SHALL WE DANCE?

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Need a waltz partner? Hankering to do the jitterbug? Why not hire yourself a "taxi dancer"? Cornelia Rudat reports on the revival of a long-lost service in Berlin ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

It all began in a glamorous vintage ballroom in early April. I tagged along with some friends who were shooting a television feature about Eintänzer, or "taxi dancers", a long-lost profession that is now enjoying a revival. It turns out many people will pay to be twirled properly on the dance floor.

According to Ulrike Albrecht, who runs Walzerlinksgestrickt, a popular dancing school and ballroom in Kreuzberg, Berlin hosts a lively dance scene for those who prefer fine parquet floors to hammering techno beats. But traditional dances tend to require a partner. What do you do if you are single? This is where "Be my dancer" comes in. Launched last summer, it is an agency of professional dancers for hire, otherwise known as taxi dancers. Genteel, fetching and dazzling on their feet, these men and women offer their services on the dance floor for anywhere between an hour and an evening, depending on how much you are willing to pay.

Boheme SauvageAmid the twirling skirts and suited gentlemen in a grand and vaulted space, I fell in love. Everyone moved so well; everyone looked so lovely. When one of the taxi dancers asked me to the floor, I was thrilled. But then I was flustered. Surrounded by such anachronistic grace, I felt all too aware of the fact that my waltz, foxtrot and jive lessons were more than 30 years old (though my professional dance partner was far too good to let me look foolish). 

So when Roland Waizenegger, the founder and manager of "Be my dancer", invited me to a dance class the following week, I readily agreed. Waizenegger, who works in a private hospital by day and loves dancing at night, came to understand that a man who enjoys dancing is a rare commodity. "There has always been a shortage of male dance partners," he told me. "Women appreciate men with good dancing skills, and that made me feel more self-confident."

Waizenegger became inspired by stories of taxi dancers, a trade that peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s in Berlin and other major cities. (The term is derived from the fact that a dancer's pay is proportional to the amount of time spent with a patron, like that of a taxi driver.) In Berlin between the two world wars, when young able-bodied men were fairly thin on the ground, ousted aristocrats and jobless army officers with posh manners began earning money spinning ladies in the city's many dance halls. (Billy Wilder, a Polish-born Hollywood film director, allegedly worked as a taxi dancer in Berlin for several months in 1926. He was a 20-year-old aspiring journalist at the time.)

These days men are still rare on the dance floor, but largely because they needn't waltz to woo anymore. So Waizenegger founded "Be my dancer", Germany's first 21st-century agency of taxi dancers, to please the many ladies who haven't been dipped in a while, and the men wouldn't mind doing more dipping. But this is not an escort service, Waizenegger clarifies. "We are no gigolos, which is highly appreciated by our customers." Advertising is all word-of-mouth, and most new clients buy the starter package of €40 for two hours of dancing.

After my first dance class, I felt prepared to show off my moves. But venues in Berlin where the jitterbug is encouraged are scarce. "You should go to Boheme Sauvage," Waizenegger suggested, referring to a popular vintage party scene in the city. The event, which takes place once a month at different exotic locations, recreates a dance hall from the 1920s or '30s, replete with swing dancing, jive music and retro costumes. The parties have caught on among glam-starved Berliners. It turns out that many long to dress up and attend smart balls rather than sweat the night away in a dark discotheque. Inga Jacob, the young founder and hostess of Boheme Sauvage, which began in 2007, said tickets sales continue to go up, with many orders from overseas tourists. Such soirees, Waizenegger explained, are a perfect platform for his charming Eintänzer.

Boheme SauvageThe dress code for a Boheme Sauvage is strict: 1920s vintage clothing only, from bohemian to burlesque. The events have become so fashionable that there has been a local spike in demand for "Roaring Twenties" garb. This has inspired some fashion designers, such as Andrea Kierch in Prenzlauer Berg, to sell tailored 1920s-style dresses. Others, such as Bonnie and Kleid in Kreuzberg, offer vintage clothing for rent. A friendly shop assistant at Bonnie and Kleid had enough patience to let my try on as many dresses as I wanted. I spent almost two hours in her little shop, finally walking out with a fringed claret Charleston dress, a black feather boa, long black gloves, black bandeau and two long pearl necklaces--all for €35. A pair of black stockings with a seam running up the back (my own) completed the look.

My inaugural Boheme Sauvage experience took place inside a stunning dome atop a former post office, now an exhibition building in trendy Berlin-Mitte. It was very swanky, with women in sequined dresses and men in bow-ties and top hats. Some gathered by a casino to gamble away millions of (fake) Reichsmark, while others indulged in silent films or sipped absinthe. My attentions, however, were turned to the dancing. The floor was filled with couples doing the Lindy Hop and the Eight Count (a swing dance named for Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic Crossing in 1927). Waizenegger's taxi dancers were busy, which the floor looked lively and many ladies were lucky. And so was I, although tired and with blisters on my feet when I left the party at 3am. I hadn’t danced so much in ages.

The next Boheme Sauvage is an open-air party on July 25th at the Pfingstberg Hill in Potsdam.

 

Picture credit: lepiaf.geo (via Flickr), Frederic Schweizer

(Cornelia Rudat works in The Economist office in Berlin. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was about watching "The Producers" among Germans.)