Music with the polka's characteristics appears in various collections written about 1800 for practical use by village musicians. In the 19th century polkas were composed by the leading composers of ballroom music of the 19th century (including both Johann Strausses); examples occur in art music by Smetana, Dvorak, and others. In the following years polka was performed in many countries all over the world such as Austria, France, England, USA and India. It attained extraordinary popularity, so much so that clothes, hats, streets and even dishes were named after it (e.g. "polka dots").
The modern American polka is distant from its European roots. Charles Keil lists six different polka styles, some of which have
intermingled in the U.S. since the 1920s resulting in the present-day polka of the Polish American ethnic community: Slavic polkas (Polish, Slovenian), Germanic polkas (German, Czech- Bohemian), and southwestern polkas (Mexican and Papago-Pima). All the "ethnic" terms in this list should be hyphenated with "American" (e.g. Polish-American); moreover, all of the polkas "have come to define a certain persistent quality of ethnic working-class identity" (Keil 1992, 3). The distinct Polish-American version of the polka has roots in working class communities of the East Coast
and the Midwest with mixed Polish, German and Czech populations. Musicians of the Eastern polka tradition included Walt Solek and Walter Dana Daniłowski. In 1950s Chicago emerged as a major center and the source of the dominant style of the polka which crystallized in the music of Li'l Wally (slower tempo, expressive lyrics and the ensemble including the clarinet, trumpet, and concertina). Polish-American polka bands are so widespread now, and the genre so well-established that there is a separate category
at the Grammy Awards dedicated to the polka as well as numerous websites on the Internet (e.g. PolkaNet.com).
For some members of the American Polonia the polka was a definite marker of their ethnic identity; a Wisconsin grandfather of a music student from California rejected the music of Chopin as a musical symbol of Polishness, for him only the manly, energetic and vivacious polka would truly express the "Polish spirit." This dance, however, is not a meaningful symbol of Polish culture for Poles from Poland (Erdmans 1998, 120; Harley 2000) and has not been treated as an important element of Polish and Polish-American cultures by Polonian scholars who tend to emphasize "high-culture Polishness" symbolized by Chopin. According to Charles Keil, the Polish middle class "hates polka with a passion" (Keil 1979).
Polish American press (News of Polonia, Voice of Polonia) publish
advertising about the upcoming dances and post-event reports; journalist Betsy Cepelik (News of Polonia) is an expert dancer and a polka aficionado. Similarly to other Polonian radio stations, Polish Radio Ela intersperses its programming with an array of polkas. Interestingly, it is the older "ethnic" members of the Polish American community that identify with this sound; according to Mary Patrice Erdmans's study of Chicago Polonia (Erdmans 1998, 121), the more recent immigrants consider "Polish content" of the programming more important than the inclusion of the polkas.
In the Łowicz region of central Mazowsze there is "polka drygana" - very popular ... in the Opoczno region of Mazowze, tramblanka, in the Rzeszów region four different polkas, including "hurra" "kucana" "przez noge" "suwana". In Lachy Słdeckie region of Małopolska (between Rzeszów and the mountains, centered on Nowy Sącz, there is polka gwóźdź, polka z nigi. in the Upper Silesia there is szpacyr polka in the Cieszyn region.
Dąbrowska's research into dances of Mazowsze suggests the coexistence of two different polkas throughout the area: regular polka and "polka trzesiona" (i.e. drygana in Dziewanowska's terminology). The regular polka is danced on the circle by rotating couples who never separate and continue turning around the dance space until one or several male dancers calls for a change of direction (Dąbrowska 1980, p. 176). The dance is fast paced; the basic step consists of three small steps performed in such a way that "one foot chases the other." The dancers move smoothly and without interruptions, following the regularity of the music. In the "polka trzęsiona" the dancers are also located on the circumference of the circle and rotate simultaneously around the whole circle and their own axes (as in the regular polka and oberek). The difference stems from a different type of the step used: the very small steps of the dance consist of lifting the feet and placing it down vertically, very fast (in a regular polka the feet perform a sliding, or shuffling motion). As a result, the dancers shake throughout the dance, this shaking does not result from high jumps, but from the feet motion and is increased in accelerated tempi. (Dąbrowska 1980, 180).
As an exhibition dance, the polka includes a variety of gestures, with special steps, jumps, and kicks, lifting the women, dancing in circle, etc. The particular array of steps depends on the choreographer and the spatio-temporal image of a tradition that he/she wants to evoke (e.g. early 20th-century working-class Warsaw, 19th-century middle-class Warsaw).
The Rzeszów costume, as
presented by members of the Krakusy Ensemble, includes blue outfits with red wool buttons and trimmings
for men (who wear high boots and white shirts), and colorful skirts with white aprons, white scarves wrapped around
the heads, tight, dark vests with contrasting trimmings and embroidery, and coral beads for women.
However, as the image of the polka by Zofia Stryjeńska reproduced above indicates, the most
common association of the polka is with urban folklore. Stryjenska's dancers are working-class city
dwellers in their fashionable Sunday clothes: a revealing, somewhat vulgar dress for the woman, and
an exaggerated checkered suit for the man.
However, as the image of the polka by Zofia Stryjeńska reproduced above indicates, the most common association of the polka is with urban folklore. Stryjenska's dancers are working-class city dwellers in their fashionable Sunday clothes: a revealing, somewhat vulgar dress for the woman, and an exaggerated checkered suit for the man.
The dances from Old Warsaw performed by the adult Krakusy group highlighted the urban image of the polka presented by Stryjeńska. Their dance included a variety of somewhat vulgar gestures and broadly exaggerated dance positions. The women jumped and turned, showing their undergarments and screaming with excitement. The gestures and costumes were markers of the urban lower class character of the dance.
At that time the tempo of the polka was that of military march played rather slowly, at 52 bars (MM=104) per minute. The music was usually in ternary form with eight-bar sections, sometimes with a brief introduction and a coda. Such polkas were cultivated by all the leading ballroom dance composers of the latter part of the 19th century.
The example comes from the area of Warsaw, it is no. 727 from the second volume of Kolberg's Mazowsze (published in 1886; reprinted in Complete Works as vol. 25, 1963).
Among contemporary popular and ethnic dance genres, the polka has kept its image of the working-class dance providing enjoyment and relaxation after long days of hard, physical labor. With the "polka happiness" providing the keyword to its meaning (term borrowed from the title of a 1992 study by Charles and Angeliki Keil), the dance is slowly gaining popularity as a recreational activity for amateur dancers who relish the polka's lively tempo and enjoy the strenuous exercise that it provides. The musical styles continue to evolve and the Polish-American polka remains one of the few dances historically linked to Poland which are alive in social practice. The krakowiaks, mazurs or zbójnickis are exhibition dances performed by semi-professional Polish folk dance ensembles for Polish and American audiences. The polonaise kept its function as a high-status musical symbol of Polishness (and its name appears in several balls of Polish-American cultural organizations). Only the polka is danced by everyone.
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Text and design: Maja Trochimczyk. Editorial assistance: Michał Jankowski,
Ewa Grzegrzułka, Błażej Wajszczuk. Updated in August 2000.
Polish Dance Project funded by ZRIF Award
and Southern California Studies Center at USC.