Night owls and morning larks flock to the Kocherlball

Dancing at the Kocherlball in style (photo Jeff Ely)

Mention that you are going to the Kocherlball, which takes place annually at dawn one Sunday in July, and people immediately tell you that you must get there early if you want a place at one of the tables. The obvious question is who would even want to sit at the Kocherlball?

What began in the late 19th century (and was lost for years until resurrected a few decades ago) as a celebration for maids, butlers and all manner of servants, has become one of Munich's most curious traditions. That says a lot in a city that has the world-famous beer-soaked Oktoberfest, as well as the Tanz der Marktweiber (dance of the market ladies) during the celebration of Fasching (the Bavarian carnival). It is there that men dress as older ladies and dance for the amusement of Munich's merry citizens. But that story is for an entirely different occasion. The subject at hand is the Kocherlball.

The participants at Kocherlball wear Lederhosen and Dirndl (Bavarian national costume), but instead of the more practical type for Oktoberfest, here elegance is the goal. Women wear brooches, and have their hair done up. Men wear only their finest Lederhosen and round it off with waxed moustaches and slicked back hair. The tables are set with candelabras and the finest cuts of meats, cheeses and bread. Though beer flows aplenty, this is not a drinking game. This is a chance to step back in time, and judging by the crowd, it will only continue to grow in prestige.

What happens at the Kocherlball? Many people stay up through the night and arrive hours before dawn. Getting a good seat at one of the beer garden's tables means you can eat, drink and be merry until 6 a.m. when the dancing officially begins. Like almost any Bavarian event, the being merry part is integral.

At a few minutes to six, the anticipation was intense. The latecomers, which were anyone not there at 3 a.m. or earlier, stood around and wondered if the festivities would indeed begin punctually. At precisely 6 a.m., the band struck up a tune, and the people, who moments ago had simply been standing around, suddenly began to ballroom dance.

The spectators were quickly admonished for getting in the way of the dancing, and soon the area in front of the Chinese Tower was filled with couples twirling round. At one point, a woman informed the dancers from an erected stage, that at the Kocherlball women could dance with women and men with men, yet the numerous same-sex dancing couples had not bothered waiting for such permission.

The waltzes and even a Hungarian csárdás were exactly the sort of music you would expect, but the time of day made the entire event a whimsical spectacle. On Sunday 15 July, there were as many couples as the eye could see dancing across the ground of this most popular beer garden in the English Garden. If you have not experienced the Kocherlball, you should mark your calendar next year when the 2013 date is announced. And get there early.

The Kocherlball attracts the most colourful ladies (photo Jeff Ely)

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