Music and dance have always been a big part of my life. A secret bit about me many people (and most readers) probably do not know is I was a tap dancer for 17 years. I also played flute in my school band for 7 years. More commonly known is my love for going to local music shows, dancing around to dance and rock music of all sorts or bopping along to singer songwriter’s jams. I went out to dance and listen to live music often while living in NYC for the 6 years it took to complete my graduate degree.
With all of this music in my life, I couldn’t miss out on Berlin’s nightlife scene where music and dance is rather unique compared to much of what I have experienced back home. I was elated to find myself being transported back to the 1920s at a social dancing night, party with some French synth pop artists, and even get into Berlin’s famously exclusive nightclub, Berghain.
Social dancing to 1920s jazz
Club Bassy’s website said “Shuffle & Slowdrag Night.” My friend Frank and I expected some cool, old school beats and dancing, but we really had no idea what we were in for! We paid just 3.50 euro each at the door and entered a hallway leading us to choose from two rooms. Upon entering the room on the right, our ears were flooded with slow-time jazz and the dance floor was filled with couples twirling about, dressed to the nines.
The men were in slacks, top hats and suspenders and the women in pencil skirts and pinned up hair. I quickly realized I was among only a few females in the room wearing pants and flats. This was a place where the music, the dancing, and the fashion all meet and predate 1970.
We carved our way around the swinging crowd, got a couple of drinks at the bar on the far side of the room, and planted ourselves next the DJ, Doc Southpaw, spinning vinyl. We took some time to observe and get a feel for the place, enjoying the music and the amazingly skilled dancers. There were no solo dancers in this joint—only couples dancing close together but mixing partners was the normative practice. We commented on one couple and how good they were, but before long they had linked up with different people, no strings attached. Did all of these people come here knowing each other?
Later on in the evening, a gentlemen taking a whiskey break told us this was a social dancing night. A big group of people get together weekly to dance in this old style.
Feeling a little intimidated, we decided to switch rooms. For us, the timing of the music was a little slow in the first room. Frank and I are accustomed to the hip hop and thumpa-thumpa beats that rule the majority of the New York clubs. We were relieved to enter the opposite room to find a faster, hot-jazz beat. Amid DJ Mosquito Hopkins’ spinning in this room was the sound of the crowd’s shuffling feet as they bopped tightly up-down-up-down in quick succession.
Positioning ourselves on a balcony overlooking the crowd, it was as if we were looking down on a scene from a movie about the roaring twenties. I felt as though I had stumbled through a portal and was transported back in time. Here’s a video I took which barely demonstrates the feel of this unique club in Berlin:
The whiskey-drinking gentlemen asked us where we are from and noted, “Hey, you guys started this for us!” He was pointing out America as the birth-place of jazz. There are a lot other countries, including Germany, who do things better than the USA, but one thing to be proud of in America is our music. This was a nightclub in Berlin devoted to a style of music and dance that originated in my home country but is hard to find there at present day.
Guitar looping and synth pop at a French bar
At a couchsurf meetup my second night in Berlin, I met an Italian named Dario who plays in a band and frequents lots of local music shows in his spare time. He offered to take me to see one of these shows at a French-owned venue/bar. If you’re wondering, yes, I did find the fact I was in Germany going to a French bar with an Italian to be rather amusing! ;)
We entered Madame Claude, a former brothel which is not only a French bar but an artistic wonder in itself. You walk in and everyone’s sitting on the ceiling…or the ceiling is on the floor…or something. The room was inverted with tables, chairs, a pair of sneakers nailed down above your head and wall paintings turned upside down.
Heading down to the basement, we sat down on the side and waited for a guitarist to finish setting up. The artist, Makkara, had a series of pedals laid out in front of him. I’ve watched guitar looping/sampling on street corners in Manhattan and in videos online, but never live in a venue. I enjoyed the electronic beats he layered together. His mastery of his foot pedals was beyond impressive. But he received some negative feedback from the crowd for only having one guitar. He had to restring it mid-performance. I liked his performance regardless.
Next up was a duo called Merci Beaucoup. They had a 1980s new wave synth pop sound and sang a mixture of English and French lyrics. They danced and were very upbeat, even sometimes having some synchronized, choreographed moves. Here's a video I took of them that night:
I noticed the crowd being shy, however. They stood simply nodding their heads along to the music with about 15 feet between them and the duo. How could they not be dancing? I took the next opportunity to stand up out of my seat and break up the empty space with my body. I eventually pulled Dario up to dance with me. Sure enough, my enthusiastic dancing in front of the room led to others joining in.
After the show, the band and their French friends who had traveled with them to see them perform actually thanked me for getting up and dancing. “You made everyone else get into it!” they exclaimed. Sometimes it takes just one to break the norm!
We had a great time for the rest of the evening, partying with the band, talking with their friends, and others who were in attendance.
Electronic dance music at Berghain
From the first day I arrived in Berlin, I was told about Berghain. Around since 2004, Berghain was named the number one club in the world by DJ Mag in 2009. It has a reputation for having some of the longest running parties (24 hours or more!) and rejecting people from entry for no apparent reason. I was told everything from “wear all black” to “go on a Sunday at Noon" and my chances would be better.
I followed neither of these pieces of advice. I decided if I was going to get into this club, I was going on a night when I wanted to be there—Saturday—and wearing what I wanted—which, as a traveler, is all I had with me in my one bag anyway! I wore my magical black pants (for explanation on why their magical, see my post on falling while Icelandic glacier gazing), a t-shirt, and a button-down denim shirt with my moccasins and a scarf. Oh yes, I looked ready to go clubbing! ;)
Turns out, this seems to be the kind of “I don’t give a shit” mindset the bouncers were looking for. They allow entry to people who are there simply being themselves. Also, having a German speaker in our group helped. We were a band of four foreigners, Frank and I plus two couchsurfers I had met the week before. One was another New Yorker named Freddy (of blueperk.net) and the other was an Australian named Jackson who has been living in Germany for 3 years.
We positioned Jackson in front of us as we waited on the enormous queue stretching away from the door of the giant warehouse. As we stood there we could hear and feel the sound system blaring from inside. Blue, green, and pink laser lights danced about the third floor windows, enticing us with every flash. As we neared the doors, we stopped talking and just tried to relax. The two people in front of us were instantly rejected, no questions asked of them. Next in line, Jackson told the bouncers in German we were a group of four. I half expected them to reject us when, with a wave of their hands, we were in with our wrists stamped.
I completely understand the exclusivity of this place after having experienced it. Photos are not allowed (they literally put a sticker over your phone camera before entry!) so you'll have to use your imagination for this. There’s a mass of people inside and, with a line like that outside, they have to let people go. Despite the numbers, the building is H-U-G-E so it doesn't feel too cramped. This massive warehouse’s ceilings are 18 meters high in places. It's no wonder they need an insane sound system to fill the space up. The resulting acoustics were mind blowing.
With three floors, two main dance areas, several darkened side nooks and rooms (where some heavy petting certainly goes on), you can get lost in there. My favorite floor was the second floor where a sea of people danced to a fierce techno beat in a plume of fog billowing from a machine near the DJ. I stood directly in front of it so, at times, it felt as though I was dancing alone, my only company a bunch of shadowy figures reflecting off the fog in the light of the lasers.
I was told some people go to Berghain who don’t leave for more than 24 hours! But after just 4 hours of dancing and exploring this club, three out of four of us were completely exhausted. We stumbled out of the club together, leaving the never-ending electronic beat behind us.
All in all, the nightlife in Berlin demonstrated an eclectic mix of music and nightlife experiences. But I only just scratched the surface of what is available! I would love to go back one day to sample some more.