AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
Interesting characters make for memorable deployments. At Al Dhafra Air Base, there are many such people milling about the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing’s squadrons, shops and Coalition partners.
One such character is known on sight. He is found wearing a woven, wide-brimmed hat to shield his eyes from the sun. He carries a drawstring bag embroidered with his life motto: “Work hard, love with passion, dance with attitude.” He has an easy-going aura and speaks to everyone like an old friend, even perfect strangers.
Meet Master Sgt. Dan Demers, material handling equipment mechanic with the 380th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron. He is all over the base, but most people know him by his nickname: Dantastic Dancing Dan.
“Dan is like everyone’s favorite uncle,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron Betancourt, dental technician with the 380th Expeditionary Medical Group. “He’s very charismatic and always willing to help out. He’s always smiling, always happy… he’s just the kind of person that you meet and think, ‘I want to be like him.’”
Demers, deployed from the 157th Air Refueling Wing with the New Hampshire Air National Guard, holds Latin dance lessons for military members here every Saturday evening. He has dedicated hundreds of hours of his personal time to mentor dozens of Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines through what could be one of the most challenging times in their careers.
“I knew I could bring some type of stress relief to people here,” he said. “At least they would have some place that they could go to be themselves.”
Demers knows firsthand how art can bring new purpose to one’s life during difficult times, he said. Dance had always been an interest of his, but he had never found the right motivation to pursue it. That is until the opportunity fell into his lap while working at the commissary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Demers had just gone through a divorce and was trying to find a way forward. A coworker of his also worked as a dance instructor, but did not have enough men enrolled in the class to serve as partners for female students. He approached Demers and offered him free lessons if he would help support his dance studio.
“I was very eager to start dancing because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Demers. “During my marriage, my wife was not into dancing. Once the divorce started, I was not held back anymore.”
Demers took his coworker up on the offer, and so began his passion for dance. He continued the free lessons, and the studio would call him any time a female student needed a partner.
He picked up on the art so quickly that he was asked to teach. At first, he turned them down. However, in time he realized that he wanted more. So he not only began to teach, but he and a friend started their own line of dance shoes and opened a studio.
“At first, it was kind of strange for my coworkers because they would see me dancing with music in the background,” Demers said. “Then they got to know me and they realized that it’s just a thing, and they’d say, ‘Dan must be practicing his dancing again!’”
Since then, he purchased an old movie theater and refurbished it, turning it into his own dance studio called The Strands Ballroom. Between working as a full time vehicle maintenance technician with the 157 ARW and as an instructor, he works up to 103 hours a week.
While 103 hours may seem like a lot to take on, Demers does not mind.
“It’s not work; it’s fun,” he said. “What I enjoy most about having a class is watching my ‘kids’ grow up, because every one of my students is like my kid. Seeing them from doing nothing, not being able to do any kind of movement, to going out on the dance floor and making it up as they go along… it gives me a sense of accomplishment.”
When Demers deployed, he found that not running dance lessons on top of his shift as usual would leave room for him to become homesick, he said. So, rather than miss home, he decided to bring a piece of home to Al Dhafra while also helping others through the art form he knew best.
However, to bring a dance studio feel to the deployed environment, he needed help. Betancourt heard about Demers’s lessons and, as someone who was also experienced in dance and in Latin music, he offered his assistance.
“I wanted to give folks here something to look forward to, some kind of stress reliever,” said Betancourt. “[Dance] is almost like an analogy here. People grow together as a team while on deployment, and it’s the same thing with dance. It brings people that inner happiness.”
Not only does dancing provide opportunities for growth, but it also can help to support every aspect of a person’s fitness and resiliency, said Demers. It serves as a workout, a social event, relieves stress, and can allow a person to feel good about themselves and their purpose.
“There are so many things about society that won’t let you be who you are,” he said. “At least in my studio, you can be who you are on the dance floor.”