As a child, I remember gathering delicate powder blue forget-me-nots by the handful. I stuffed the tiny blossoms into the paper cones I had haphazardly constructed. I left these small tokens for my neighbors to find on their doorstep. This was the way my mother taught me to welcome spring. Soon though, I outgrew this ritual and no longer acknowledged the changing seasons. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I once again welcomed the spring on May Day. It was here that I learned to dance and celebrate. It was here that I first learned to “Tanz in den Mai” – dance into May.
Let me begin by stating that I am not a dancer. So when my neighbor asked if I would be interested in attending folk dancing classes with her, I was reluctant at first. But, I was determined to continue to experience as much as I could that was authentic to Germany. Folk dancing may not be something that every German does, but classes and clubs – they are very German. People are always learning something new here, they are always active. Whether it’s a language, music, or a physical activity, I haven’t met too many Germans that don’t either belong to a club or take some sort of lessons.
I was a bit apprehensive about attending dancing lessons in German. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had visions of Bavarian dancing and the Polka, but it wasn’t that kind of folk dancing. Over the course of three years, I learned dances from Greece, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Albania, Turkey, Israel, Russia, and even the US.
The first class I went to was during Fastnet (Carnival). If you are familiar with this time of year, you will know that most everything involves wearing a costume. When my neighbor told me I should dress up, I thought she meant business casual. She showed up looking like a flapper, and I looked like an extra from 9-5. We were greeted at the community hall by flappers in every color along with their male equivalent. There were a couple of hobos, and someone who was a dead ringer for a Bolshevik revolutionary. The theme for this Fastnet party was the roaring twenties, and glitter and feathers filled the air. In my stolid black skirt, black pumps and buttoned up cardigan sweater, I was nervous and uncomfortable. Here I was looking so uptight, in a room full of Germans looking and behaving absolutely unlike the stereotypes that often depict them. Then the dancing began. I didn’t know the steps, the words, the rules of behavior. I stood to the side watching the entire group move effortlessly together. I watched until one of the instructors grabbed my hand, bringing me into the circle. I barely know my left from my right in English, but in German, I was dancing.
I grew to love both the dancing and the people I danced with. It was here that I realized how misleading stereotypes really are. This was the friendliest group of people I had ever met. No matter how bad my dancing was, they encouraged and helped me along the way. We laughed and joked and celebrated the time away. Dancing became a highlight of my week when I could fit it in. It wasn’t long before I was attending the classes with a very good friend from Greece. Unlike me, she had started dancing Greek folk dances when she was four years old. Watching her dance was truly special, you could see how deeply she felt the music. And while some of the songs would bring her to tears, it also helped her endure the difficulties back home in Greece. Music is a language everyone can understand. It is the memory of the soul, holding within the walls of its rhythm heartaches, struggles, tragedy and celebration. It records the magic of love, birth, celebration and community. Folk music is the most intense version of this expression. In the music and the dance, it is a return to the past, a connection between what was and what is. There is a mystic quality to sharing dance and music with friends.
Winter gave way to spring, and soon the end of April approached. The first of May is a holiday in Germany, nearly everything is closed. Most people know May first as International Workers Day. But the celebrations are much older than that. In pagan Germany, it was known as Walpurgisnacht. It was marked then and now with bonfires and revelry. It is another time for celebrating the final defeat of winter and welcoming the warmth of the growing seasons. It is also a night of romance and mischief. Drive around southern Baden-Württemberg on May first, and you may see signs of true love, or betrayal. A young woman finding a maypole in her front yard in the morning should expect a proposal soon, but finding a mattress on your roof means that your unfaithfulness was discovered. It is a night that youths take to the street with toilet paper. It was the only time I remember seeing people on the streets when I returned home in the early hours of the morning.
For my dancing group, it was time to “Tanz in den Mai”. I had no idea what that entailed, but by this time, I was fairly used to being clueless about what to expect. Instead of the community center where we held our regular dance classes, tonight one of the couples in the group was hosting us. They were in the process of renovating a large farmhouse in a place, as the say in Germany, where the foxes and the rabbits bid one another goodnight (a quaint version of the middle of nowhere). It is one of those old German farms with the houses attached to the barn. But instead of raising livestock, they converted the barn into a dance hall. Small tables lined the walls in intimate groupings, hidden behind freshly cut willow blossoms and spring blooms. The soft glow of fairy lights lit the interior, casting shadows that moved in time to the music.
Outside, I watched the garden slowly disappear in the twilight. Goats and horses frolicked in neighboring pastures, savoring the warm spring air. The birds whispered their greetings to the rising moon. In the distant hills bonfires began to glow against the darkening sky. From the barn, the rhythmic sounds of a different place, of a different time called to me.
Not unlike the pagans before us, we celebrated spring together, with an evening of dancing, laughing, drinking and eating. Today the names and the steps to those dances escape me, but the music will remain with me forever.
How do you celebrate May Day?