Wilhelm Schmid is head of the Münchner Schäfflerbund (Munich Coopers’ Association). Tradition dictates that the members of this association dance every seven years – and theoretically now would be another good opportunity. A conversation about dancing without spectators and customs in times of crisis.
In the past, coopers were as much a part of Munich as breweries. After all, they produced the barrels in which beer was delivered to pubs and restaurants locally and to the wider world. Now, there is just one barrel-maker left in the city, run by Wilhelm Schmid in Laim – which means Schmid has sole responsibility for keeping a special Munich tradition alive. Just once every seven years his association, the Münchner Schäfflerbund, meets publicly to perform the famous Schäfflertanz (cooper’s dance).
Mr Schmid, you manage Munich’s last surviving barrel-maker together with your son. As a cooper, do you take a different view of the coronavirus crisis?
I don’t know about that – we coopers aren’t immune to the virus. But it is clear that parallels to earlier times can be drawn. Legend has it that the Schäfflertanz came into being in the late Middle Ages, when Munich was reportedly struck by the plague, and one third of the city’s population is thought to have died of the disease. Afterwards, public life collapsed completely, and people were so afraid that they no longer dared to leave their houses. That’s when the coopers decided to give people courage by dancing through the streets.
To show them: look, the crisis is over?
Exactly. And of course, we shouldn’t forget that the situation back then was much worse than it is today. One third of Munich’s population dead – that would mean almost 500,000 people today. Hunger was also widespread because farmers would no longer bring the food they produced into the city, out of pure fear. It was a very different picture.
Munich has survived multiple epidemics throughout its history; for example, cholera was rife in the city during the 19th century. How did the coopers cope with crises like these?
We would need to look that up in an archive. One example from my own recollection was in 1991: many of the Fasching (carnival) events were cancelled that year because of the Gulf War. Munich’s carnival died a death that year – which it hasn’t really fully recovered from even now. Our dances, which we should have performed in the city centre, had to be moved to other venues. We really wanted to perform to give people courage, but not everyone understood that and some were downright hostile towards us.
There aren’t many coopers left in Munich any more to keep the tradition going. Who performs the Schäfflertanz these days?
In the past, there were so many coopers serving the breweries that membership was subject to strict rules: up to 1956 you had to be a trained cooper, have been living in Munich for at least two years, be single and have a good reputation. When aluminium beer kegs began to emerge, the number of trained coopers kept falling, and the rules were relaxed. By 1977 – the first time I took part, when I was 20 years old – the first members from outside the trade were taking part.
Fewer than ten of our members are trained coopers. Apart from them we have a little bit of everything, from caretakers to bankers. You have to be enthusiastic and willing to give up your time – in the years when we dance, we are on the go for six weeks straight.
In the current situation it would be high time that you gave people courage again. But the next Schäfflertanz isn’t due to take place until 2026. What are the chances that you will bring the performance forward?
Actually, when the coronavirus outbreak began to accelerate, my first thought was that this would be a good time to organise an unscheduled dance. It depends on infection rates though; when we perform in Marienplatz, thousands of people come to watch. Also, unlike the coopers in the Middle Ages, we need permission from the Regional Administrative Office to perform.
You don’t think dancing without spectators is an option?
Not at all! A few people have said to me: just record it and broadcast it on television. But that wouldn’t be the same. Football without spectators is maybe okay, but Schäffler dancers without an audience – that just doesn’t work. No; we have to be patient. Even the State Chancellery has rung me about it.
He said that as soon as all this is over, he would love to be there for our first dance. We would be delighted to see him there.