The Polka

“We dance close. We dance together. We find the music's so happy that we're smiling, looking at each other and enjoying each other's company.  It's the synergy of all the people dancing.”
—John Wirtz, polka dancer

The History

Polka originated as a Czech peasant dance. Historic folklore has it that a peasant girl named Anna Slezak invented the steps one day for her own amusement. The word “pulka” is derived from the Czech phrase for “half-step,” which refers to the dance pattern of lightly stepping from one foot to the other.

The polka dance was first introduced to Prague ballrooms in 1835, and to Paris ballrooms in 1840. French dancers took to polka immediately, and it soon grew wildly popular. Polka eventually reached England and the United States by the late 1840s. In the twentieth century, Polish American immigrants adopted the polka as their national dance. Today, polka is one of the few dances that originated during the nineteenth century that is still popular worldwide.

The Music

Chorus from the traditional
“Beer Barrel Polka”
Original Czechoslovakian lyrics by Wladimir A. Timm and Vasek Zeman;
English lyrics by Lew Brown, ©1934/1971

Roll out the barrel, We'll have a barrel of fun
Roll out the barrel, we've got the blues on the run
Zing boom terrara
Join in a glass of good cheer
Now it's time to roll the barrel
For the gang's all here

Watch two dancers do the polka at the Gibbon Polka Fest

From accordionist Lawrence Welk to the bands seen in POLKA TIME, live music remains an integral part to any polka dance. The standard polka song has a 2/4 beat and is structured around four verses and a chorus, which is sung after each verse or after every two verses. Many polka songs are about loss, love and even food.

A standard polka band might include bass, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and drums, although different varieties of Polish polkas include different combinations of instruments, such as the accordion and the concertina. The two other kinds of mainstream polka are Czech and German. Newer polka stylings such as Texas Polka and even punk polka further blend other instruments and genres with classic polkas.

The Dance

Polka dancers perform in pairs or couples, either in the face-to-face waltz position or while standing side by side, with the man’s arm around the woman’s waist and her hand on his shoulder. One characteristic of dancing the polka is the half-step, or hop, that precedes the first step. Some dancers omit the hop entirely, while other simply reduce it to a quick rise and fall of the weighted foot before beginning the first step.

The basic polka step is done in four counts. Begin with standing with your weight on your right foot. Give the preliminary hop on the right foot, then step forward on your left foot. Close the right foot to the left, taking weight on the right foot, and step again on the left foot. Then hold for a beat, keeping weight on the left foot. Repeat this series of steps again, except using the opposite foot—using the left foot for the hop and the right foot as the one that steps forward, for instance.

Now you can move backwards, forwards, left and right. Polka dancers move across the floor in all directions while dancing, and not in any strict line or formation, as seen at the Gibbon Polka Fest in POLKA TIME.


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