Germany consists of different regions which each have their unique characteristics and their own varieties of dance. However, most German folk dances can be performed to the beat of either a landler, waltz or polka. In terms of folk dance, "German" refers not only to modern Germany but also to Austria, parts of Switzerland and Bohemia, a formerly German speaking part of the Czech Republic. Some of the most famous "German" folk dances actually originated in Austria.
Landler, Waltz and Polka
The Golden Encyclopedia of Music defines the landler (country dance) as an old Austrian peasant dance in 3/4 meter. At the end of the 18th century, it experienced a rise in popularity and is said to be the successor of the courteous and more sedate minuet. The waltz developed from the landler and spread like wildfire across the ballrooms of 19th-century Vienna. It is also in 3/4 meter but much quicker. For the first time in history, dancing couples came really close and embraced each other. Therefore, at its first introduction, the waltz was considered scandalous and amoral. The polka is a Bohemian peasant dance which became fashionable around 1830. It is played in 2/4 meter with characteristically jaunty tunes. The "zwiefacher" (twofold) is a Bavarian specialty. It changes between 3/4 and 2/4 meter.
Art Mimics Life
Like folk song, folk dance mirrors the experiences people had in daily life. By observing folk dance, you can deduce which occupations used to be prevalent in any area of Germany in times gone by. Nowadays, folk dance in traditional costumes ("trachten") is only performed by special clubs, dedicated to keep them alive. You can often find typical movements or sounds from certain occupations. For example, in the weavers' dance ("webertanz"), two rows of people mimic the movement of the thread on the loom. There are also dances like the anvil polka ("ambosspolka") and the lumberjacks' march ("holzhackermarsch").
Love and Courtship
Dance has always played an important role in people's love lives. Many times the only opportunities for girls to meet their future husbands were the barn dance, the may pole dance, the harvest dance and the like. While the older folk would gossip, the youngsters took to the dance floor in their finery--dirndl dresses for the girls, knickerbockers for the boys. In Bavaria and Austria, the pants were made of leather, the famous "lederhosen."
Folk dances follow strict gender roles. The boys are allowed to whoop, stomp and clap, while the girls twirl daintily, which lifts their skirts and shows their legs. The most famous of these "mating dances" is the Bavarian "Schuhplattler," which is usually danced to the rhythm of the landler. Interestingly, often only the men dance it. Here, the men are particularly noisy. They accentuate the rhythm by stomping their feet and slapping their leather-clad thighs and the soles of their shoes. Because of the slapping sound, the Schuhplattler is also called "Watschentanz." "Watschen" is the Bavarian word for slap or smack.
German folk dance provided not only entertainment for the people but also inspiration for the great classical composers. Mozart and Beethoven wrote landlers and waltzes. Chopin's waltzes and mazurkas are legendary. And of course, there is the "Waltz King," the "Walzerkoenig," Johann Strauss junior.