Southside group spreads German culture with folk dance

With a flurry of claps and slaps, the dance was set in motion.

High-energy, rockin’ alpine music drove the dancers through their moves. Inside the German American Klub’s spacious dance hall, the members of die Fledermäuschen Tanzgruppe twisted and turned, bopped and weaved through traditional folk steps.

The troupe had a performance in a few days, and was working on routines to showcase the rich dance culture of regions such as Bavaria and Austria.

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“There’s nothing more gratifying than to share something that you love with other people, and have them appreciate it,” said Marie Lawlor, the director of the group. “People enjoy having us there, because it adds atmosphere to their event. We’re walking around in lederhosen and dirndls, so even when we’re not dancing, it adds to the fun.”

A mainstay on the southside for the past 30 years, die Fledermäuschen Tanzgruppe has become increasingly visible throughout the state of Indiana as ambassadors of German dance. The group’s approximately 20 members have taken part in folk dance festivals, Oktoberfest celebrations, the Indianapolis 500 Festival parade and private parties.

Getting the steps right was important, but not as vital as cultivating fun and fellowship while preserving a vital piece of German heritage.

“It’s nice to have that appreciation of preserving our culture, over generations,” said Susan Losche, a member of the group. “And I like the friendships that come out of it.”

The troupe will perform a special show at the Greenwood Public Library at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The dance group was born from within the German American Klub in the mid-1980s, unsurprising due to the club’s role in preserving German culture. The German American Klub has been located on the southside since 1979, and operates the Edelweiss Restaurant, an authentic German eatery open to the public and club members.

In addition to the restaurant, the club hosts a variety of cultural events and festivals, including an annual Oktoberfest, picnics and other community activities.

When the dance group was formed, it adopted the name die Fledermäuschen Tanzgruppe. The name is a nod to the famed operetta by Johann Strauss II, and translates to “little bats.”

“After we decided to become a dance group, we needed a name. So we did the diminutive of der Fledermäus, which is die Fledermäuschen — ‘a bunch of little bats,’” said Thea Cozad, one of the founding members of the group and still active with it.

German dance is defined by the music and styling, rather than the steps themselves. The style typically has more clapping and shoe plattling — striking the thighs, knees and shoes — than others. Much of it looks like folk dances such as square dance, which makes sense since many of the steps used in square dances are borrowed from Germany and Scandinavia.

Under Lawlor’s direction, the group is focused on inclusive dance for all.

“It’s about fun,” she said. “I explained to the group that if they were looking for a director that would be all about precision and doing things exactly right, I wasn’t the one for them. I do strictly recreational folk dance with the aim of encouraging people to dance with us. That’s what folk dancing is.”

People all all ages and backgrounds come together to form the dance troupe. Members range in age from the early 20s to the late 80s, giving the group a wide variety of perspective.

“The dynamic is having so many ages is perfect. It illustrates that folk dancing is for everyone,” Lawlor said. “We have some dances that the younger ones do, the more energetic ones. But most of the dances everyone can do.”

For southside resident Bob Behnke, maintaining that German heritage was an important motivator to joining the group. He and his daughter, Emily Behnke, participate in part to recognize their own heritage.

Caleb Drake, a Franklin resident, was taking a language class with Losche and another member of the dance troupe. They approached him about joining in the dancing.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to dance, and looking for ways to interact with different people outside of going to a restaurant or a bar. It was a nice activity for all ages,” he said.

In their performances, the group dons traditional dress such as lederhosen, feathered caps and dirndls. They go through the various dances of their routines, powered by horn-heavy alpine music.

At the end, they grab people from the audience to teach them the steps, connecting with the people watching their show in a greater way.

That’s how Travis Jerde joined the group. He was attending an Oktoberfest celebration a more than two years ago and was pulled up into the performance as an audience participant. He enjoyed it so much that he joined the German American Klub just to be more immersed in the culture.

“That was distinctive in my mind, compared to any other party or event that you would have gone to,” he said.

While September and October are typically some of the busiest times for the dance group, in association with Oktoberfests, the organization’s calendar has increasingly become full the rest of the year as well. They have already performed at a Perry Township elementary school and a Lebanon craft beer, wine and spirits festival.

In April, they be doing a Maypole performance for the first time at German Park, and then doing another Maypole event in Oldenburg one week later.

“Since I started, the first year, we did Oktoberfest and a few other events. It feels like every year we’re having more and more places to go, and people are having new festivals. It’s a great way to meet people from other parts of Indiana and other states,” Emily Behnke said.

Greenwood library planners invited the group for a performance as part of its winter reading program, an extended look at German culture, said Jane Weisenbach, director of development for the library.

Events have provided a deep dive into fairy tales, and the library is offering a travel package for a trip to Germany from Sept. 30 to Oct. 12. Some of the stops include Berlin, Munich, Dornröschen Schloss Sababurg, the castle of Sleeping Beauty, and Trendelburg Castle, where folklore says Rapunzel was imprisoned.

The trip will include multiple sites that inspired and were settings for fairy tales, as well as visiting locations integral to World War II history, such as the Brandenburg Gate and Dachau concentration camp, Weisenbach said.

For the members of die Fledermäuschen Tanzgruppe, the event is a perfect opportunity to spotlight something that people might not realize about their own culture, Lawlor said.

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German dance performance

What: A cultural experience featuring the different types of German dance, performed by the southside-based die Fledermauschen Tanzgruppe.

Where: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Greenwood Public Library, 310 S. Meridian St.

Cost: Free

Get involved: The dance group is looking for people to join their organization. Open practices are held every Wednesday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the German American Klub, Edelweiss banquet hall, 8602 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis. Contact Marie Lawlor at (317) 501-4814 or at [email protected].

Booking the group: die Fledermauschen Tanzgruppe is currently accepting booking for performances. Contact Susan Losche at (317) 987-3099 or [email protected].

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German Fairy Tale trip

The Greenwood Public Library is organizing a literary tour to Germany from Sept. 30 to Oct. 12. The focus of the trip will be fairy tales and the locales that inspired them. Those interested in signing up can contact Becky Tilson of Tilson Travel at (317) 402-6982 or [email protected]. More information can be found at or