Polka making a comeback? It was never gone.

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Website Urban Dictionary calls it the “new dance craze that’s sweeping the underground nation. So old school it’s cool.” So it must be true, right?

Come on, admit it. You love to polka.

And why not? “Anyone can get out on the floor and, as long as you don’t bump into anybody else, you’re fine,” says Rick March, folk art specialist for 26 years at the Wisconsin Arts Board. “The remarkable thing about it, as a music and dance tradition, is that literally millions of people, to some degree, participate in it — if only dancing once in a while at a wedding.”

Now retired, he and Dick Blau have co-authored Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves to Polka. It’s filled with myriad photos by Blau, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he co-founded the film department. 

The polka can be defined as the Wisconsin pop craze that never went away. Grandpa and grandma’s dance is now a favorite of hipsters in Madison and Milwaukee. Just look at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall on the brewing capital’s south side, 1920 S. 37th St. 

“A lot of hipsters go there,” says March. “Some nights they’ll have surf rock, but they regularly feature polka, and it’s considered cool.” 

Primarily identified with German-Americans, polka’s also a big favorite among people of Mexican heritage. “This is where the big action is,” he says. “Of course, they modernize the music in certain ways. As immigrant music, it’s not surprising that the biggest group of immigrants have polka. I think what people don’t realize is that the polka came from Europe to all of North America,” including Mexico.

The history is sometimes bewildering. Believe it or not, at one time polka was downright naughty, the dirty dancing of its day.

That day was in the 1830s, as another dance fad was starting to fade. When introduced, the waltz was decried as licentious. England’s Blackwood’s Magazine observed that no father could “rejoice in seeing his daughter’s waist spanned by the arm of some deboshed (sic) dragoon.” By contrast, the earlier, courtly minuet offered only the thrill of touching hands — briefly.

“After a few decades, the waltz was no longer shocking,” says March. “It was accepted. So, as generations tend to do with pop culture, they had to up the ante in terms of outraging the sensibilities of their elders. The nice sliding 3/4-time in the waltz went to a rollicking 2/4-time with people jumping up and down in the polka.”

The polka exploded across Europe and soon spread to America. It wasn’t owned by any nationality and was considered mainstream. So popular was it that its name was taken up by all sorts of entrepreneurs who wanted their products to sound modern. Most are now forgotten — polka gauze, polka hat — except for the iconic polka dot pattern, of course.

There are two ways of looking at the polka. It’s both a dance and a rather ill-defined kind of music. You can do the movements to just about any quick song written in what musicians call “duple meter.” For example, you can easily dance a polka to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty Four” and even “On, Wisconsin!”

In fact, “On, Wisconsin!” was first published in 1909 as a march song and two-step, and the two-step is polka’s near-identical twin. “Basically, the two-step is the same rhythm,” notes March. “The only difference is that the dance involves two steps in a certain direction and two steps back. In polka it’s one step in the direction and one step back. It can be done as a very basic dance.”

Which is not to say that there hasn’t been an awful lot of music written especially for the polka dance. These days most of us may think of it sounding German. Or Czech, or Dutch, or Polish. It was only after the Civil War that Americans began to associate the polka with various ethnic groups.

As March writes in Polka Heartland, “When these immigrants left Europe, the polka was all the rage in their homelands.” They held onto it over time as a cherished tradition, while the rest of the United States let go. “It would be as if a group of Americans migrated to a distant country in 1960, when the twist was the latest dance fad, and they preserved twisting as an important part of their American cultural legacy for years to come.”

And polka’s still widespread. “There’s a polka scene in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas,” notes March. “The interesting thing about the western polka dancing is that the heads don’t bob up and down. You’ll see these guys with their cowboy hats, very smooth, with no bobbing up and down.”