat "condo" that sits in the middle of the floor.
They met in 1999. He was her dance teacher. After living together for almost 10 years, he sashayed into the living room one day in January and told her, "You know, we should make it official."
They were married on Valentine's Day with only two friends present at the Unity church in South Tampa. They didn't want to force family to travel or send gifts.
He said the worst part about her illness is it took away what she loves. Each day before work, they used to share a short dance.
When they met, he fell in love with a dancer. The past few years have changed his outlook.
"I ended up marrying Carolyn the woman, Carolyn the person."
• • •
At the adoption center in Land O'Lakes this week, they saw Michael in his cage and grimaced. The 7-month-old tabby has been waiting for adoption since July.
Algood spoke with Charlene Stratton of New Port Richey, who, at 78, wanted a laid-back cat that wouldn't be "hanging from the chandelier."
Fifteen minutes later he told his wife the good news: Michael found a home.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.