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Dancing for the Public

This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of the “Gauzeitung” and was distributed as a handout at the Delegates Meeting in 1994.

Dancing for the Public

Our Vereine so often perform for the public that we are understandably prone to adding movements or even whole scenes that are there strictly for the entertainment of our audiences and no longer represent our customs. Or we combine dances that are not meant to be done in combination.  Although we often do this is an attempt to show an audience a slice of Bavarian life, we should heed warnings from our Bavarian and Tirolean cousins who have themselves made mistakes they have grown to regret.  Only by upholding our customs in good faith will we be able to pass them on to the next generations with a clear conscience and the knowledge that we ourselves have been “Treu dem guten alten Brauch.”

This article deals with four topics of interest to all conscientious Trachtler and Trachtlerinnen:

  • the “Watschenplattler,” a dance that originated to amuse audiences and which makes fun of our dancing;
  • the difference between doing dances as they were originally intended and “hamming it up”;
  • the correct use of props in dances; and
  • Rocklupfen, the wonderful flirtatious gesture of the man lifting his lady’s skirt (always with your foot, thank you).


Source of Information

Franz Hegenbarth is the author of the book Auf Geht’s: Das Buch uebers Schuhplatteln, which is a 160-page book he wrote after nearly a lifetime of thorough research.  Published in 1990, it addresses the origins and evolution of the Schuhplattler, discusses regional differences in the style of the Schuhplattler, and describes basic movements that the Plattler performs.  The book has a complimentary forward written by Hans Zapf, Vorsitzender of the Vereinigten Bayerischen Trachtenverbaende.

The following is a translation of pages 107-109 in which Mr. Hegenbarth discusses what we might call the “slippery slope” of upholding tradition or sliding down towards ridiculing the very dances we profess to love.

--by Karin Dean-Kraft, Vortaenzerin, May 1994

Schau- und Gauditaenze: Show and Amusement Dances

The Bavarian Oberland, the Chiemgau region down to the Salzburger lands, and all of Tirol are the heartland of Schuhplattler dances.  These areas have great scenic beauty and comfortable summer and winter climates; they are therefore quite suitable for vacationers the whole year through.  These are good prerequisites for tourism, which has grown over the last hundred years into a dominant commercial business for the area. Resort directors naturally emerged who busied themselves with the task of amusing the guests. At about the same time, Trachtenerhaltungs- and Brauchtumsvereine were forming. It follows that the efforts of one were coincidentally used to the advantage of the other.  One could dance not just for one’s own enjoyment but also for the enjoyment of the visitors.

Resort directors or Trachtenvereine—sometimes together, sometimes separately—each made an effort to show the guests something happy, give the guests something to laugh about, in short, present “a Gaudi” (amusement).  As a result, several dances originated that were so geared to the amusement of the tourists that the Trachtenvereine and conscience-ruled locals distanced themselves from the dances and blackballed them.

Der Watschenplattler

The “Watschenplattler” is the most well known of the Gauditaenze (amusement dances).  It is usually presented as a Burschentanz (men only dance) but may also have, for the sake of the public, some “Eifersuchtszenen” or jealousy scenes with ladies. In the “Watschenplattler,” figures are added to the “Reit-im-Winkler” whereby two men stand across from each other and exchange resounding slaps to the face in time to the music. This impression is achieved by the “hitter” just missing the face of the “hittee” while the “hittee” ducks a bit and claps his own hands loudly, which no one notices because the attention is focused on the “hitter.”

Horak (Karl, a renowned researcher of Schuhplattlen) wrote that two members of the GTEV Taubenberger in Holzkirchen (founded in 1905) thought up the “Watschentanz” and performed it for the first time in 1907 in Bad Reichenhall.  A theater couple, the Feils, are named as choreographers. The Vereinigten Bayerischen Trachtenverbaende do not allow their members to perform this dance, since it falls within the scope of cabaret entertainment.  According to Horak, the bayerischen Staatskanzlei (chancery) during the 1920s also banned the “Watschenplattler.”  This could not be confirmed with officials, but Ernst Hamzda in his book “Der Laendler” (1957) remarks on a similar ordinance of February 9, 1934.

Holzhacker-Tanz oder Holzhacker-Plattler

The evolution from a true “volkstuemlichen” or naturally originating Volkstanz to a regimented dance within a Verein to a commercially oriented Schau or “show” dance is otentimes fluid.  The “Holzhacker-Tanz” is an example of how the same dance can in one instance be a Volkstanz, in the next instance, a show dance.  The melody is the march “Tiroler Holzhacker-Buam” by Joseph Franz Wagner. In Tirol the youths plattl “wild” or without set movements just as Platteln was originally done (before organized Schuhplatteln); in the strictest sense, then, the dance is correct and original. Horak, who makes a strict differentiation between “Volkstanz” and “Vereinstanz,” therefore wrote about the “Holzhacker-Plattler” in an issue of “Tiroler Volkstaenze”; a sign that the Plattler, as described above, does not come under the heading of show dances.

In contrast and as evidence that the “Holzhacker-Tanz” can be shown in a completely different cultural plane is the following: In a town in North Tirol near the Bavarian border, the author attended a so-called “Heimatabend,” which was sponsored by the local resort. Among other things, an “Original Tiroler Holzknechtstanz” was presented. It was the “Holzhacker-Plattler”; and the men plattelt it, quite well, as a true Burschenplattler (men only dance). But then logs were dragged in, and they were chopped with axes so that wood chips went flying into the audience, and the whole day’s work was imitated, complete with rest periods. As a sign of how much the dance was geared towards the audience’s amusement, the men did not plattl in a circle but instead lined up facing their audience.

“Mahder” und andere “Geraetetaenze”: Harvest and other “Prop” Dances

All dances—this applies not only to Plattler—that are inspired by agricultural or hand work, are in danger of becoming tacky when too many props are used or when they are used too realistically. An example of this is the “Mahder” (a dance about mowing or hay harvesting), a Tiroler Burschenplattler.  When the movements of the sharpening of the scythe and cutting of the hay are done in pantomime, the dance is done correctly.  But when the dancer straps a water holder to himself, uses it on the sharpening stone, and then must lay aside his scythe in order to plattl, the dance turns into a show and no longer has much to do with the old dance pratices.

To sum up the problem of the use of tools or props, in many dances props are needed or indeed the dances revolve around the props—Reiftaenzen (dances using wreathes), Schwerttaenzen (sword dances), and Schnittertaenzen (harvest dances)—but props are not used for platteln. The Plattler is done without props.  If something must be put aside in order to plattl, it disturbs the flow of the dance. On the flip side, if props are needed for a dance, such as for the Schnittertanz, a Plattler sequence should not be built into it, even if the public expects it.  Loyalty to tradition is a better advisor than is the demand for laughs.

It is often not easy for a Trachtenverein to draw a line between what it would like to do to please the public and what it must do to stay faithful to old customs and ways. This dilemma is very clear to Vereine located in well known Bavarian and Tirolean towns.

As a general rule, no concessions should be made to the tastes of tourists, especially not to get laughs or to provide them with merriment.  We must stand pat that Tracht and customs are serious work. Remember that when we dance for our own enjoyment, those who see us will also find enjoyment in it.


Schuhplatteln should be done foremost and above all for the enjoyment of the Plattler himself and secondly for the enjoyment and amusement of hs own Dirndl (partner). Rocklupfen or lifting of the skirt is part of that fun. It is a boldness that a man grants himself when and if he knows that she will appreciate this little flirtation.  This was the case a hundred years ago, a fact we know from the writings of Fiedler and Flemming.  Both refer to Rocklupfen but say that it is always done with the foot and never with the hands.  Rocklupfen was discredited when it was done in show dances in front of large audiences only as a means of getting big laughs.  Because of that, a harmless flirtatious gesture which belonged within the private sphere was abused and adulterated to become a ridicule. This is why Trachtenvereine are cautioned against Rocklupfen in public but may continue to practice it within the privacy of their own Vereine.


The following appeared in the September 1988 issue of the “Gauzeitung”

--by Karin Dean-Kraft, from the book Miesbach “Wiege der Trachtenbewegung”

Verboten:  Did that get your attention?  Since 1925 the “Watschenplattler” or “Watschentanz” has been outlawed by all Gauverbaende in Germany and Austria. It is considered a rowdy dance meant only for entertainment. The mock fighting is also said to show the Bavarians in a bad light—the image is not one the Bavarians wish visitors to take home with them.  But we’ve all seen it done, and many of us have long believed that it is “echt” and part of our dance heritage.  If that’s what you thought, too, join the “oops” club.

(The “Watchenplattler” is done to the music of the Reit im Winkler.  Men stand opposite each other and pretend to land a slap (Watsche) to the back of each other’s head while clapping their hands to imitate the sound of the slap.)

So that IS the history of the “Watschenplattler”?  It was developed around 1910 by actors Hans Graf and Hansi Feil as a cabaret act in Bavaria and meant as a spoof of the traditonal Schuhplattler.  The two actors performed it to amuse the tourists.  When the “Verbot” against the dance was issued in 1925, one of the questions asked was why would anyone want to pretend to beat on each other in time to music just to amuse someone else?  Over the years it has often been condemned by leaders of the Trachten community.

Within the Bavarian Gauverbaende, this dance is occasionally done by young boys but never in public or at official Gau-sponsored activities.  At most, the “Watschenplattler” may be performed at a private party.  It is the acting community that has kept the dance alive and well known, especially among those not in the Trachten movement.  So if you’re ever in Bavaria and see the Watschenplattler, you’re probably watching professional actors who are not affiliated with a Trachtenverein.  (Also, if you ever have occasion to perform in Bavaria—be sure to write this dance OUT of your program!)

Another dance that is off limits to Trachtenvereine in Bavaria is the “Haberertanz” believed to have been first danced shortly before the turn of the century (1900).  The dance is not based on love or courtship as most Schuhplattler are, but centers on hatred.   Only men dance the Haberer, stalking each other, slapping each other’s behinds, making fists and threatening faces, and even pulling knives on each other.  In the early 1900s it is even said to have come to blood letting on occasion!

Part of the bylaws of the Bavarian Gauverband reads: “Abgelehnt werden solche Taenze (z.B. ‘Watschenplattler’), die in ihre Art unnatuerlich wirken, nur einer einfaeltigen Gaudi dienen und das Ansehen ‘bayerisches Brauchtum’ beeintraechtigen.”  “Rejected are those dances (e.g., ‘Watschenplattler’) which are contrived, serve only as silly fun, and injure the image of ‘Bavarian tradition.’”

When we perform it is good to consider whether the dances we present and the way in which we present them do justice to the pride we feel in our heritage.  After all, we represent not only ourselves and our individual Verein when we are in public but also our fellow Trachtler here and in Bavaria.

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