BY JAMES MOORE
What is it about the polka?
I catch a King of the Hill episode about Peggy Hill’s Texas-sizedfeet attracting the attention of a local smush film producer. Her bare mammoths,unbeknownst to her, are being used as fodder for Internet foot fetishists.(Don’t worry—Hank finds out and saves the day.)
Serendipitously, I Google the local concert scene and notice Barefoot Becky & theIvanhoe Dutchmen are playing Grinnell the next night. Downloading tunes fromthe band’s website, I hear the distinctive oompah-pah of the tuba andalmost Mexican-sounding harmony horn parts with the accordion. In a heartbeatI know I have to “Czech” them out.
Me and the polka go way back. I was born and raised in Wisconsin (“honkif you love cheeses”) where polkas are as ubiquitous as Holsteins.It is actually the official state dance by legislative decree. I’veeven polka’d on the grass above my parents’ final resting places.It’s not as morbid as it sounds.
You see, my folks square-danced and polka’d once a week for two yearsbefore marrying. Sure there were foxtrots and waltzes but the distinctive boom-chick,boom-chick of the polka beat and the mellifluous rumpus belch of the tuba takescenter stage in my memory vaults.
I was weaned on “wunna-full a-wunna-full” Lawrence Welk and hischampagne orchestra’s live weekly TV show. Saturday night was Welk, accordianplayer himself. My sister would often dance with papa Joe when the polka numberscame on.
To be honest, the whole polka thing bugged the sauerkraut out of me. Thesewere the days of Purple Haze and we-and-theys and the burgeoning counter-culturecraze. Somehow the image of “take me to your fearless lederhosen” seemeda bit tepid compared to “8 Miles High”—but I still remembermy dad’s otherworldly smile when he’d rise from his rocking chairand dance lithely around the living room floor to that tubular 2-by-4 polkabeat.
According to legend, a Czechoslovakian peasant girl from eastern Bohemia namedAnna Slezakova invented the dance back in 1834 simply to amuse herself. (Pulkais Czech for “half-step.”) The Polish say Czechs popularized thepolka (Pole for “Polish woman”) but it came from the Poles. Eitherway, by 1835 the dance entered Prague ballrooms.
Soon the polka swept Europe. Henri Cellarius, a French dancing master of thetime, supposedly said: “What young man is there, although formerly mostopposed to dancing, whom the polka has not snatched from his apathy to acquire,willy-nilly, a talent suddenly become indispensable?” Another Frenchman,Collari, put it this way: “Tell me how you polka, and I will tell youhow you love.”
Overflowing dance academies recruited ballet girls from the Paris Opérato meet the intense demand for polka instruction, which seemed to draw youngmen who had things other than dancing on their minds. As manners and moralsdeclined, parents forbade daughters to dance with any but close friends ofthe family. The decadent polka? How kinky.
In the New World, first uppercrusts did it, then waves of German and EastEuropean emigrants. The polka’s popularity, along with the waltz, graduallysupplanted contra dance and cotillion. But the dew fell off the polka’sbloom with the emergence of ragtime, jazz, and newer dances of the 20th century.After World War II, bands like Lawrence Welk’s set off a new craze andPolish-Americans adopted the polka as their national dance.
But to me as a pre-teen, the whole polka thing seemed like nerdsville deluxe,something your grandma did. It was not hip to be square-dancing. Thusly, withsundry emotions, I drive up to Grinnell on a gorgeous full moon night, theIowa countryside bathed in heavenly milk-light, to revisit my polka roots.
All day long I’ve been humming: Dah-dee-yuh-da, dah-dee-yuh-da, dah-dee-yuh-da-dah,da-da-dah, for no reason. When I enter the Harris Center the band is just startingup. There is a large wooden dance floor with tables set around the perimeter,a bubble of good feeling and quiet pervading the atmosphere. The room is fullish,over 100 folks, all white, a mix of predominantly older people, but also middle-agersand young couples, even a few college kids and roaming youngsters.
I look at the stage. Becky is barefoot all right, accordion in tow. She andher bandmates are perched behind three music stands with Barefoot Becky & theIvanhoe Dutchmen hand-emblazoned upon them. They wear black slacks and whiteshirts, except Becky, whose shirt has a floral design. The drummer and tubaplayer are seated in the back. A man with a sort of Alpine hat and a big feathertotes a trumpet. Up front, in between him and Becky, is the sax player.
“We’re going to start with a polka,” says Becky in a sing-songyway, kicking in with: “Dah-dee-yuh-da, dah-dee-yuh-da, dah-dee-yuh-da-dah,da-da-dah.” After a moment I realize it’s one of the most famouspolkas of all time, the friggin’ “Beer Barrel Polka”! “Rollout the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun…”
I get a warm rush remembering my folks dancing to this tune. My dad wouldhave a beer or two while dancing or watching football on the weekend when wevisited uncles—hey, he was Irish, after all. The music is pumping butnot loud. Those sassy horns. The tuba so manly and subterranean. The accordion’syodeling trills. The sound is part military march, part Fellini circus calliope,all happy jack.
Then my eyes fall on the dancers moving counter-clockwise around the floorwith that distinctive galloping “heel and toe and away we go” threequick steps and a hop which is the polka. Fifteen couples are on the dancefloor, some floating, some liquid, some clunky, none having anything but fun.Everything is connected—the band, the music, the feet, the dance, thehall, the food (free bratwurst), the night, the camaraderie.
I sit at a table with an older couple who just watch. The woman at the nexttable says the band always plays two polkas, two waltzes, two foxtrots, andtwo schottisches. Tomorrow they head to Wahoo, Nebraska. (Becky plays 15 to20 dates a month, as far away as Florida.) “Her parents come to manyof her gigs,” the lady says, pointing them out to me, “and alwaysdance the polkas.”
The music is smooth. Polkas, waltzes, and foxtrots roll by. My favorite isthe Flying Dutchman, which requires a ménage a trois of dancers andalternates between a waltz and a weaving dosey-doe. Becky sings occasionallyand duets beautifully with the trumpet/guitar/banjo player, who, I learn, she’smarrying this spring. (Karl and the Country Dutchmen will play reception.)At one point I call my significant otter and shadow dance a polka with herby cell phone. Becky smiles at me as I finish.
Maybe nostalgia is morphine, but I leave with a smile on my face the sizeof America’s budget deficit, whistling, “In heaven there is nobeer…” Then it hits me: Budweiser should get a hardcore 2/4polka outfit like San Francisco’s Polkacide and shoot a commercialwith the 11-piece band in their Zen-like “BE’ER NOW” T-shirtswhile Napolean Dynamite dances his version of the Flying Dutchman.
Visit Barefoot Becky’s website.