Dance | Founded in 1941, inspired by the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, the Berkeley Folk Dancers is the oldest continuously operating folk dance club in the country.
The night kicked off with the Dospatsko Horo, a haunting Bulgarian folk tune that swayed around the Live Oak Community Center in North Berkeley like a young country girl in a village square.
With oneness of mind — and feet — nearly 30 women and men grasped hands, formed a large circle and moved to the melody. No one spoke, stepping toward the center as one, stepping back as one, kicking up their heels side-to-side and tripping the light folkloric.
This bit of Bulgaria was clearly familiar to the Wednesday-night intermediate/advanced class of Berkeley Folk Dancers, who soon moved on to Russia with the Nie Bouditie, then the Norwegian Stabberinglender, the Romanian Batuta de la Costesti, and even the Teton Mountain Stomp, an American traditional piece that sounded like something you’d hear playing on Main Street in Disneyland.
“That’s what I love about our club, the international feel,” said Yvonne Provaznik of Walnut Creek, a retired regional parks supervisor who was co-teaching this Wednesday night class. While there are numerous folk dance groups in the Bay Area, she said, most focus on dances from singular regions, making the Berkeley club unusual in its global appeal.
“Our repertoire is about 200 dances from dozens of countries, most from Europe,” she said. “But we also have Taiwanese dances, Mexican, Canadian, Japanese, and we’re adding new ones every year.”
Taking only one short intermission for water and treats, the class danced and danced and danced some more for two hours straight. But that’s nothing. This folksy frolicking has been going on nearly every night for 78 years.
Founded in 1941, inspired by the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, BFD is the oldest continuously operating folk dance club in the country. At its height in the 1970s, it had nearly 400 members. Through years of changing trends and head-spinning options for activities in the Bay Area, membership waned, then grew again to the current 150. And the group is still going strong, even increasing slightly in numbers with interest from a younger crowd. There are even offerings for kids.
And while most members these days are indeed quite mature, Suzanna Yeh of Berkeley, a member for 15 years, sees that as a life-affirming triumph.
“My daughter-in-law says to me how the people in the club are all so old,” Yeh said, chuckling. “I tell her, that’s because they’re dancing. Otherwise they’d all be dead.”
Mel Mann, a member since 1964, says the club saved his life — quite literally — 20 years ago. Mann had been dancing with a partner, “turning, turning, turning really fast on the dance floor when halfway through the record I was out of breath,” said Mann, a former school psychologist turned travel agent. “I decided to see a doctor, and they found an 80-percent blockage in five arteries. They did an operation about two weeks later. Two months after that, I was back on the dance floor.
“And I am still on the dance floor all these years later,” he said. “With no trouble at all with that heart.”
Indeed, today’s screen-addicted generation might have a hard time keeping up with these folks. There’s dancing five nights a week — classes from beginner to advanced Monday through Thursday, then an all-request night every Friday. There are partner and non-partner dances, so no one ever feels left out. There are dance parties several times a year where people come in costume and bring food. And BFD puts on the Festival of the Oaks, a Northern California folk dance festival held every February.
The club’s current president, Bill Lidicker, professor emeritus of integrative biology at UC Berkeley who joined BFD the same year as Mann, agreed with his friend about the physical exercise, but also touts the mental challenge.
“There’s plenty of research out there about the health benefits of dance in terms of exercise. But for folk dance, another important component is the intellectual,” he said. “You’re constantly learning new things, new complex steps, new music — and the spectrum is worldwide.”
Perhaps above all, the sense of community is what has kept this club thriving for nearly eight decades. Dear friendships have been forged. Many members travel together or go on long weekend dance workshops.
“If someone is sick, everyone sends cards, cooks for them, visits in the hospital,” Yeh said. “Four years ago when my husband died, everyone came to his celebration, brought food. This is a family.”
Club members are welcoming and gracious and determined on this night to get a novice off a chair in the back of the multipurpose room and into the swing of things. At least five members attempted it, but only Alyce Meier of El Cerrito, who joined the club in 1986, finally accomplished the task with a firm hand and gentle command. “Come on, you’ll love it,” she said.
Co-instructor Judy Stonefield led the dance. She also baked delicious blondies for intermission. “First part, the No. 1 couple will take the right hand with your partner and go down the center for four counts,” she announced over a wireless mic. “Then turn around, go back, then the No. 2 two couple is gonna start the figure eight. OK, let’s go.”
The novice had a bit of trouble coordinating her feet and was lucky not to be chewing bubblegum at the same time, but longtime members were kind and forgiving, letting her go back to her chair with some dignity intact.
“Everyone is welcome here. The folk dance group is a mixture of all kinds of people,” Mann said. “A lot of university people, several professors, and a lot of us who are not that elevated in society. It’s a community. I even found wife No. 2 here.”
Virtually dance around the globe with Berkeley Folk Dancers. Get more info at www.BerkeleyFolkDancers.org or just show up at the Live Oak center at Shattuck Avenue and Berryman Street at about 7:30 p.m. weeknights. Bring soft-soled shoes and an adventurous spirit. The Live Oak center is scheduled for an upgrade, so dancing may be temporarily moved to another Berkeley rec center next year.