In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a glorious hall where the greatest warriors feast, drink, and compete every day. When I walked into the Main Ballroom of Harrah’s Conference Center on Friday night of Gaufest, this is what came to my mind. A sea of Trachtlers filled the room. I had never seen so many in one place, and their attention was drawn ahead to a group that was doing a Schuhplattler to a slow accordion melody. I stopped just to take it all in; the enchanting music, the groups in their colorful Trachten, and the beer and wine flowing freely from stands about the room. As I walked to the German Hungarians’ tables, a different song began to play and what seemed like a thousand young Trachtlers rushed to the dance floor. The song, “Anton aus Tirol,” tells of an Austrian man who is the best in all aspects. The motions of the dance celebrate his unmatched qualities of strength, beauty, and wildness. It’s the kind of dance that one could imagine being performed in Valhalla. After making a pitstop at a beer stand, I finally arrived at our tables and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the music while getting to know some members of our club better.
On Saturday morning, I headed back to the Main Ballroom to watch our warriors compete in the Gruppen Preisplatteln. I had watched them train for weeks; the women had practiced turning at the same rate, keeping those turns even, and maintaining good posture to keep a straight bell of their skirt; the men had practiced coordinating hits, catches, and stamps. They were motivated by a desire to attain the elite status of the top three groups by medaling in the competition; a feat that had come agonizingly within their reach when they had taken 4th place at several straight Gaufests. Fate had chosen the Haushammer as the dance to be performed that day, and I watched our group march confidently onto the floor. Dino struck up the tune and the group moved together like a well-oiled machine in harmony with the music. It was a pleasure to watch, and I sensed that they had achieved their goal. I enjoyed watching the other groups perform that morning too and seeing their different Tracht. A few color combinations were just beautiful. I also learned what a Gamsbart is when I asked a member of our club what the brush-like plume was coming from some male dancers’ hats. The answer: the hair of a mountain goat!
Saturday night was a special time for me as I would be performing in our group’s Ehrentanz during a formal evening or Festabend. I donned my lederhosen, white shirt, green vest, green tie, gray socks, and black shoes, and headed down to the Main Ballroom. I took my assigned seat and the night’s opening ceremonies began. Things kicked off with a parade of flags, including the national flags of the USA, Canada, Austria, and Germany, but also the individual flags of each Verein in attendance. Each group’s flag was held aloft by a Fahnentraeger or flagbearer; Sasha Malofiy Jr. has that honor for our group. As I watched him pass by, I was struck by the beauty and religious symbolism on a smaller, fringed banner that was also attached to our flagpole. It depicted a small white cross over a branch on a dark black background, and the fringes at the end reminded me of a priest’s garment. I learned after Gaufest that this was the Toten banner, which served as a memorial to club members who had passed. After each Fahnentraeger had taken their place in a line along the perimeter of the dancefloor, several national anthems were sung. They were all sung well, though the singing of the Canadian national anthem was particularly impressive. It was sung so beautifully and with such conviction that, by the time the female singer had finished, she had, for all intents and purposes, commanded a “patriot love” from this foreigner.
The anthems were followed by a ceremony where the various assembled groups received a commemorative banner for their flag. This ceremony was one of my favorite happenings at Gaufest. The lighting of the room, dim except for the center where the event was taking place, cast the ceremony in a regal light. The moment when a Fahnentraeger lowered his flag to meet the female Trachtler who attached a banner appeared like a painting. There was something old and true and beautiful about it. It reminded me of a few lines from one of my favorite poets, John Keats:
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”John Keats
Keats applied these words to a Grecian Urn which featured arresting images of humanity on its surface; the banner ceremony at Gaufest, in my mind, could easily be included among such images.
The ceremony was followed by a delicious three-course meal. Then came my big moment at Gaufest. It was time for the Ehrentanz. The hours I’d practiced at the Phoenix club and in my apartment, the helpful tips I’d received, and, most recently, a borrowed hat, combined to instill confidence in me; however, I still felt some nervousness as I stood waiting near the dance floor. I asked Sasha for some last-minute advice about performing in front of what seemed like a thousand people. With his words in mind and feeling a bit more relaxed, I joined my partner Michelle in line and waited for the music to start. I’m proud to say that I was able to get through the dance without missing a step! I enjoyed my little victory as the music ended and I stood with arms outstretched listening to a lengthy applause from the crowd.
My favorite part of Gaufest, however, would occur the following day during the awards ceremony. It was when I watched our Gruppen team, my friends, take 3rd place in the group competition. I had watched their hard work and sweat in the preceding weeks at practice and stood with them in the hope of a reward. When the announcement came, I felt a sense of joy and relief, and watched the same feelings sweep over them. However, they were not the only members of our group to emerge victorious that day; Nichole Blank Deely took 1st place, Janet Malofiy took 3rd place, and Evangeline Noel took 3rd place in individual competition for their age groups. To cap things off, our entire organization walked away with the award for most in attendance.
In closing, I had a great time at my first Gaufest. I enjoyed getting to know some United German Hungarians better as well as making new friends both within the club and from other clubs. It was also nice to experience the fruits of hard work, discipline, and dedication. Virtues which, in today’s world it seems, are rarely promoted. Finally, there was something really special about being part of an event that celebrates a dance style that, if the Encyclopedia Britannica is to be believed, stretches back thousands of years. It was like being part of a living Ode to something beautiful and fundamentally human.
Mike Stirm II