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September 22, 2014

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Q+A: Florence Henderson, Nevada Ballet Theater’s Woman of the Year — her lifelong love of dance

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Greg Zabilski/ABC TV

Corky Ballas and Florence Henderson rehearse for Season 11 of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.

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Florence Henderson and Corky Ballas.

Florence Henderson and Corky Ballas on DWTS

Growing up in a small Midwest town, poverty prevented actress Florence Henderson from fulfilling her dream to become a dancer. On Saturday, she will be honored as Woman of the Year by Nevada Ballet Theater celebrating the 30th anniversary of its glittering Black & White Ball chaired by Flamingo headliner Marie Osmond.

Florence did not become a dancer, but she achieved successes in film and television and also on Broadway and Las Vegas stages as a singer and an actress. She’s best known for her role as Carol Brady on ABC’s “The Brady Bunch” from 1969-1974 (and years and years of reruns). Even though nearing 80, she’s still vibrant as a spokeswoman, humanitarian, author and motivational speaker.

I’ve known her since my “Entertainment Tonight” and “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” days, so catching up with her before her visit here this week was a chat between old friends.

“I’m fighting that bug that everybody’s had, but, outside of that, I’m great!” she told me.

Saturday’s Black & White Ball is going to be such a glittering, great celebration. Las Vegas is looking forward to seeing you here.

I am so excited about this, and I feel so honored. I love dancers. I’ve loved them my entire career, and to be honored by dancers is a big thrill for me.

Did you ever dance? Did you ever want to be a dancer instead of an actress?

That’s all I ever wanted to do was be a dancer, but I grew up in a very large, very poor family in this little town in Indiana, and, even if there had been teachers, I couldn’t have studied. When I got to New York at age 17, I immediately tried to study. I learned, but I was not cut out to be a ballet dancer.

However, as you know later on in life, I did do very well on “Dancing With the Stars.” I’ve always had dancers as my best friends when I was in Broadway shows and TV shows, and they still are.

Now it’s always rude to ask a lady her age, but you don’t hide the fact that you’re 79 and getting ready to celebrate your 80th on Feb. 14. You’re very young at heart and young at mind.

And pretty young in body! I’ve realized that if you want to stay in this business, you’re stamina is extremely important. I work out three times a week, I still go to my vocal coach, I’m still doing my one-woman show.

I feel very blessed. When you say that number, I go, “What are you talking about? That can’t be me.” But it is, and it’s kind of wonderful in a way. I think it’s someone else who’s turning 80 on Valentine’s Day, not me.

Is work the thing that keeps you young?

I think that loving what you do certainly makes a big difference in one’s life. I’ve always adored what I do and the fact that I have an incredible family. I have four wonderful children, five grandchildren, I have siblings and friends, and it’s what you put out there that comes back to you.

I’ve just been very blessed. I just finished filming on a new series call “The Trophy Wife,” and I had such a wonderful time. I’m just busy all the time; you’ve got to keep moving, Robin. I always remember us doing your “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” on the boat.

That’s so long ago now, though, we won’t even talk about it! It’s just good we can still do those silly things. However, I really admired you for taking the pain and the punishment on “Dancing With the Stars.”

I was on three seasons ago, and I lasted on it for 6 weeks. We rehearsed 7 hours a day 7 days a week, and, boy, talk about dancers! I don’t know how they do it with their feet. Luckily, my joints were good; my knees, my hips, all of that in great shape. But I did find muscles I never knew I had. Now the fact that I work out; I think had I not been in great shape to begin with, I would have been gone the first week.

I had Epsom salt baths. They give you all kinds of things for your feet. My partner was Corky Ballas, who is one of the most famous ballroom dancers, and I said, “What can I do for my feet?” He said rub milk of magnesia on them. It really did help. I put milk of magnesia and put socks on; I learned a lot of tricks.

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Corky Ballas and Florence Henderson on ABC's Dancing With the Stars on Oct. 11, 2010.

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Margaret Cho and Florence Henderson on the Season 11 finale of Dancing With the Stars on Nov. 23, 2010.

So will you dance the light fantastic at the Black & White Ball?

I certainly hope so! I won’t be in my ballet shoes, but I certainly look forward to it. You know, Robin, I started working in Las Vegas very early in my career, and I think that I performed in practically every hotel there over the years.

I always loved Las Vegas. I was one of the few singers who never got Vegas throat. I got to work with some of the biggest stars ever, and I’ve just always loved Las Vegas. I like to play a little blackjack, I might add!

I hope you win on 21 when you’re here. I understand that a few people from “The Brady Brunch” will be coming to the ball?

I just heard that! Two of my favorites, Barry Williams and Chris Knight, that’s Greg and Peter. They’re two of the neatest guys ever, and I’m just so thrilled. I’m hoping my friend Mitzi Gaynor will be there, too. She was honored by NBT, too. I do a lot of work for the Professional Dancers Society here in L.A.; she’s the president of that. I’m very involved with dancers, as I told you.

My friend Judy Gold is going to be the MC, and she’s hilarious. As a matter of fact, the two of us are on the new “Rachael vs. Guy” Food Network show with your friend Penn Jillette. Don’t you adore him?!

He’s a great guy. Maybe he’ll stop by the ballroom after his Rio show?

Oh, I hope he does. I am so fond of him, and we have such a good time on this competition, “Rachael vs. Guy.” I can’t tell you how it ends, obviously, but just hang on because Penn and I are kind of tenacious, and I don’t think we’re going anywhere yet.

It’s unbelievably tough, very challenging. In fact, the toughest television show I’ve ever done. The whole experience is like going through military exercises at a boot camp. … I broke my foot the second day there, but I soldiered on and wore my boots; it wasn’t easy. They really ask a lot. “Dancing With the Stars” was easy compared to that.

You look back over 79 years, 80 years, and you look at this honor that’s coming your way of being the Black & White Ball Woman of the Year. Anything you missed out on that you’d love to do?

You know, Robin, I look forward always to what’s coming. I always think the best offer, the most exciting thing, is just coming; I just haven’t done it yet. That’s the enthusiasm I have for this business and what I do. I’ve gotten to do a lot and work with some of the greats in our business and continue to do so. I really have no regrets and no complaints.

And no slowing down?

No, God no! As a matter of fact, I’m busier than ever. It’s like, “Whoa! Wait!” Like I said, I love it all. You know there’s no point in lying about your age because anybody can Google you on almost anything. So I’ve just got so much more to come, and I don’t even know what it will be or where it will take me. That’s a very exciting life for a lady my age!

The 30th Anniversary Black & White Ball is at Aria on Saturday, with a VIP reception beforehand at Cartier in Crystals at CityCenter.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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