Tag Archives: Polka

Polka making a comeback? It was never gone.

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.”

MOWA captures a state’s love for the polka

Photographs of accordions, tubas and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs may not be the norm for an $11.2 million art museum that features nationally recognized sculptors, painters and other media artists.

They fit right in at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, located along the Milwaukee River and just east of West Bend’s quaint downtown.

Since late January, the museum’s second-floor Hyde Gallery has been home to Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau.

In 2013 and 2014, Blau, a professor of film at UW-Milwaukee, traversed Wisconsin with Rick March, an author, musician and musicologist from Madison. Blau and March, whose book, Polka Heartland, is scheduled to be released in October, set out to capture the styles of the state’s diverse polka scene.

More importantly for Blau was documenting the feeling and emotion of the official state dance.

“It’s really about the way people make a kind of social happiness with one another,” Blau said by phone from his home in downtown Milwaukee. “It produces a feeling of warmth, euphoria and happiness.”

Wisconsin has its own Polka Hall of Fame with such notables as “Tuba Dan” Jerabek, Vern Meisner, Don Peachey and Louie Bashell. Polka festivals can be found around the state in Ellsworth, Wisconsin Dells and Pulaski. The tiny village of Willard, east of Eau Claire, celebrated its 40th annual event last year while the Wisconsin State Polka Festival at Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc is set for May.

In June, there’s the Roger Bright Polka Festival in New Glarus, Polish Fest in Milwaukee and in Madison, the Essen Haus, a year-round pit stop for polka bands from around the country.

Blau’s exhibit features 27 photos, some more than 3 feet high and nearly 6 feet long, but there is no musical accompaniment. Instead, visitors take in the images in relative quiet, much like they would with other exhibits in the 32,000-square-foot museum.

That’s not to say polka music is absent from the colorful exhibit.

When the photo gallery debuted, more than 650 people filled the museum, many of them dancing to The Squeezettes, a Milwaukee band named polka artist of the year in 2012 and 2013 by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry and featured in Blau’s photos. On March 14, the Brewhaus Polka Kings performed at the museum for what was dubbed “Polka Saturday.”

“It’s going to be a flat-out polka dance,” Graeme Reid, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions, told the Wisconsin State Journal. “It is very much a part of Wisconsin’s intrinsic culture.”

The Museum of Wisconsin Art was founded in 1961 when it was known as the West Bend Gallery of Fine Art. The museum was established by the Pick family to collect and exhibit the work of a relative, Carl von Marr, who was born in Milwaukee in 1858 but was trained in Munich, Germany.

For much of the museum’s history, it was located in a 20,000-square-foot space in what had been the corporate headquarters for West Bend Insurance. In 2007, the museum changed its name to the Museum of Wisconsin Art and announced plans to build a new facility. Fundraising began in 2008 as the economy began to tank but in 2012, ground was broken on property that had been home to an outlet mall. The museum opened in April 2013 and last year had 35,000 visitors compared to 2,900 the last full year in the previous museum building.

“It’s had phenomenal growth,” says Laurie Winters, MOWA CEO and executive director. “It’s a platform for Wisconsin artists.”

When I visited last week, I not only took in the work of von Marr but of painter John Steuart Curry, who in 1936 was appointed as the first artist in residence at the Agricultural College at UW-Madison. Curry traveled the state where he promoted art and painted rural scenes from the era. There also was work from the Cedarburg Artists Guild and in the atrium, sculptures of canoes by Truman Lowe, a Ho-Chunk from Black River Falls.

Blau’s polka photos are in contrast to the rest of the museum’s artwork but just as vital.

Blau’s and March’s travels took them to Turner Hall in Monroe, Martin’s Tap in New Berlin and Amerahn’s Ballroom in Kewaskum. There were stops at Pulaski Polka Days, the Laak Ballroom in Johnsonville and to the now-defunct Las Vegas Latin Club in Oregon, south of Madison.

That’s where the band, the Mazizo Allstarz, came decked out in sharkskin suits and used electronics and a brass section but had no accordion. A mirrored ball, fog machine, laser lights and well-dressed dancers added to the ambiance of the club, located in a former indoor athletic facility.

Blau’s photos captured it all, even though his shots were taken while seated at a table because he didn’t want to intrude.

“It was quite an exotic experience,” Blau says. “It’s different stylistically and represents something most people haven’t seen. I think people in Wisconsin aren’t really aware of how large and vital the Latino population has become.”

When Blau created his first book on polka, Polka Happiness, he shot in Buffalo, New York, and it primarily consisted of Polish polka bands. It also was 1992 and he was limited to a film camera with flash to make small black-and-white images.

Polka Heartland is shot in color, using natural light and with a digital camera that allowed for much larger images.

“It actually changes the relation of the viewers to the images because it allows them entrance into them, and that’s not possible when you have smaller pictures,” Blau says. “It makes them want to dance.”

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Polish Fest

The Summerfest grounds plays host to a variety of ethnic festivals over the course of the summer, and the one that kicks them off just so happens to be Polish Fest, one of the largest of its kind in the country. The three-day festival celebrates Milwaukee’s rich Polish heritage through a variety of musical and cultural events, as well as by offering traditional food and marketplace items. Milwaukee is still Polish enough that you don’t have to wait for June to find a pierogi or dance a polka, but the best ones are always going to be at Polish Fest. Admission is $12, $10 for seniors or if purchased in advance.

For a full schedule of events, visit polishfest.org

Fri., June 13, to Sun., June 15