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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

berlin's enchanted ballroom...full of whimsy, widows and two wildly determined women

There is a magical place in the heart of Berlin...where widows once danced, and bombs fell, and whimsy ruled. It still does. This is Clärchens Ballhaus.

A few weeks ago, on a work trip to Berlin, I took in an afternoon tour of one of my favourite places. Whenever I have the good fortune to spend a couple of days in this fascinating city, I always try to spend a Sunday afternoon at Clärchens Ballhaus, where for over a century couples of all shapes and sizes have been coming to ballroom dance.

Marion Kiesow giving her presentation in the Spiegelsaal (Hall of Mirrors)

Back in the day, 1913 to be exact, this dance hall opened up in the centre of Berlin. It was pre-war, WWI, and Berlin was well on its way to becoming a global capital of modernization, technology and culture. The streets were full of private cars puttering around. Innovation and excitement were fueling a desire to be taken seriously; a yearning to be the next London or Paris.

And, into this heady atmosphere waltzed the neighbourhood dance hall. On the heels of the Belle Epoque era of "chanson" and the provocative caberets of Paris, Berliners flocked to dance floors around the city to sashay the nights away.

Opened in September 1913, by Fritz and Clara Bühler, Bühlers Tanzhaus quickly became known as "Clärchens", an affectionate turn on the hostess's name. Everyone was welcome to dance here. The general public in the large mainfloor ballroom, to popular tunes of the day (think Irving Berlin and Enrico Caruso), and the upper echelon of society in the upstairs Spiegelsaal (Hall of Mirrors) secretively dancing the newest craze...the Argentine Tango.

The Tango had arrived in Paris in 1905, a seductive mixture of the Habanero and the Waltz, and many other South American influences. It was an extremely sexy way for the avant-garde to express themselves behind closed doors. In November 1913 Kaiser Wilhelm II had restricted his officers from dancing the tango implying that only children of prostitutes would engage in such activity.

After the war came to an end and the city began a tough recovery period, Clärchen realized that there were far too many widows, including herself, now searching for a brief respite from reality. She began to host widows balls, personally inviting women she knew to come and dance with each other, and encouraging the few men who were still in Berlin to join them. The dance floor was full again, lonely people had reasons to smile again... the evenings were a hit.

Heinrich Zille, a very well-known Berliner satirist and illustrator spent much time at Clärchens Ballhaus, after he himself became a widower in 1919. His tongue-in-cheek depictions of the popular culture at the time and his social commentary about the common folk, to which he regarded himself as belonging, made him nationally famous in the 1920's. A few of his prints hang on the walls on the lower level of Clärchens.

The ballhaus developed a reputation for being 'ein derbes Vergnügen' (bawdy amusement), and that "no one goes home alone", with the maitre'd often warning young women, "be careful, not everyone is Prince Charming."

In 1932, Clärchen married for the second time. She had decorated the interior to reflect a sort of Japanese oasis, with Cherry blossom wallpaper covering the lower ballroom walls, while upstairs in the Spiegelsaal much remained untouched.

WWII began and the ballhaus had to close. Many difficult years followed, and much of the city was destroyed. Bombs took out the entire front area of the house, but miraculously left both ballrooms basically intact. To this day the mirrors are the original ones, with only minor cracks visible from the bombings. Most of the damage they've experienced has come from the sun.

The original chandelier which fell during the bombing, now hangs as decoration

Clärchen was innovative, and the people loved her for it. The war officially ended in May 1945 and by July the dance hall's doors were open and the ballroom was full of dancing. Berliners cleared a path through the rubble where the front house had once stood, music was played and people danced.

But, there was also the dark side of Berlin. The East. The Russian side. During the war, the Russians took over Clärchens using it for war planning meetings. After the war, the Stasi spies were in Clärchens watching and recording what Berliners were saying and doing. Only on the dance floor were they really free. Berliners needed the music, and they needed to dance. And Clärchen did everything she could to keep things moving.  

When the Russians finally cleared out of Clärchens, she was left with all of the garbage they left behind. Horses had been living in parts of the house, materials and war remnants, along with rolls and rolls of maps were left upstairs in the Spiegelsaal. Times were extraordinarily tough for Clara, so she improvised and used all of the materials she could. She cut up the maps and had her staff use them as scrap paper to write out drink and food orders.

In 1948, Clärchen found out that her husband had a daughter from a previous relationship. She came to live with them and in 1967, after working alongside her 'new' parents, she officially took over the ballhaus.

Through the decades of the cold war and the seperation between East and West, not more obvious than the imposing Berlin Wall cutting through Berlin Mitte, Clärchens survived. Berliners kept dancing, couples fell in love and got married, and over the years Clärchens Ballhaus became known as the "Wartesaals des Glücks" (the waiting room of happiness). Couples who met and fell in love at Clärchens are still a thing.

Now, Clärchens has a large beer garden out front, the main ballroom for Sunday "tanz tees" (afternoon dancing), restaurant dining and dancing (of course), and special events, such as Oktoberfesting good times. There is also a closed-in Wintergarten (below) for private functions - a room which I immediately fell in love with.

If you find yourself in Berlin, I would highly recommend you check out Clärchens Ballhaus for an afternoon beer, an evening dance or just a tour through the magical Spiegelsaal. Walking across the creaking hardwood floors where widows, soldiers and Clärchen herself have walked before, seeing your reflection in the hundred-year-old mirror that could tell a host of stories if it could, or just watching couples gliding around the dance floor free in the music, is enchanting. I personally love being in this special place and that's why I always pop in for a visit. Maybe the next time I'll stay awhile... and dance.

If you go:

Website for reservations and Marion Kiesow's tour info:

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