No one can start the “Carnavalito” until someone helps Bernard slip off his white Reebok tennis shoes and buckle up his brown leather Bulgarian dancing shoes.
Once the South American tune begins, the group joins hands and weaves around the dance floor while performing stomps and skips in unison. Dr. Bernard Kaiman claps his hands to the beat and smiles at his group of international folk dancers who gather at Legion Recreation Center each Thursday night.
Even though Bernard will be 93 years old next month, those leather dancing shoes still get some action. He joined in on a Turkish dance, called “Konvali,” and was swinging his hips and stepping back and forth right on time.
As each tune ends, Bernard wastes no time before calling out the next one.
“Now, let’s do the Salty Dog Rag,” he said.
Then he begins scrolling through the listing of hundreds of live recordings that have been copied from records onto cassettes, CDs and now MP3s.
Bernard has been leading the Legion Recreation Center folk dancing group for at least 10 years and taught students at East Tennessee State University for several decades where he co-authored a textbook, “Folk Dancing for Students and Teachers.”
Bernard is considered the local expert on the subject.
“The thing about international folk dancing is every place you go they do things a little bit differently, but here there’s only one right way,” Cindi Huss said with a laugh.
Her family of four comes to Legion to dance each week and she describes Bernard as a stickler for details. If he thinks the group is getting off pace with the music, he’ll tap his cane against a chair to help them regain the rhythm.
“This community (of folk dancers) would not have survived so long I think particularly because the size fluctuates dramatically,” Huss said. “It started because Bernard started teaching classes at ETSU and he’s the only person I know who’s ever managed to incorporate students into an ongoing dance group.”
Many of the regulars at Legion remember taking lessons from Bernard at the University School during their high school days. One dancer said she remembered when Bernard could “dance you under the table” and was able to Polka with four women at one time.
Bernard said he began dancing not long after he returned to the states at the end of World War II and met his future wife Audrey in their hometown of Milwaukee, Wis.
“I met her (Audrey) and we started dating and wondered what we were going to do for fun,” Bernard said with a grin. “We got into square dancing. And we were doing pretty well.”
The road that would eventually lead Bernard to a doctorate in psychology and a position as chief psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home, also helped him discover a lifelong love of international folk dancing while interning in North Carolina.
“We were going once a week to a small town 30 miles away to dance,” Bernard said. “It was square dancing mostly, but there was one man who was very very persistent. And every week he wanted to teach an international dance, not square dancing. We would drive home and I would say to her, ‘Doggone him, I wish he would keep his folk dancing to himself. I want to square dance!’ ”
Eventually, Bernard said he was “infected” by his friend’s persistence and began to enjoy the art of international folk dancing. Through the travels to workshops and dance festivals, Bernard also got involved with Scottish dancing, which eventually earned him the scroll of honor from the Royal Dance Society that was presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999.
As his 93rd birthday nears, Bernard has a chain of accomplishments longer than the line of dancers bowing and bending each week at Legion Recreation Center. Not being able to participate in each dance is hard on him, but he knows that the time he and Audrey has invested in dance is what continues to keep them going.
“I think that dancing is so physically beneficial that there’s no question that it has a side effect of betterment of the mind as well as the body,” Bernard said.