An interesting phenomenon I discovered in Germany is a particular compulsion and connection to a processional circle dance they call a Polonäse. One or more people start it off, and then others join on behind them, attaching themselves to the shoulders or hips of the person in front of them, and then continuing to stomp to the music. It resembles, of course, what we call in English a ‘Conga Line’, which seems to have become popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and probably of West Indian or African origin. But this German version, while sharing a similar period of origin, seems to occupy a much more pivotal nostalgic place in the hearts of western Germans in general.
First of all, there’s an actual traditional polish dance called a Polonaise. This has absolutely nothing to do with the dance I am talking about, however. Secondly, this German Polonäse has a strong connection with Karneval experience … hence it being more predominant in the western Karneval-regions of Germany. The figure of the Fool at the front of the line leading everyone around in pointless meandering circles while being interconnected (and having pointless fun) being very much within the overall ethos of the event. During times of deprivation in Germany in the early and mid 20th century, the expression to have been ‘dancing the Polonäse’ all day was sometimes used to describe standing in food-queues for long periods of time. There are also historians who suggest that the Nazis helped to promote the dance as part of their folklore revival, focussing more on dancing as a united group instead of the usual ballroom dancing style of being in separate couples.
But then, in 1981, along came a singer by the name of Werner Böhm who, performing as the comedic singer Gottlieb Wendehals, recorded a song called the Polonäse Blankenese. Blankenese is a town in Germany from which the dance in the song is said to begin and then end beyond Wuppertal, about 380 km to the south. It became a number one hit for nine weeks in Germany. It was a song about doing a Polonäse dance, and the atmosphere within which one does the dance, which would then—during the performance of the song—always turn into a polonäse dance with Gottlieb up front, in his ridiculous chequered jacket, his heavily greased and parted hair, and tattered briefcase and rubber chicken under one arm. He had the strange over-exuberant combination of a creepy second-hand car salesman, desperate comedian and clumsy performer … but he does it so well that it works!
It’s also a very interesting song for German learners to pick through. Google Translate struggles with it, because it’s full of interesting and sometimes suggestive expressions and puns. For example:
Wir ziehen los mit ganz großen Schritten,
Und Erwin faßt der Heidi von hinten an die Schulter.
The first line here finishes with “Schritten” (steps) and then goes on to tell us where Erwin is going to grab Heidi … which turns out to be the shoulders, but the rhyme structure suggests otherwise (the impolite German word for ‘breasts’ most likely…) and in performance Gottlieb will usually pause before singing “Schulter” to emphasis the gag, which hovers deliciously between crudity, kitsch and irony … as does the whole thing.
Unfortunately for Werner Böhm, despite several efforts, he was never able to make it out from under the shadow of his character: Gottlieb Wendehals. He went on to do ‘a polonäse’ of different Reality TV shows and occasional reprisals of the role everyone wanted him to play, during Karnival in particular. But he certainly has a place in the heart of the contemporary German, even if that might be an antagonistic one at times… Certainly he is now the most strongly associated figure with the festive dance ritual, the biggest recorded version of which was 250 000 people in one polonäse in Hamburg, which might not be 380 kms, sure; but … still: jetzt kommt’s!