Berlin Square Dancers Do-Si-Do to 'YMCA'

Introduced by US military personnel, square dancing catches on in Germany.

President Clinton leaves Germany today after a two-day visit that marked the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift, when Western Allies kept the city supplied through the 1948-1949 Soviet ground blockade. But the celebrations don't include one aspect of American culture that's taken firm hold here in the wake of the US presence: square dancing.

The normal quiet of a Sunday spring evening in the German capital was broken recently by all the whooping and hollering down at the White Rose recreation center. Lofting from the basement windows are calls of "yee-hah" and "do-si-do," as dozens of feet slide across the parquet floor.

Due to the cramped, temporary quarters, the 30-odd T-shirt and jeans-clad dancers aren't outfitted in their traditional garb, including full petticoats for the women and Western-style shirts with bolo ties for the men. About 100 people in all belong to the Berlin Swinging Bears, just one of the city's nearly dozen square dance clubs. And while the caller gives such down-home instructions as, "Don't stop, don't slow down, keep on walking around the town," the music doesn't always inspire images of the American West. Some dancers do their best hyena impressions as they swing to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)," or clap and sing along to "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."

Square dancing was brought to Germany and other European countries by American military personnel after World War II. At first, Germans could only go to dances on US bases if they were invited by local servicemen or women. As its popularity grew, Germans began forming their own clubs.

While square dancing remains centered in the US - the United Square Dancers of America counts 310,000 members -it has particularly caught on overseas in Germany, where about 12,000 dancers belong to 370 clubs with fanciful names such as the Ahrensburg Castle Ghosts and Funny Squirrels. England, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Sweden also boast square dance clubs. Crucial to the growth in Germany is the fact that, unlike in the US, young people - some as young as 13 - flock to square dance clubs here.

"I'm 55 years old, and in [square dance clubs] in America, I'm considered a young man," says Al Stevens, a full-time caller who stayed in Germany after his retirement from the US Air Force in 1983. In contrast, Mr. Stevens says that in the four clubs where he works, the average age of dancers is about 26.

FRANK HEBER, a thirtysomething caller for the Swinging Bears, says he likes it not only for the good physical exercise, but the intellectual exercise as well. "You really have to concentrate," he says. Joining a square dance club is no easy feat. Dancers must take about 40 weeks of classes before they can participate in regular dances.

Many Swinging Bears say they enjoy square dancing because, unlike other popular dances here, such as line dancing, competition is not allowed. The group's motto "just for fun" is strictly followed.

"We are like a family," says Ute Merabti, a computer engineer. "Here [we are] all together people with different jobs, rich and poor, old and young," she says.

Joachim "Joe" Beckmann, of the European Association of American Square Dancing Clubs, says the same holds true in other German clubs. "We have students, workers, doctors, lawyers - every profession and every education."

The bond does not end after the regular Sunday sessions. The Berlin Swinging Bears go out to eat together, play volleyball, and even take annual en masse trips to the country.

Uwe "Lucky" Friedrichs has enjoyed square dancing for the past 10 years exactly for that reason. "It's a good way to meet people," he says, as fellow club members strut their stuff to the disco hit "YMCA" in the next room.

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