By all accounts Ryan Woidke appears a normal 19-year-old, born and raised in Lakewood 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 exchanges 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, black shoes with thick two-inch heels and cleats big as horseshoes, and goes shoe slapping at the Donauschwaben German-American Cultural Center in Olmsted Township.
“What happened,” said Woidke, “was in my freshman year at Lakewood one of my best friends asked me to help serve dinner at their winter dance event, and later he invited me to a practice, and, of course, when you show up they start making you dance, and right away I was hooked on it.”
The dance is schuhplattler, or ‘hitting the shoe’, native to the mountainous Bavarian and Tyrolean regions of Germany, in which the women spin around the men or in place, and the men perform a syncopated series of loud slaps on lederhosen-clad legs and the soles of their shoes. Between slaps the men and women waltz to the accompaniment of accordions.
“I had never danced before,” said Woidke. “I don’t know if I have rhythm (known as plattle in schuhplattler circles) or not, but at least for this I do.”
Schuhplattling requires flexibility, stamina, and unity of the group, so that the slapping isn’t just loud, but is one very loud slap in concert. Traditionally a courtship dance, it developed to showcase the agility and strength of men and as a spectacle to dazzle women.
“Some of us are younger,” said Woidke, “and have the endurance for it. Others are in their 50s, but they’ve been doing it since they were little kids, so they’re used to it.”
Schuhplattling came to Cleveland in the early 1920s when four couples toured the city demonstrating the 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 Woidke in the history and customs of his adopted Bavarian Alps dancing that dates back to the 11th century.
“Ryan is more than a dancer,” said Kenny Ott, president of STV Bavaria. “He is second-in-command of the men’s teaching. He is 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, Woidke brings a young man’s energy to the one-thousand-year-old tradition.
“I’m at the point 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 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 Woidke. “One year they gave us Jagermeister apparel to throw out. 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 group dance, and well as placing two couples in the top three of the singles competitions. They qualified for the 2012 Bayrische Loewe in Germany, at which they will go shoe-to-shoe against teams from both the fountainhead and from around the world. 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, 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.”
Woidke’s future plans include his undergraduate degree, the police academy at KSU, possibly enlisting in the Marine Corps, and definitely schuhplattler.
“No matter what,” he said, “even if I go into the military, I’ll keep it up. I can jump right in when I’m on leave. You can’t beat it.”
In the meantime he will continue to work on his plattle.