By all accounts Ryan Woidke seems to be a normal 19-year-old born and bred in Lakewood, Ohio, where he still lives on weekends while in his second year at Kent State University. A graduate of Lakewood High School now majoring in Criminal Justice, trim and athletic, a full-time academic with two part-time jobs, he blends in with most other backpacking students.
Except on Friday nights, when he changes his t-shirt and blue jeans for deer-hide leather shorts, wide embroidered suspenders, a white cotton shirt, a green wool hat with a grouse feather ornament, knee socks, and black shoes with thick two-inch heels and cleats as big as horseshoes.
Once transformed he goes shoe slapping at the Donauschwaben German-American Cultural Center in Olmsted Township on Cleveland’s southwest side. The shoe slap dance is schuhplattler.
The Donauschwaben are the Danube Swabians of Eastern Europe, a German people who colonized parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the Danube River in the 18th century. After WWI their lands were parceled out to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. After WWII most fled their farms and towns when faced with the advance of the Iron Curtain. Many relocated to Ohio, to Cincinnati, Akron, and Cleveland.
The Donauschwaben have a Coat of Arms. It is made of a German Eagle on top and a fortress below. The eagle is black and the fortress towers are between a sun, symbolizing the rise of Christianity, and a crescent moon, symbolizing the setting of Islam.
“What happened was that in my freshman year at Lakewood High one of my best friends asked me to help serve dinner at their winter dance event,” said Mr. Woidke. “Later on he invited me to a practice, and, of course, when you show up they start making you dance. I was hooked on it right away.”
Schuhplattler, or hitting the shoe, as it is called, is native to the mountainous regions of Bavaria and Tyrolean areas of Germany, in which women spin around their partners or simply spin in place and men execute a syncopated series of loud slaps on lederhosen-clad legs and soles of their shoes.
Between slaps men and women both waltz to the accompaniment of accordions, sometimes three or four or more of them, a wall of wheezy but smooth sound ranging from very soft to very loud.
Accordions are assembled with wax and the best ones are always fully handmade.
“I had never danced before,” said Mr. Woidke. “I don’t know if I have plattle or not, but at least for this I do.”
Rhythm is known as plattle in schuhplattler circles.
Schuhplattling requires flexibility, stamina, and unity of the group, so that the slapping isn’t just loud only, but is one loud slap in concert. Men slap themselves on the knees, thighs, and feet. Traditionally a courtship dance, a means to attract the opposite sex, it became a way to showcase the agility and strength of men and a spectacle to dazzle women.
Watschenplattle is a variation of schuhplattle. During the slap dancing men smack each other firmly on the butt in addition to everywhere else.
Schuhplattler is almost a millennium old, first described in 1050. In modern times washing one’s hands afterwards, especially if watschenplattling, has become a rite before starting up any other courtship-like activities.
“Some of us are younger and have the endurance for it,” said Mr. Woidke. “Others are in their 50s, but they’ve been doing it since they were little kids, so they’re used to it.”
Schuhplattling originally came to Cleveland in the early 1920s when four couples toured the city demonstrating the European folk dance at civic functions. The dance group Schuhplattler und Trachtenverien, better known as STV Bavaria, was formed in the mid-60s and today thrives with more than a hundred members, ranging in age from 7 to 70.
“Many of our young adults grew up within the club, but Ryan came to us as a teenager,” said Paul Beargie, vice-president of STV Bavaria and a long-time Lakewood resident.
“He has taken to the dance and fully immersed himself in the culture. It is encouraging to see his enthusiasm to learn and pass on what he has learned.”
Five years of weekly practices, competitions, and cultural events have immersed Ryan Woidke in the history and customs of his adopted Bavarian Alps and the dancing that dates back 40 generations.
“Ryan is more than a dancer,” said Kenny Ott, president of STV Bavaria. “He’s second-in-command of the men’s teaching. He’s a young man who has stepped up and assumed a role of responsibility, perpetuating the culture for at least another generation.”
One of four dance directors for the group, Ryan Woidke brings a young man’s energy to the thousand-year-old tradition.
“I’m at the point where they can show me five dances a night and I’ll know all of them,” he said
Every year STV Bavaria participates at the Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest, drawing large crowds. It is the club’s major fund-raising event, as well as an opportunity to perform their native dances, and sometimes even strut their stuff before an audience often unfamiliar with schuhplattler.
‘We do all kinds of funny skits,” said Mr. Woidke. “In one of them we come out dressed as old men with canes. A lady comes out with a sign saying she’s got a special brew, and we drink it, go around the glockenspiel, and when we come back, we’ve lost our beards and scraggly wigs, and we’re dancing upright. It’s like the beer that makes you younger.”
A recent poll on the Oktoberfest Facebook page rated the colorful STV Bavaria pavilion and their folk dances in full costume tops for the holiday weekend, for more reasons than one.
“We have sponsors who donate bead necklaces and sunglasses, and we toss stuff out to the crowds right after the shows, “said Mr. Woidke. “One year they gave us Jagermeister apparel to throw out.
“Another time it was thongs. That was nuts, everybody was grabbing for those.”
Affiliated with Gauverband Nordamerika, a non-profit foundation formed in 1966 to preserve and carry on the cultural heritage of Bavaria and Tyrol, including their ethnic costumes and dances, Cleveland’s STV Bavaria group regularly competes in the biennial Gaufest national competition. Since 1973 they have won 7 gold medals.
In Orlando, Florida, in July 2011, STV Bavaria brought home first place in the Gaufest group dance, and well as placing two couples in the top three of the singles competitions. They qualified for the 2012 Bayrischer Loewe in Germany, at which event they will go shoe-to-shoe against teams from both the fountainhead and from around the world.
Mr. Woidke can’t wait.
“We’re going to go and compete against all of their best,” he said. “I’ve only been here five years, so there are many things I don’t know, but I’m still going.”
By his own reckoning part German, largely on his father’s side, Mr. Woidke dances schuhplattler for the heritage, for the competition, but mostly for the camaraderie.
“The people are great,” he said. “It’s like one big family. They’re fun to hang out with.” What he meant was the energy and community of putting on a show, the village atmosphere of people who care about what they’re doing and about each other.
Mr. Woidke’s future plans include getting his undergraduate degree, attending the police academy at Kent State University, possibly enlisting in the Marine Corps, and definitely schuhplattler.
“No matter what, even if I go into the military, I’ll keep it up,” he said. “I can jump right in when I’m on leave. You can’t beat it.”
At the Bayerischer Lowe in Gauting, Bavaria, in May 2012 Mr. Woidke and the Cleveland group, STV Bavaria, took 5th place in the Gruppenpreisplattein, or group dance.
In 2013 STV Bavaria defended their first place North American Gaufest medal, again taking the gold.
After transferring to and graduating from Cleveland State University, Mr. Woidke, a life-long gun enthusiast, enlisted in the United States Army. He is currently stationed in South Korea, where he works as a Military Weapons Specialist.
Slap dancing is unknown in South Korea, although the actor Tom Hiddleston improvised a schuhplattle one night for his fantasy fans in Seoul, South Korea, during the premiere of the movie Thor: The Dark World.
Ryan Woidke, meanwhile, continues to work on his plattle, with the thought in mind that it’s never smart to give a sword to a man who can’t dance.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.