Spirit of the century waltzes on in Berlin ballroom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 9:13am


It has survived two world wars, communist spies and a Quentin Tarantino movie production and at the ripe age of 100, Berlin's most legendary dance hall is also among its most unlikely success stories.

As Claerchens Ballhaus (Claerchen's Ballroom) prepares to celebrate its centenary this month, the venue still sees party-goers young and old queue up in front of its crumbling facade. White-haired women in tiaras and dancing shoes wait to gain entry with hipsters in skinny jeans in a courtyard under a canopy of trees, strings of lights and a giant mirrored disco ball.

"Under the kaisers, the chancellors and the chiefs of the [communist] state council, in times of upheaval and social experiments, divided and united again - everybody on one and the same dance floor of history - every political system left its traces," Marion Kiesow writes in her new book timed for the anniversary, Berlin Dances at Claerchen's Ballroom.

Combing through the building from the basement to the attic, Kiesow uncovered decades of relics including love letters, sepia photos and even military maps left behind by Nazi officers during the second world war to help her tell Claerchen's story.

In the heyday of German ballrooms around the turn of the last century, Berlin had about 900 venues like Claerchen's, fixtures of every neighbourhood. Many were destroyed during the second world war air raids and those remaining fell out of favour in the 1970s and 1980s as revellers flocked to discos and later the techno clubs.

Only three of the imperial-era ballrooms in the city centre remain and Claerchen's is seen as the most authentic, with nightly dancing.

The venue opened on September 13, 1913, named Buehler's Ballroom after its first owner, but later became known as Claerchen's after the nickname of his widow Clara, a Prussian farmer's daughter. When business suffered after the first world war, Clara Buehler rented the building out for then-banned sabre duels popular among students and staged widows' balls.


Buehler, who remarried, kept the venue afloat. Under the Third Reich, "un-German" dance styles such as tango were outlawed, but the parties went on, often drawing the Nazi brass. Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels briefly banned public dancing during the war, and Claerchen's finally closed in 1944.

Life behind the Berlin Wall turned the place into a dive, where cheap beer drew rowdy soldiers, factory workers and travelling salesmen, some coming from West Berlin for the bargain and the dance hall's reputation for "loose women".

When her stepdaughter Elfriede Wolff took over in 1967, Buehler still sat at a reserved table to keep an eagle eye on her livelihood. Wolff held the reins until the Wall fell in 1989. Reunification brought soaring rents and an influx of boutiques and galleries along Auguststrasse, the street where Claerchen's is situated.

Theatre impresarios David Regehr and Christian Schulz took over the venue in 2005 and changed as little as possible. The pockmarked exterior wears its war damage and the patina of the last century like a badge of honour, and Claerchen's has parlayed that flair into use as a film set for Valkyrie (2008) with Tom Cruise, and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) with Brad Pitt.

Lotta Weigl, 39, leads swing dance classes in the once-opulent upstairs banquet hall, with its cracked mirrors and chipping paint. "The thing that I love most about this place is its spirit - it's a spirit you find not only in the building itself but also in the people who have worked here for so long. It's part of the Berlin tradition and about survival," she says.

Agence France-Presse