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Bavaria is a land of festivals. The wheel of the year is turned by celebrations such as the raising of Maibaums, Krampuslaufen and, of course, the world famous Oktoberfest.

There are, however, a group of festivals that occur on longer cycles with stranger origins. The most famous of these are the Landshut Wedding every four years, Oberammergau Passion Plays every ten years, and the Munich Schäfflertanz, the subject of this article, which happens on a seven year cycle.

Both the Oberammergau festivities and the Schäfflertanz had their origins when populations in Bavaria were decimated by the bubonic plague, yet there is a difference in intent. The Oberammergau Passion Plays are supposed to be the fulfillment of a contract with god to spare the town further suffering. The Schäfflertanz origins are more earthbound.

In 1517 Munich suffered its third outbreak of plague. People were fearful to venture outside, even when the disease seemed to abate. City life died with the victims. A Schäffler (cooper, or barrel maker) realised that the population needed encouragement to leave their homes, and had the idea to dance through the streets. He was joined by other members of his guild, and the Schäfflertanz was born.

The Schäfflertanz took its current form about 130 years ago, and the way the dance unfurls will look familiar to anyone who has seen Morris dancing.

Each dancer has a different role, with the company made up of two Kaspern (or clowns), twenty dancers, two Reifenschwinger (hoop twirlers), and a single Fähnrich (flag carrier), as well as a brass band, and often a young woman dressed as in the black and gold robes of the Münchner Kindl. The Münchner Kindl has been on the Munich City coat-of-arms since the 13th Century. Originally thought to represent a monk, it is now shown as a child (the Kindl of the name).

While the dance only happens every seven years there are well over a hundred performances during Fasching (Carnivale) outside community centres, schools, and in the street (it is not uncommon for business to sponsor a performance to happen outside their place of work).

The dance itself has a very particular form, and several elements are tied to the Schäffler’s traditional trade of barrel making. While everyone else gets themselves ready the clowns enter the crowd and smudge people with ash for good luck. No-one young or old escapes this blessing.

Clown applying ash to a child at Schafflertanz Festival (Image courtesy of Steve Toase)
Clown applying ash to a child at Schäfflertanz Festival

The dancers create a circle and after the formal introduction by the figure of authority, normally the sponsor, the two clowns fight over the purpose built yellow and black barrel. The clowns then continue to move through the audience, marking those with soot they missed first time around, and the dances begin, each one ritualised and precise.

There are six intricate dances, including The Snake, The Cross, The Arbor, and The Crown. The whole performance culminates in the Reifenschwung, when the Reifenschwinger stands on top of the ritual (reinforced) barrel and holds two wooden hoops (very similar to those that hold barrel staves in place), each one containing a glass of wine. The hoops are then spun through a complicated series of moves, representing the head, and the stomach. The Reifenschwinger drains one glass and throws it over his shoulder, while the other one is fed to the figure of authority.

Reifenschwinger balancing wine glasses in wooden hoops (Image courtesy of Steve Toase)
Reifenschwinger balancing wine glasses in wooden hoops

For me the interesting aspect is not so much the dance itself, but the interval. Seven years is a considerable gap between performances, meaning that before thirty an individual may only have four years when they can see the dance. The ritual is something transient and spaced, rather than a fixed point in the annual cycle. This gives it a different quality. A part of the social world that can easily be missed.

There is an old science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury called “All Summer in a Day”. Margot has moved with her family from Earth to Venus where it rains all the time apart from two hours every seven years when the sun comes out. Always feeling like an outsider Margot talks about her earthborn joy of the sun to the other children. The children react by bullying her and locking her in a cupboard, only remembering that she is still there after the two hours of sunlight have passed.

While it would be naive to directly equate the Schäfflertanz with the appearance of the sun in the story, Ray Bradbury does get at the heart of missing something that is part of the community, but rolls out over such a long timescale. If you miss the Schäfflertanz aged 7 you have one more chance before turning adult to experience it. For me this gives the whole performance a different quality than annual celebrations. One that is more vulnerable and exists more outside that annual cycle of rites.

The Schäfflertanz visited my son’s school, and my wife watched it with her Kindergarten class in an urban courtyard. I ventured out and saw the dances on a street in Munich’s office district. We all had our noses blackened with soot, and watched the Schäfflers weave their garlands of leaves into bowers and crowns. I’m glad we had the chance. Who knows where we will be in seven years.

(Images courtesy of Steve Toase)