LUMBERTON — From Bollywood to Bonnie and Clyde, Britney Spears to ballroom dancing, United Way’s third annual Dancing with the Robeson County Stars was an event to remember — especially for couple who got to take home the coveted mirror ball trophies.
“We said we’ve got a mission here and we’ve got to make it happen,” said Linda Branch.
Branch and her partner, Allan Campbell, did just that, raising more than $28,000 through donations and votes. All together, this year’s fundraiser brought in about $136,000 after expenses.
Proceeds from the event go to United Way education initiatives in Robeson County and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which provides free books to students. The event’s first two years raised a total of $314,000.
Branch and Campbell’s energetic 1920s-themed performance not only earned them the trophies, but also a standing ovation during Saturday night’s show.
“That was dancin’, steppin’, the whole nine yards,” said judge and past participant Abe Marshall. “That’s what we came to see.” The duo’s routine was choreographed by Erin Elliott.
Branch and Campbell didn’t know each other before they were paired up randomly in November but quickly bonded over their love for the era and got to work.
Along with Erica Meekins and Evan Davenport, who took the title of Best Dance and raised the second highest amount, Branch and Campbell auctioned off items donated by others to raise money $6,000 for United Way. They also helped greet customers at Arnold’s, where owner Arnold West donated part of the night’s profits to the duo.
Meekins and Davenport served free appetizers at Candy Sue’s to anyone who voted with a $10 donation. The pair raised about $17,000.
“More than just raising funds it brought awareness to United Way and what they’re all about,” Branch said.
The cause behind the event is what brought out many of this year’s 32 dancers.
“I am a reader and my whole family is. I love books and I love the thought of kids with books in their hands …,” Branch said.
“Just today I had a little girl that came in my office that receives the books,” Campbell said. “It was surreal.”
Meekins and Davenport pulled off a challenging routine set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” — but even after practicing for three to four hours each week, they’re not sick of the song, or each other.
“We wanted a pretty difficult routine so there were a few bruises,” Meekins said. “There was a lot of trial and error.” Lee Ann Hall choreographed their routine.
But, according to Davenport, it was all worth it in the end.
“A lady that works for me, she told me her son got the books. I definitely wasn’t going to do it but she said ‘my son gets those books’ … I actually did it more for her,” he said.
The cause was also close to dancer Erika McComb’s heart.
“I’m a principal at the junior high school and I know what United Way does for our county, whether it’s the kids or a domestic violence victim,” she said. “… So that in itself was like I’m helping somebody and I’m making life better for possibly one of my kids at my school so they can be successful in life.”
McComb and her partner Brian Jacobs grooved to “Brick House” by the Commodores.
“I applaud my partner because she has some problems with her back,” Jacobs said. “Her doctor wanted her to step out but she’s so committed to doing this for a good cause that I’ve got to commend her because she did her best and stuck to it and I’m honored.”
Helping United Way also keeps choreographers coming back year after year.
“It’s a fun experience and we can give back to the children, give back to a community where I was born and raised,” said Keno Lowery, who along with Ricky Bullard, choreographed four couples’ dances.
For Marshall, who hosted Friday night before taking the judge’s stand, everyone was a winner.
“Of course they weren’t as good as the year I was in it,” he said, jokingly. “But they were great, they were great.” Marshall danced in the inaugural event in 2012.
Fellow judge James “Brownie” McLeod, who voted for each couple, agreed.
“Was there any couple that didn’t deserve your vote tonight?” the former participant said to the crowd.
Alongside McLeod and Shelena Smith, Marshall said the first thing he looked for was personality — something he said the night’s contestants brought in spades.
“Personality without a doubt. Personality, precision in your dance steps and personality,” he said.
Having been on all sides of the competition, Marshall said one thing has stayed the same.
“There’s only one thing that remains constant — the people you meet. It is a life-changing experience. You meet people that you never would have met before and that camaraderie and friendship lasts forever.”
Regg McIntyre and Joanna Hunt, whose elegant blue ensembles earned them the title of Best Costume, would certainly attest to that. McIntyre gave a bouquet of roses to Hunt, who said that she’d “found a true friend” in her partner.
Several contestants had the crowd in stitches, exchanging jabs at each other’s expense.
“There’s a little girl crying at Walmart because you bought the last five stacks of rhinestones,” Gary Strickland said of fellow dancer Eric Sanders.
Sandra Oliver, United Way of Robeson County’s executive director, said it was all in good fun.
“It was all very positive, there was nothing negative,” she said. “You can’t get that kind of entertainment in Robeson County every day.”
Oliver said the organization will be talking about whether to take a year off from Dancing with the Robeson County Stars as planned, or return next year by popular demand.
“We have had the nicest compliments, in fact everybody that has talked to us said it was the best yet,” she said.
Oliver said she owes it all to those who helped out, especially the dancers.
“People need to be praised for doing it and helping us out … I love to dance but to get on stage in front of 500 people two nights in a row and do a choreographed dance, that’s different than getting on the floor with a whole bunch of people,” she said.