By: Filip Sandström Beijer
Britt Kanja's passion for dancing and bringing people together led her to open the doors to one of the oldest famous clubs in Berlin, the 90 ° as a co-partner, just before the fall of the wall. During her lifetime she has seen Berlin change several times and now she gives her trust to the culture and the creative people in the city.
A Lady dressed often in different shades of yellow, with an eye-catching headdress on top, lights up the sidewalk in the magnificent parts of Charlottenburg where she comes rolling on her kick scooter. That Britt Kanja is Berlin's own Audrey Hepburn, can be seen from a long distance.
We sit down together at one of Kanja's favorite cafes and she begins a greeting procedure for both the staff and the guests who light up upon seeing her. Immersed in Kanja's presence, the stately turn-of-the-century apartments and the café staff's way of dressing up, we forget that we’re in Berlin for a moment.
Britt Kanja orders a strawberry ice cream and a mint-ginger lemonade which she happily recommends as a fresh summer drink. We hand over some previous issues of the magazine and her gaze is drawn directly to another Berlin icon, Oumi Janta, who was featured on the latest cover.
In the summer I use either my scooter or my skates, they are my Ferraris.
“I’m a roller skater too, but not as good as she is,” Britt says, and she talks about how she skated both as a child and later as a young woman in San Diego, California, where she lived for many years. Today it is either the roller skates or the kick scooter that is her means of transportation.
“In the summer I use either my scooter or my skates, they are my Ferraris.”
Britt Kanja was born in Berlin, just five years after the war, in a city that had recently been divided into East and West.
“It was a ruined city, and it was totally flat in most areas because of the bombings. Even my mother's apartment was bombed, so
my father and her found a place in Wedding, which is now Mitte. "
One time, I was out walking and this big group of nazis came up to me. This young guy saw me, stood up in front of me and asked me, ‘What do you have on your head?’. I said in Berlin slang, ‘It is a curtain don’t you see?‘. And he just went silent.
A part of her upbringing was spent in the slightly tougher neighborhood areas in Wedding, where she learned to never express fear, which made her street smart.
“One time, I was out walking and this big group of Nazis came up to me. This young guy saw me, stood up in front of me and asked me, ‘What do you have on your head?’. I said in Berlin slang, ‘It is a curtain don’t you see?‘. And he just went silent. I knew if I was about to say something normal, I would lay on the ground. My thing is to never have fear.”
Another reason why Britt is the colorful and unique personality she is today is due to her mother. When Britt became a teenager in 60's Berlin, her mother placed a great deal of responsibility on her, without putting any pressure on her.
“I had a wonderful mother, and what she did to me when I was 14 has been very important to me. She did the best thing you can do to a young teenager. If she would have forbidden anything, I would have done it, and she knew that. So, she told me ‘Britt, now is the time. I give you all your freedom, you can come home whenever you want, but you must find your own borders and you are responsible for yourself. Whenever something happens, you can always come to me. I'm your best friend and it doesn’t matter what happened.’”
Her mother's actions during her teens resulted in Britt rarely feeling any guilt over being who she was and is. She says that during some early adult years she experienced that some people were against her, which she later identified as a kind of subconscious jealousy. There I learned, that I don´t have to move within the limits that others want to set for me.
Her mother's attitude and freedom took her to dance and the love for culture, the area she decided would be her career. Inspired by American music, which she had access to in West Berlin, she started dancing.
“I love to dance. In that time, 1964, West Berlin was the center of gay life in the world. The gay clubs were thriving, and we had all the drafted American soldiers and their radio stations. In that way you got all the music that was new in America. Everything was changing, we had to discover the world and it was the flower power revolution. I was in the middle of it, life felt so alive.”
Her blooming dance career eventually took her to Switzerland and Lugano. There she met William on the dance floor, the American who became her passionate love and husband shortly afterwards. Her male dance partner back then became suspicious and jealous that William was taking more and more of her time, so she chose to quit her dance career and accompany William to California
I had LCS, Life Changing Sex
We ask what made Britt take the final decision to leave the dance career and follow William to America.
“I had LCS, Life Changing Sex,” she says, laughing.
“I got a cultural shock in California at first because I´ve never experienced such a high number of people who couldn´t make up their own mind. That made me concerned of not getting kicks anymore”.
Britt experienced a social climate different to what she knew before, but after a while she found her social hangouts and a adorable bunch of close friends. Not all love lasts a lifetime. After a little more than five years she decided to move back to Berlin.
“I don´t want to miss the time in America, where I learned about enormous aspects of life and my own self”
Back in Berlin in the mid-1980s, Britt got a cultural shock again - feeling that the Berlin she left had gotten colder and more egoistic. She decided to change that and partnered up with her new friend Bob Young who would become her partner starting what would soon be Berlin's hottest nightclub in the late ‘80s and‘90s, named 90°.
“We became very close friends Bob and me, spending both days and nights together. Bob liked to dance too, and we had that energy so we could attract people that are motivators to others. And then we started to think about starting our own parties. We saw that we needed a change in Berlin. We needed joy. We started to create parties every four to six weeks in different locations and named it Tanzstelle. We gathered people around us with beautiful souls and spirits to create joy. Joy is a very exciting wisdom, actually.”
After the parties started and got more and more successful there was an opportunity to take over a big old shoe store, with massive windows pointing at Hermannplatz in Neukölln. The city wanted to tear down the building and we got a good deal to rent it during the last year of its existence.
“We had it for a bit more than one year and called it Hermanns Fenster. Many artists were having showcases in the windows, and we had the club inside. In that way we got new decorations every month. It was a really good spot for the artists who could get their art showcased for the public passing by.”
After the continuing success of the old shoe store, Britt, Bob and their wonderful team took over an old car repair shop in Schöneberg, in 1989 just before the downfall of the wall, and this became 90°. The time was politically vibrant in Berlin and Britt clearly remembers when the wall finally came down.
In 90°, East and West Berlin melted together quickly and after one month, the difference wasn’t visible anymore
“We were just in the middle of it. The first night, the second or third as well, we had a party at the club. I remember seeing a lot of pale people with big open eyes. It was like they were shocked but in a good way. In 90°, East and West melted together quickly and after one month, the difference wasn’t visible anymore. We the Club Scene, the creative, gay, hetero, androgynous, beautiful souls of all ages, wealthy and poor made Berlin come together.”
90° went on until 2007 with celebrities as Leonardo DiCaprio, Britney Spears and George Clooney visiting over the years. Everything has its own time.
Today, Britt Kanja lives a lively life in Charlottenburg, riding her scooter, spreading joy on the streets of Berlin. She’s famous on social media for her style, her charisma, her authenticity, her philosophical quotes and for dancing, many times with her bbf Günther Krabbenhöft. She enjoys to have more time for herself now - that has kept her from attending as many events as before.
“The thing is that I get all this invitations, I could do ten events every day, most of them with very good DJs and lovely people. But at a certain age you have to be careful that you don’t overdo it. And the same goes for young people. If it gets too much you can lose yourself. It can lead to a burnout. A soul burnout. I’m taking care that I always take time by myself to be creative.”
Having experienced a Berlin after both World War II and the Cold War, Britt has seen the city change before. She is concerned about the right-wing extremist forces and that society is ignoring climate change. But there is a glimpse of hope.
“There are so many incredible forces, many of us have resilience, and it’s important that open-minded people lead the way. One genius feeds another genius and I hope that we can finally see a more open and joyful society again.”