Orange County

Tar Heels of the Week: In this dance (club), Bob and Ann Demaine both lead

Bob Demaine and his wife, Ann Demaine, have been members of the International Folk Dancing Club for nearly 50 years. They also conduct dance classes at their home.
Bob Demaine and his wife, Ann Demaine, have been members of the International Folk Dancing Club for nearly 50 years. They also conduct dance classes at their home. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The boxes of cards on a table at Beth El Synagogue represent five decades of steps, stomps and twirls to music from across the world – each bearing the name of a dance in block print and a country in the corner.

At its weekly dances, members of the Chapel Hill International Folk Dance Club pick out their requests and lay them on the table, where the card for the current song is perched on a stand.

Ann Demaine met her husband, Bob, at one of these dances in 1969. She says they and other members have built the collection by learning each dance and teaching the steps to others.

“The group memory extends to probably 500 dances,” she says.

Founded during the folk revival of the 1960s, the club celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday with seven hours of dancing at the Great Hall in the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union. More than 200 current and former members attended the anniversary reunion, some traveling from across the country and even beyond.

All of them know the Demaines, who in their decades of membership have become the club’s guiding lights, a large part of the reason the club has flourished for so many years.

In addition to attending the weekly dances and helping to arrange other events, the couple have conducted dance classes at their Chapel Hill home for 30 years to help acquaint newbies – and anyone else who needs help – with the dances.

The retired couple were awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for their work on the club back in 1994, and have been honored for their other joint interests as well. A building and scholarship were named after them at Club Boulevard Elementary School in Durham, where Bob volunteers three full days a week helping with art classes and Ann helps with English as a second language classes.

Members of the dance club say their constant presence and willingness to share their extensive knowledge of folk dances, as well as their grace on the floor, make the Demaines a treasured part of the club.

“They have the patience and the commitment and the energy that will enable all of this to pass on to the next generation,” says Sema Deeds, who joined the club 40 years ago. She now teaches dance in Pittsburgh and returned to Chapel Hill for the reunion. “They teach how to dance, and how to love dance.”

A social center

Bob Demaine, now 85, came to Chapel Hill from New York to study urban planning at UNC. The son of a well-regarded watercolor artist, Harry Demaine, Bob studied art and had his first career as a high school art teacher.

A desire to use his visual acumen on a larger scale brought him to UNC; he would change careers again after earning another degree, this time in landscape architecture at N.C. State University.

Ann Demaine likes to joke that her husband’s longest career has been as a volunteer at Club Boulevard Elementary, where he has helped out for more than 20 years.

Ann, now 72, was born in Massachusetts and later moved to Alabama. She came to the Triangle with her first husband, who studied at Duke University.

She earned her master’s degree at UNC-CH, and went on to a career as a social worker for the state Social Services and later the Division of Aging.

Ann was recently divorced when her friend suggested she attend one of the dances, then held on the campus of UNC.

Bob had started attending the dances in 1965, a year after they started. He had met and dated other women at the dances. But he and Ann immediately hit it off, and quickly became inseparable.

They continued to attend the dances after their marriage. The club would invite dance instructors, and the Demaines would learn the dances and teach them to other members.

The dances also became a social center for them. They planned trips to the beach, to Washington, D.C., or other spots with fellow dance friends, sometimes renting houses and cramming people in sleeping bags.

As the years passed, they never considered giving it up.

“It’s the exercise, it’s the social side of it, it’s the dancing itself,” says Bob. “There are just so many things that make it fun.”

It’s also one of many activities the couple enjoy doing together. Once Ann retired, for instance, she joined Bob at Club Boulevard.

Both are avid gardeners who support the N.C. Botanical Garden and the J.C. Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State. Ann is also active in the Democratic Party.

The couple spend their summers in Massachusetts, and enjoy traveling to Europe periodically.

“We mostly do everything together,” Ann says.

‘They can teach anyone’

At the club’s regular dance Wednesday night, about 40 people filled the dance floor – an unusually high turnout in anticipation of the reunion, which was sponsored by the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies.

For many songs, the dancers hold hands, making winding lines shuffling and swaying in identical movements. Others make circles, with the less-experienced dancers practicing outside on difficult numbers.

Green dance cards signal easy dances, such as the Haitian Creole Bele Kawe, while yellow and red ones warn of more difficult ones and red for ones with intricate steps such as the Bulgarian Daichovo.

Many of the women wear flowered skirts and boots, the men in long tunics with belts. Others are dressed in regular street attire.

A can decorated as an elephant holds the suggested $3 donation that allows the group to rent the hall for its weekly dances – its only real expense.

Many club members have come to think of the Demaines as their “dance parents,” but they are by no means its oldest participants; three members are in their 90s. Nor are they the leaders of the club, which runs on a sort of group consensus.

The Demaines are known for their generosity with newcomers, both at the weekly dances and at the two eight-week sessions they conduct at their home each year.

“They can teach anyone, even the klutzes,” says Darrell Deeds, Sema Deeds’ husband.

They’ve isolated two parts of the process that flummox students. For some, it’s the footwork. For others, it’s recognizing the patterns.

“Dance is like a language,” Ann says. “It’s like learning a different vocabulary.”

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