Few other cities have embraced the dances of the Twenties – the Charleston, Lindy Hop and Balboa – like Berlin
On Sunday nights, the clocks tick to a different rhythm at the RAW site in Friedrichshain, Berlin. Electro beats normally bounce off the walls of the techno clubs on this old railroad depot, but today, it’s the trumpets and clarinets playing tunes from great-grandma’s youth that waft from one of the graffiti-strewn buildings. Claire Chen, 35, and I are on our way to the Balboa night at the Crack Bellmer. The first guests are slipping on dance shoes as we arrive; many give her a welcome hug; in Berlin, anyone who loves the Lindy Hop, the Charleston or the Balboa knows Chen. A native of Taiwan, she runs an agency for 1920s to 1940s-style events. She’s also a member of a dance trio, a dance instructor, and has organized swing festivals, making her the ideal companion for anyone curious to find out why the dances of a bygone age are alive and kicking again in Berlin.
I’m looking forward to New Year’s Eve, when the Twenties start again
“There’s no other city in the world where you can dance till dawn to swing every day of the week,” says Chen, sitting beside me on a worn leather sofa, “…and to really good live music, too! People come from all over the world for that.” She introduces me to Athanasios Papasilekas, a 28-year-old dentist from Athens. “I come at least four times a week to switch off from work,” he says. His Portuguese dance parter, Alexandra Ramos Sousa, 25, also a newcomer to Berlin, raves: “The Lindy Hop and the Balboa aren’t about being sexy, like so many other dances; they’re just about having fun.”
Jimbino Vegan and The Swing Barbarians are on stage today, keeping the dancefloor filled. “When I hear this music, my feet start tapping” says Chen’s Swedish boyfriend, Freddie Karlbom, 35, also a professional dancer. The pair met at the Snowball swing festival in Stockholm. “Early jazz was made for dancing. Swing was the pop music of the day between the 1920s and the late 1930s,” he says. At the Crack Bellmer almost everyone makes a beeline for the dancefloor without stopping by the bar. The more this place fills up, the more I feel I’m being sucked into a different era. Even without loudspeakers, the band’s wind instruments reach into every corner of the room. The nearly 100-year-old hits of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and the like still work their charm. A guy with a trim mustache dancing in front of me looks exactly the way I picture Mack the Knife in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera; his companion wears a floral vintage dress. In the middle of the floor, an elderly man in shorts and sneakers twirls his partner, his big, bushy beard flying. “Many dancers dress in vintage swing style, but the dance evenings have no dress code,” says Chen, a culture management major who wrote her thesis on the culture of swing. “Back in the 1930s, the swing kids had their own look and way of dancing. That’s why the old dances are so right for our own time.” Freddie dances first with Diana Birenyté, Chen’s Lithuanian colleague, then he partners another man and later Chen. “In swing, you are expected to change partners after a few songs,” says Chen. “That’s why it’s called a ‘social dance.’” Sergij Goryanoff, 77, dapper in his pinstripe suit, explains: “Swing dances attract a young audience today because they are so communicative, although the partners don’t talk much.”
This former gym invites fans to kick up their heels twice a month to live jazz, with music from swing icons like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
The Ballhaus ballroom has functioning table telephones. It hosts parties and variety shows as wild as those of Berlin’s Roaring Twenties.
Anton Wunderlich & The Time Rag Department play trombone, trumpet and banjo for the swing crowd on Thursdays.
The next day, we step back into the past again. Chen and I meet up with Camille Boillét, 26, her French dance partner, at the costume rental Le Boudoir. They’re looking for costumes for upcoming shows. Handing them white marabou capes and pearl-studded dresses, the manager, Helmut Hellmund, 47, sports a silk cravat, looking like he’s just emerged from a time capsule. Zarah Leander is singing in the background.
Hellmund runs his fingers lovingly over a black 1930s suit. A customer found it in his grandfather’s closet after the old man died. “People are always dropping off rare old garments. They know that they will live on in my store. Most of all, they know that the clothes will get regular outings to a dance: Many of Le Boudoir’s customers frequent the 1920s-style, Bohème Sauvage parties that have been a regular feature on the Berlin scene for the past 13 years. But entire wedding parties also come to kit themselves out here,” says Hellmund. How does he explain the nostalgia this particular decade evokes? “Berlin was a very liberal place back then. Parties were exuberant affairs, about coming together, about the shared experience. That’s what people long for today. They enjoy asking each other to dance.”
Brazilian Lindy Hop dancer Felipe Braga bounces in, his hair pomaded to a gleam. He moved to Berlin just a few weeks ago and is already – obviously – friends with Chen. Until now, the 28-year-old dancer, teacher and competition judge has traveled the world, from one swing dance festival to the next, but now he plans to settle in Berlin. “There are still plenty of opportunities for musicians and dancers to organize parties here without much red tape and for little money,” says Braga. “The swing culture is really vibrant here.” He adds that this fall, he’s going to a dance competition in Korea, home of the world’s largest Lindy Hop community. “People there care most about the perfect dance style, whereas in Berlin, people want to party and enjoy themselves.”
Lindy Hop is a free-and-easy dance, making it a perfect fit for today’s nightlife scene. “It was born in the late 1920s at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, the first ballroom where blacks and whites could dance together. Women could ask men up to dance, and everyone could lead.” He has a simple explanation for the comeback of ballroom dancing: “People want to be close up again. When you’re dancing, putting on a front isn’t an option – your body language betrays everything about you. Frankie Manning, a dance legend from New York, sums it up perfectly: “Dancing the Lindy Hop means three minutes of being in love with the person you are holding in your arms.”
For tonight’s Long Night of the Museums, Claire, Diana and Camille are performing at the Berlin Culture Forum as Les Belles Magnifiques. In the distance, the lights of the office towers on Potsdamer Platz twinkle as visitors follow a marching band to the museum in hopes of learning the basic Charleston steps from the dance trio. Chen and her colleagues have barely entered the foyer in their silver-sequined dresses, feather ornaments in their hair, when they already have people dancing despite the rather frigid museum mood – step, kick, step, bend knees, turn – already, everyone is grooving their way back to the Weimar Republic.
“Claire suggested we play for dancers a few years ago,” says Daniel Duspiwa once his marching band, the Swingbop’ers, has stopped playing. “Now it’s what we like doing best because we can feel the flow of energy from us to the dancers.” His jazz teacher in Paris advised him to go to Berlin to learn more about swing. “My classes mainly focused on the experimental jazz that came up in the 1940s, but not on the early jazz that’s so great for dancing and is still celebrated in Berlin today.” Banjo player Johannes Krause adds: “I used to play in a punk band, but I love the clear rhythms of swing. In its early days, swing was a rebellious movement. Count Basie was already rapping in the 1930s!”
In the 1920s, Berlin had 800 ballrooms and bars with a dance license. Ballhaus Berlin and Clärchens Ballhaus still exist today, although the latter is due to close for a time in January for refurbishment. Today’s swing kids are as unstoppable as they were a century ago, and Berlin is still a cosmopolitan city that brings swing people together from all corners of the planet. So are we living in the past? Well, to quote Le Boudoir’s Helmut Hellmund: “This year, I’m especially looking forward to New Year’s Eve because that’s when the Twenties will finally start over again.”
The 1920s – revisited
Marlene Dietrich once stayed here. Now, thanks to film-set designer Dayna Lee, the Hotel Zoo boasts an elegant retro look.
MUSIC AND DANCE
Dancer Claire Chen’s agency provides musicians and dancers for parties and events in the style of the 1920s to 1940s.
On his guided tours, Arne Krasting takes visitors to original locations from the 1920s TV series Babylon Berlin.
LOOKING THE PART
The Le Boudoir costume store in Friedrichshain has a large collection of 1920s apparel for rental and sale.