A Waltz in Time: Vintage Dancing in the Triangle

Husband and wife duo Bob Chapman and Mary Lovelock enjoy a unique hobby together—and they hope you’ll join them.
Written by Susanna Klingenberg  |  photography by Eamon Queeney 

Bob Chapman and Mary Lovelock can ace a mazurka. A quadrille? “Which one?” they’ll ask. Waltz? Tango? Schottische? For each, they’ll offer a hand with a smile. The Raleigh couple has danced their way across the U.S. and Europe with white gloves, light feet and infectious enthusiasm. 

They’re part of a thriving international community of vintage dancers, represented locally by the Triangle Vintage Dancers. This fun-loving fellowship recreates historical dances (usually from 1840 to 1940) at elaborate balls with period music, costumes and manners. 

If it sounds like a grown-up version of cotillion, think again. “The whole idea is to have fun!” explains Chapman. “We make sure everybody comes away with a good time.” Vintage dance, at its core, is a social occasion. Its enthusiasts, diverse in age and background, share two things: a love of dancing and a willingness to suspend reality for a night.

“There’s a certain magic to it,” says Chapman. “At a vintage dance, we’re transported into a world of make-believe. But we understand that at the end of the ball, we go back to being ourselves.” Lovelock laughs, “We have to mow the lawn the next day, just the same.” 

But, they counter, while it lasts, the world of a vintage dance ball is utterly transporting: live period music fills the air, candles flicker on every surface, dance cards pass from hand to gloved hand, ball-goers chatter between dances. Couples twirl and sway inches from each other, the dance floor alive with traditional steps and artful improvisation.  

The hubsand and wife are seasoned ball-goers who can breathe new life into old dances, riffing on patterns and inspiring novice dancers. “Bob and Mary are an integral part of the Triangle Vintage Dance community,” says Chris Imershein, who co-founded the Triangle Vintage Dancers with his wife, Dawn Sanks Imershein. “You can count on ‘The Chaplocks’ to bring a smile and ensure that everyone is included!” The next big event for the Triangle Vintage Dance community is the Victorian Ball on February 29.

They attribute their welcoming spirit and ease on the dance floor largely to experience: they’ve been dancing together since 1990. But they also suspect their backgrounds in music—operatic bass-baritone for Chapman, cello and piano for Lovelock—afford them the luxury of listening for cues, rather than thinking about steps. They say it helps them stay in the moment. 

Of course, staying in the moment at a vintage dance takes a bit of mind bending, since any given moment contains both the present and the past.  

But Chapman and Lovelock agree that to embrace this alternate reality is to embody it; they choose costumes that reflect their own style and the time period of the ball. Asked if he typically dances in a tuxedo, Chapman exclaims indignantly, “A tux? That’s what we call casual wear!” Tails are de rigueur for men, long gowns for women. 

Lovelock initially repurposed old prom gowns, before investing in professionally made costumes. Her favorites are from the 1920s (“They’re just fun!”); her least favorites involve corsets. But Lovelock says the frills and formality stay in the ballroom: “At the end of the evening, people can’t get home quick enough to put on their PJs and have a party together in the hotel lobby.” 

It’s that camaraderie that Lovelock and Chapman cherish. The dance community is the first place they made mutual friends; in fact, those friends are part of what brought them to the Triangle in 2005 (their neighbors John and Nancy McIlwee are long-time dance friends, too). And group lessons with other vintage dancers, which they recommend over private lessons, have allowed them to learn something new together without stepping on one another’s toes—literally and figuratively. Chapman says, “This is a thing Mary and I can do on equal footing!”