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Platteln for the Queen

As we all know, the Queen has two birthdays. One is the 21st April (today!), the day on which she was actually born. Happy birthday, Your Majesty! The other is not a fixed date, but usually the second Saturday in June, the day on which the official celebrations take place.

In June 2006 Abingdon celebrated the Queen’s 80th birthday. There was a procession of the Councillors preceded by the Mace Bearer, a Bun Throwing, and the Abingdon Town Band played. Among the photographs the museum has of the occasion is a snap of a group of men and women in strange costumes (see the featured image). The women are in long skirts with aprons, with chains criss-crossing their chests. The men wear black shorts, red waistcoats and green hats. Who are they? What are they up to? Are they really wearing lederhosen?

Well, the answer to that last question is yes, those are genuine lederhosen. And the other questions are easily answered, too: these people are visitors from Abingdon’s twin town Schongau, and they have come here to dance.

Schongau is a town in Bavaria, founded in the Middle Ages. It is first documented in the 11th century in connection with a nobleman Huc de Scongova (Hugh of Schongau). The town was positioned close to several important trade routes and became a hub for trading goods between Augsburg and Italy. Visitors to the town today are encouraged to view the medieval town centre, the well-preserved town walls, and also the surrounding countryside. After all, the very name of Schongau is derived from two old German words meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘region’.

General view of Schongau (photograph by Thomas Springer, public domain)

Among the many clubs and societies active in Schongau today is the Trachtenverein Schlossbergler Schongau, and some of its members are pictured above. The club’s aim is to preserve the traditional local costume and to practice traditional music and dances. Far from being a generic lederhosen and dirndl affair, local costume varies from town to town, and the Schongau club has strict rules about which components to wear for which occasion. The club takes part in several church and town festivals throughout the year, the raising of the Maypole, club events and dancing competitions.

You can make out some of the typical features of the costume in the photograph. For the women there are the white socks or white tights, the white blouses with puffed sleeves, and the chains going across their chests, sometimes hung with silver coins. Typical for the men are the black leather shorts with embroidery (the pattern is particular to Schongau), the braces with the crossbar (again with a special Schongau emblem) and the red waistcoats. The socks deserve special attention, too: they must be knitted knee socks, white with a green pattern at the top, which, you’ve guessed it, is particular to Schongau. The socks are hand-knitted by club members.

Unfortunately we do not have a photograph of the group in action, although they are described as dancers in our photo catalogue, and the Trachtenverein does practice music and dance, particularly the most famous of Bavarian dances: the Schuhplattler.

The origins of the Schuhplattler are obscure. During the 19th century its popularity spread throughout the eastern Alps, but it is likely that its roots go back much further in time. It probably developed from the Ländler, a dance in ¾ time. In the beginning it was danced by one pair at a time, and provided a platform for the man to impress the woman with his skill and athleticism. At certain points during the dance the pair would separate and the woman would continue to twirl while the man performed a complex sequence of movements which incorporated slaps with his flat hands on his thighs, knees and soles, finger snapping, hand clapping, foot stamping and jumping, all in time to the music. Afterwards he joined the woman again for a concluding waltz.

A couple dancing a Ländler, illustration from 1897. The male dancer is seen snapping his fingers and stamping his feet. The young man seated in the corner beneath the clock is providing the music on a zither.

The Bavarian Wikipedia page* explains that the dance was developed by people used to physical labour – forestry workers and farm labourers – and was an outlet for their physical prowess which, they hoped, would be attractive to the girls. One origin myth for the Schuhplattler claims that it was derived from the mating display of the Capercaillie.

During the 19th century the dance evolved from a ‘mating display’ to a show dance, now danced by several couples at a time, and performed at festivals and for tourists. Since the 1880s, the main proponents have been the Trachtenerhaltungsvereine, societies for the preservation of local costume, of which the club from Schongau is one. The Schuhplattler became more standardised, and was taken up in cities like Munich and Vienna.

This postcard shows very clearly the vigorous and athletic nature of the Schuhplattler.

Another new development in the early 20th century was the emergence of purely male Plattler-groups, where female participation was dispensed with. This emphasised the performance character of the dance, since the more spectacular elements had always been performed just by men.

In more recent times these groups have been complemented by women-only groups and a group in Munich composed entirely of gay men. These innovations are frowned upon by traditionalists, but their supporters point out that they hark back to the spontaneity and improvisation of the dance’s early days. Other controversial innovations are showy additions like chopping wood and cooking ‘Schmarrn’ (a Bavarian/Austrian sweet dish) on stage during performances. Another version, the ‘Watschndanz’ (face slapping dance), in which two participants slap each other, may look traditional to some, but was invented by comedians, as the Bavarian Wikipedia page points out. This version may be comparable to Monty Python’s ‘fish slapping dance’.

The club in Schongau practices a more traditional version of the Schuhplattler. They dance it with several couples at a time, arranged in a circle. They even take part in prize competitions, in which the participants are judged not only on their dancing skills but also on the accuracy and completeness of their costume. The leather shorts are of advantage here: the Schuhplattler is a very energetic and athletic dance, and the shorts don’t hamper the dancers’ movements like long trousers would.

A print from 1900 of couples dancing the Schuhplattler to guitar accompaniment. Today the music is more often provided by accordion players.

Here is a link to a YouTube video of a Schuhplattler performance, which has all the standard elements: the couples entering, various figures danced in a big circle or by the couples, then the couples separating, the slapping elements performed by the men in the centre while the women continue to dance in a circle. Look out for the exit when the men turn their partners under their arms, making the skirts fly. This is known as ‘Dirndldrahn’ – turning the girls. In fact, a female performer of the Schuhplattler is not called a ‘Plattler’ but a ‘Dreherin’ – a turner. Note also the wooden dancefloor and the higher-than-usual heels on the men’s shoes. These bring out the noisy elements which are a characteristic component of the dance.

Traditional Schuhplattler was taken by German emigrants all over the world – this performance was filmed at Anaheim in the United States. “Haushammer” is the name of this particular type of Schuhplattler, originating in the town of Hausham in Bavaria.

Despite the early evolution into a show dance, the Schuhplattler remains a genuine and firm part of Bavarian culture, and to some extent even symbolic of it. Its role is perhaps comparable to that of the Samba in Brasilian culture or the Sirtaki in Greek culture. It is therefore not surprising that Schongau, when sending representatives to the Queen’s birthday celebrations, would send members of the Trachtenverein.

And finally: fancy cooking your own Schmarrn? It’s easy! You need:
4 eggs
125g flour
250ml milk
A handful or two of raisins
Pinch of salt
A few drops of Vanilla extract (if you have it)
Oil for frying
Icing sugar to serve
Separate the eggs. Mix flour, salt, egg yolks, milk and vanilla in a bowl.
Mix in the raisins. Let the mixture rise a bit for 20 minutes.
Beat the egg whites and gently stir into the mixture.
Heat the oil (gently, not smoking hot). Pour in the mixture until c. 5 mm thick. Fry for c. 3 minutes until golden underneath. Flip over.
Tear the thick pancake into pieces with two forks. Add a bit of oil and continue to fry for a bit until golden brown on both sides. Put onto a plate and keep warm while you continue to fry until the mixture is used up.
Serve sprinkled with icing sugar.
Whether you want to perform a thigh-slapping dance while cooking is up to you.

*Wikipedia has a page on the Schuhplattler in standard German, but also one in Bavarian dialect (where is it called Schuahplattla), which has extra information. I do not speak this dialect, but it is comprehensible enough for me in its written form.

Sources: apart from Wikipedia I have taken information from the website of the Gebirgstrachten-Erhaltungsverein Schlossbergler Schongau:

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer


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