Retiring the ribbons: Maypole choreographers take a final bow

September 2014 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, People
Bev Fleckenstein, front, left, Teresa Bryant, Nann Fleck and Tia Purdy are retiring as Oktoberfest choreographers. Bev, Teresa and Nann have done it for 25 years, Tia  for 13 years. The girls are all first-time dancers.

Bev Fleckenstein, front, left, Teresa Bryant, Nann Fleck and Tia Purdy are retiring as Oktoberfest choreographers. Bev, Teresa and Nann have done it for 25 years, Tia for 13 years. The girls are all first-time dancers.

By Kristine Thomas 

Twenty-five years of teaching the maypole and other traditional German dances has taught Nann Fleck, Teresa Bryant and Bev Fleckenstein one thing: the magic will happen.

Although it may seem quite impossible on a warm, August evening as they watch preteen girls collide into one another like atoms and trip through steps like nervous bridesmaids, they learn the dance.

“This is where I stop and pray,” Nann said as she watched the girls weave in and out while bumping into one another.

Experience has taught the veteran instructors to take deep breaths and remember, it’s only the first practice.

It will happen. It has before, it will again.

After several practices – and by the time Oktoberfest starts on Sept. 11 – these young girls will have learned the steps and their dancing will memorize and delight the crowds gathered to watch them near the Village Bandstand.

“My favorite part of teaching the girls and their mothers to dance is when the light bulb goes on and they realize they can dance,” Nann said. “When they get it, that’s what I love seeing.”

Mount Angel Oktoberfest
Sept. 11, 12, 13, 14
Thursday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – midnight
Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. or
the Sept. 10 Mt. Angel Shopper
for a complete
schedule of events

The team has gone thru four sets of maypole ribbons over the years. After this round, however, Nann, Teresa and Bev, along with Tia Purdy, who has been teaching for 13 years, are retiring as the choreographers for the mother-daughter and middle school dancers.

They are handing the ribbons to the maypole – along with the original irrigation pipe that has been transformed into a maypole by several coats of paint – to Kelly Grassman, who is recruiting a new team to carry on the tradition.

Watching from the bleachers, Kelly laughs as she confesses, “I never wanted to be Nann.  I don’t even have the words to describe what Nann has meant to our community and to the festival. She is amazing. I know I have really big shoes to fill.”

Passing the ribbons and filling the shoes are a necessity. The retiring teachers say their “bodies just can’t do it anymore.”

“The dancing will continue regardless of who is teaching it,” Nann said. “It might look a little different but that’s OK.”

Nann was asked to teach the traditional German dances 25 years ago by Mary Grant, who was then the president of the Mt.Angel Oktoberfest board.

“I really think the children’s dancing helped turn Oktoberfest from a beer garden party into a family event,” Nann said. “The dancing brought a real family sweetness to the event.”

Wanting to get children involved in Oktoberfest as a way to plant the seed of the importance of volunteering for the town’s festival, Mary said she called Nann, who she knew had experience teaching dance and organizing the May Day celebration in Woodburn.

Bev Fleckenstein demonstrates the maypole steps while Nann Fleck guides a young dancer into a turn.

Bev Fleckenstein demonstrates the maypole steps while Nann Fleck guides a young dancer into a turn.

“When I asked her to teach, she didn’t even blink an eye and said ‘yes,”’ Mary said. “She has poured her heart and soul into teaching the dances.”

From the mother-daughter dancers, to the boys in their boisterous routine, to the girls with ribbons in their hair dancing around the maypole, Mary said large crowds gather to watch and admire each performance. “Every time I watch the youngest dancers, I get a lump in my throat and tear up,” she said.

“The dancing really adds to Oktoberfest by including the youngest to the oldest members of our community.”

Oktoberfest Publicity Director and board member Monica Bochsler said the dancers are an integral part of making Mount Angel Oktoberfest a folk festival.

“They are a symbol of the town coming together to make Oktoberfest great,” she explained.  The commitment of the four teachers will be missed, she added. “The hours spent teaching show a devotion to detail and quality. Oktoberfest really appreciates the time given by these instructors. These ladies are great volunteers who have given so many hours to keep Oktoberfest a real folk festival.”

Nann says she agreed in the beginning simply because she loves Oktoberfest.

“Next to Christmas, it’s my favorite holiday. I love the dancing and I think it makes Oktoberfest,” she said. “It gives kids a role in Oktoberfest and it gives kids a sense of pride, of this is what we are and who we are as a community.”

As the girls gather on the bleachers at St. Mary’s Elementary School for first practice, Nann gives them a stern look and asks “Are you afraid of me yet? You should be.”

She knows she has a reputation for encouraging dancers to meet her expectations. But the dancers soon learn she’s tough but fair, has a wicked sense of humor and a streak of kindness that shows she genuinely cares.

There’s the dancing – but there’s also teaching the dancers life lessons.

“Beside the dances, they are taught they are ambassadors for their city, their school and their family,” Nann said. “They know it’s an honor to carry on the tradition.”

As Nann calls out the count, Tia, Bev and Teresa demonstrate the moves. All four women are like mother hens. Each will place a hand on a girl’s shoulders, showing her when to turn right, when to turn left.

“I will tell you a little secret,” Nann said. “All dances mostly start with the right foot.”

“Show me your right foot,” Nann begins. “Good. Show me your left foot. We are not marching. We are dancing. We are not walking like bridesmaids either.”

As they practice, the individuality of each girl radiates – some with hair down, others with buns or ponytails. They wore athletic and school shoes, boots – even one in the forbidden flip-flops. There were skirts, jeans, shorts, dresses and T-shirts proclaiming allegiance to a brand, a school or a team.

Marilyn Hall has worked with Nann since the beginning. She isn’t retiring and will continue to teach the kindergarteners and help dancers select the perfect traditional grab –a dirndl (dress) and apron or lederhosen (short pants).

As each girl puts on her dirndl and crowns her hair with flowers, something magical happens, Teresa said.

“I love to watch the girls just blossom and watch them glow. They are so proud to wear their dresses and perform,”  Teresa said.

Admitting she’s the worrier, Teresa said she carries a bag that rivals Mary Poppins’ to mitigate the unexpected.  Buttons burst, zippers catch, heels break, flowers fly and then there’s Mother Nature’s tricks…

“No matter what it looks like now, the dancers always rise to the occasion and perform well,”  she said. “There may be a mistake here or there, but I don’t think anyone notices because all they see are the smiles and the joy and the children having fun.”

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