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Dance hall days

May 7, 2010

Berlin might be renowned as the home of techno, but DW's Kyle James looked at the city's lively dance hall culture, and found that it brings together an eclectic mix of people in a relaxed and retro atmosphere.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

I don't dance.

Somehow during my formative years, I missed that class. I never learned to waltz, cha-cha-cha, foxtrot, or swing. In college, my friends and I did do a lot of dancing, but it was of the freestyle genre, done amid thumping bass, strobe lights, and most often in an inebriant-fueled haze. The last time I tried the version performed by two people actually touching each other was at my sister's wedding - and it wasn't pretty. I vowed to just learn to live with my two left feet.

However, not far from my apartment in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood, in this city known for its fondness for thundering House and grinding Techno (see Scene in Berlin from 23.04.2010), there is a dance venue that has proudly kept its old-world, genteel sensibility. It might even be enough to convince me to dig up some dancing shoes and give the whole endeavor another shot - because the people who are partaking look like they're having a ball.

History of a dance hall

It's called Claerchens Ballhaus, and it is the most popular of the several Berlin dance halls that have survived all the tumult this city saw during the 20th century. Claerchens has been around for almost 100 years. It was a hedonistic playground in the heady days of Weimar Germany, and after World War II, Russian troops kept their horses in the back garden. Under the communists of East Berlin, it went into a slow decline with only sporadic bursts of popularity. Perhaps the hall - with its beautiful mirror salon upstairs, dripping with bygone glamour - was too flashy for that regime's dour sensibilities.

But now Claerchens is back in full bloom, pulling in Berliners and visitors of various stripes - from hip college students in their early 20s to aging couples who might have danced here in the 1950s. Whether the dancers are wearing skinny jeans and multiple piercings or support hose and polyester-blend suits, everyone gets along. Apparently, attitude gets checked at the door with the tuxedo-wearing gentlemen there.

The heart of the operation is a central dance floor surrounded by tables where food is served, from excellent pizza to traditional German fare. The music runs the gamut from Abba to German pop hits to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. There's something for every taste in song and step. Salsa lessons are offered on Monday, Tuesdays is tango, and Wednesdays are devoted to swing.

Famous fans, no inhibitions

Upstairs, the aforementioned mirror room offers a more intimate space for dining and music. Cool and dark with racked mirrors and more faded opulence than you can shake a stick at, you might hear a Russian gypsy band playing in the corner or run into Willem Dafoe or Bjork, who are said to be fans of the place.

Some friends were going to Claerchens the other night and I met them there. It was a beautiful, warm spring evening and in the front people sat at small tables, chatting over beers. Inside, in a dance class, two rows of people lined up on either side of the instructor, who patiently counted out the steps, again and again.

Then the couples took over the floor, some gliding effortlessly across the room, spinning and turning in perfect time, occasionally throwing in a good-natured dip. Others were less polished, laughing as feet were stepped on and legs entangled. No one was inhibited; embarrassment appeared to be a foreign concept. The joy was in the movement, and the people gliding across the floor seemed to realize that their dancing, like certain other activities, is best enjoyed by two.

I think it's time I finally learned to dance.

Kyle James is now shopping for some magic dancing shoes that will turn him into Fred Astaire in record time. Any leads?