The Polka is a Central European dance and genre of dance music familiar throughout Europe and the Americas. It originated in the middle of the 19th century in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.
The name polka
possibly comes from the Czech word půlka , referring to the short half-steps featured in the dance. Czech cultural historian and ethnographer Čeněk Zíbrt, who wrote in detail about the origin of the dance, in his book, Jak se kdy v Čechách tancovalo cites an opinion of František Doucha (1840, Květy, p. 400) that polka
was supposed to mean "tanec na polo" (n.b. the absence of diacritics), i.e. "a dance in half", both referring to the half-tempo 2/4 and the half-jump step of the dance. Zíbrt also ironically dismisses the etymology suggested by A. Fähnrich (in Ein etymologisches Taschenbuch, Jiein, 1846) that polka comes from the Bohemian word pole (farmland). On the other hand, Zdeněk Nejedlý suggests that the etymology given by Fr. Doucha is nothing but an effort to prove the "true Czech folk" origin of Polka. Instead, he claims that according to Jaroslav Langr ("České krakováčky" in: Čas. Čes. musea, 1835, Sebr. spisy I, 256) in the area of Hradec Králové, the tune Krakoviáky from the collection Slovanské národní písně of František Ladislav Čelakovský became very popular so that it was used to dance (Czech dances) třasák, břitva, kvapík, and this way was called "Polka". Nejedlý also writes that Václav Vladivoj Tomek also claims the Hradec Králové roots of a Polka. OED also suggests that the name may have been derived from the Czech polka meaning "Polish woman" (feminine form corresponding to polák, a Pole).
The word was widely introduced into the major European languages in the early 1840s. It should not be confused with the polska, a Swedish About this sound 3/4-beat (help·info) dance with Polish roots (cf. polka-mazurka). A related dance is the redowa. Polkas almost always have a About this sound 2/4 (help·info) time signature. Folk music of Polka style appeared in written music about 1800.
Origin and popularity
The beginning of the propagation of dance and accompanying music called polka is generally attributed to a young woman, Anna Slezáková, who danced to accompany a local folk song called "Strýček Nimra koupil šimla", or "Uncle Nimra Bought a White Horse", in 1834. She is said to have called the dance Maděra, because of its liveliness. The dance was further propagated by the music teacher Josef Neruda, who witnessed Anna dance in an unusual way, put the tune to paper, and taught other young men to dance it. Čeněk Zíbrt notices that a common claim that the events happedend in Týnec nad Labem, Bohemia is incorrect. Zibrt writes that when he published this traditional story in 1894 in Narodni Listy newspaper, he received a good deal of feedback from eyewitnesses. In particular, he wrote that according to further witness, the originating event actually happened in 1830, in Kostelec nad Labem, where she worked as a housemaid. Zíbrt writes that he published the first version of the story (with incorrect place name) in Bohemia (June 5, 1844), from where it was reprinted all over Europe and in the United States. Zíbrt also wrote that simple Czech folk claimed that they knew and danced Polka long before the nobles got hold of it, i.e., it is a truly folk Czech dance.
By 1835, this dance had spread to the ballrooms of Prague. From there, it spread to Vienna by 1839, and in 1840 was introduced in Paris by Raab, a Prague dance instructor.
It was so well received by both dancers and dance masters in Paris that its popularity was referred to as "polkamania." The dance soon spread to London and was introduced to America in 1844. It remained a popular ballroom dance until the late 19th century, when it would give way to the two-step and new ragtime dances.
Polka dancing enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after World War II, when many Polish refugees moved to the US, adopting this Bohemian style as a cultural dance. Polka dances are still held on a weekly basis across many parts of the US with significant populations of central European origin. It was also found in parts of South America.
The polka in the classical repertoire
While the polka is Bohemian in origin, most dance music composers in Vienna (the capital of the vast Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was the cultural centre for music from all over the empire) composed polkas and included the dance in their repertoire at some point of their career. The Strauss family in Vienna for example, while probably better-known for their waltzes also composed polkas that have survived obscurity. Josef Lanner and other Viennese composers in the 19th century also wrote many polkas to satisfy the demands of the dance-music-loving Viennese. In France, another dance-music composer Emile Waldteufel also wrote many polkas in addition to his chief profession of penning waltzes.
The polka evolved during the same period into different styles and tempi. In principle, the polka written in the 19th century has a 4-theme structure; themes 1A and 1B as well as a 'Trio' section of a further 2 themes. The 'Trio' usually has an 'Intrada' to form a break between the two sections. The feminine and graceful 'French polka' is slower in tempo and is more measured in its gaiety. Johann Strauss II's Annen Polka op. 114, Demolirer polka op. 269, the Im Krapfenwald'l op. 336 and the Bitte schön! polka op. 372 are examples of this type of polka. The polka-mazurka is also another variation of the polka, being in the tempo of a mazurka but danced in a similar manner as the polka. The final category of the polka form around that time is the polka schnell, which is a fast polka or galop. Eduard Strauss is better known for this last category, as he penned the 'Bahn Frei' polka op. 45 and other examples. Earlier, Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner wrote polkas designated as a galop (quick tempo) or as a regular polka that may not fall into any of the categories above.
The polka was a further source of inspiration for the Strauss family in Vienna when Johann II and Josef Strauss wrote one for plucked string instruments (pizzicato) only, the well-known 'Pizzicato polka'. Johann II later wrote a 'New pizzicato polka' (Neu pizzicato-polka), opus 449, culled from music of his operetta 'Fürstin Ninetta'. Much earlier, he also wrote a 'joke-polka' (German "scherz-polka") entitled 'Champagne-polka', opus 211, which evokes the uncorking of champagne bottles.
Other composers who wrote music in the style of the polka were Jaromír Weinberger, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.
Polka in the United States
In the United States, Polka is promoted by the International Polka Association based in Chicago, which works to preserve the cultural heritage of polka music and to honor its musicians through the Polka Hall of Fame.Polka is also popular in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Beer Barrel Polka is played during the seventh inning stretch and halftime of Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks games. Polka is also the official State Dance of Wisconsin.
The United States Polka Association is based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Polka America Corporation is a non-profit organization based in Ringle, Wisconsin.
Nickolas Daskalou was one of the early polka pioneers starting in the late 1930s. Nickolas won the first America's Polka King award in 1947. Subsequently, he was crowned "Biggest and Best Polka Dancer" in the western world. Nickolas is also recognized for producing and conducting the classic "Polka Rock" in 1967.
Polka Varieties was an hour-long television program of polka music originating from Cleveland, Ohio. The show aired in several U.S. cities, and ran from 1956 until 1983. At that time, it was the only television program for this type of music in the US.
Beginning with its inception in 2001, the RFD-TV Network aired The Big Joe Show, a television program that included polka music and dancing. It was filmed on location in various venues throughout the United States from 1973 through 2009. RFD-TV replaced The Big Joe Show with "The RFD-TV Polka Fest" in January 2011.
Grammy Award status
In 2009, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hosts/produces the Grammy Awards, announced that it was eliminating the polka category. The Academy's official reason for eliminating the polka award was “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” The Academy's decision stems from the declining number of popular polka albums considered for an award in recent years. For example, out of the five polka albums nominated for an award in 2006, only one album was widely distributed in the mainstream.