Donna Medrano was hired by the UNLV dance department in 1989 to teach ballroom dance classes. When Donna took over, they offered just two beginning classes. Through her hard work and dedication to the program, the classes expanded to include American and International styles, as well as Salsa, Swing and Argentine Tango. Shortly after she started teaching at UNLV, she started the UNLV ballroom formation team. In 1991 Donna created a small in-house comp to introduce her students to the competitive side of ballroom dancing. This small competition became known as the Desert Challenge Intercollegiate Dancesport Competition and in 2005 hosted 15 schools and nearly 400 competitors.
Donna was born in Oklahoma on February 18, 1959. She began dancing at the age of 3, but didn’t take up ballroom dance until 1978. Her introduction to the ballroom was at a disco where she saw a professional couple perform a cha-cha routine. Donna became an instructor for Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray studios and in 1981 moved to Las Vegas. She opened a ballroom studio at Jones and Sahara with her competitive partner Pete Taylor, a ballroom dance coach and judge. Donna and her later partner David Fernandez placed 13th overall in the mid-’90s at the U.S. Ballroom Championships. Donna and David also won several titles in the “Rising Star” division. Donna was such a great competitor that in an issue of Dance Beat, she was called “the best woman on the floor” by pro-judge Stephen Cullip of Seattle. She never settled for second best and taught that same competitive zeal to her students.
Donna was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. She continued to teach and to compete while she fought cancer. She stopped competing in 1996 so that her partner (Fernandez) could find a healthy partner. David says that he believed that she also did not want to compete at less than the high standard she had set for herself. Donna taught her last class in October of 1997 when she found out that inoperable cancer had spread to her spine. The ballroom dance community lost a great teacher and competitor on March 28, 1998. She was 39 years old. Donna will always be remembered by her friends and students for the way she had of inspiring them to do their best. Her legacy lives on in the annual Desert Challenge competition.