And a one, and a two...
The Polka is ubiquitous in Wisconsin and is by act of the Legislature the official
state dance. A
polka band is de rigeur at a Wisconsin wedding. Many small towns feature a polka
dance on Sunday afternoons in places like the volunteer fireman's hall. A polka band
typically has a fellow playing an accordion or concertina, a drummer; and
sometimes horn or reed players, a banjo strummer, or an electric guitar.
And then there's the tuba question - an old German-American friend of mine says
"If there ain't a tuba, it ain't polka". Unfortunately for Willie, there
doesn't seem to be as many tuba players as polka bands.
One legend has it that the polka was first danced by a Czech-Bohemian peasant girl, named Anna Slezakova, in 1830. It may be named from the Czech word "pulka" (half-step, because of the quick movement from one foot to the other). The Poles contend that the polka was first danced by Poles who lived in southern Hungary. In Polish the word polka means "Polish woman". The polka rapidly becames popular in the ballrooms of France and England, and later swept throughout Europe and the United States. When the polka reached New York in the mid-1840's, its was danced mainly by the upper class. But as waves of German and Eastern European immigrants brought their own music with them, including the polka, a musical democratization occurred. The polka came to represent a shift from formal dance styles to an informal style of social dancing. Polka was played and danced to in the new, well-lit, family-oriented bars and dance halls that were the center of social activity in the Midwest United States, including Wisconsin. Polka music and dancing gave close knit immigrant communities a continuing cultural connection to the "old country". At the same time, the informal nature of American polka dances mirrored the egalitarianism of America. It was a music for happy times, as the immigrants were optimistic about their lives in the new country. Even today, polkaholics in Wisconsin call the polka "old time good time happy music".
Polka couples circle the dance floor, often at seemingly break-neck speed, using a simple step, close, step, and hop technique. One of the most popular versions of the polka, because it is easy, is the "heel and toe and away we go". The music is in 2/4 time with a strong upbeat.
Probably the most recognizable polka tune is "The Beer Barrel Polka," which was originally a massive hit in Europe in 1935 for accordionist/band leader Will Glahe. It became the most played record on jukeboxes across the U.S. In May 1939, "The Beer Barrel Polka" was recorded by the Andrews Sisters. Within months sales exceeded 350,000. Today, in Wisconsin, if you're walking across a room with a handful of beers, and the jukebox or band strikes up "The Beer Barrel Polka", watch out, or you'll be bowled over by raucous polkamaniacs hopping and spinning across the room.
Polka Bands. Concertina-led bands in the "Dutchmen" style. These
bands sound like the rolling hills, streams, pastures, and red cow barns of
Meisner Band, from Whitewater, Wisconsin.
How to Polka
Basic Polka Step
The hop is a little preliminary hop, like a grace note in music. The first step is preceded by this hop. Think of it as an echo of the fourth beat, or the promise of the first beat. To perfect it, get that little grace note, the preliminary hop, down pat. Many people reduce the hop to a slight and quick rise and fall of the weighted foot before starting the first step.
Starting in an open position, the man stands with weight on right foot, dancing forward with partner.
Give a preliminary hop on the right foot and step forward on left foot, bending the right knee and lifting the right heel off the ground, as the woman steps back on her right foot, lifting her left toe.
Close the right foot to the left, bringing the right foot just behind the left, putting only the ball ball of the right foot on the floor. The woman brings her left foot backwards so that it is just in front of her right foot, stepping on the ball of her left foot. The man's left foot and the woman's right foot stay flat on the floor. Do this step quickly and lightly.
The man rocks forward on the ball of his
right foot, then lifts the left foot and steps forward onto it as she rocks
Now, the man takes a step forward onto his right foot, bending the left knee and lifting the left heel off the floor, as the woman steps back onto her left foot, lifting her right toe (note this is like step one, but the dancers use the opposite feet).
Now, as before, the man rocks back on the
ball of his left foot, then lifts his right foot and steps forward onto it as
she rocks forward. The woman rocks forward on the ball of her right foot,
then lifts her left foot and steps back onto his as she rocks back.
Now try going backward as well as forward. Try turning to the left and the right.
Link to polka step diagram,
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This page last updated on 07/09/2003