From New World Encyclopedia
Street musicians in Prague playing a polka

The polka is a fast, lively Central European dance, and also a genre of dance music, familiar throughout Europe and the Americas. It originated in the middle of the nineteenth century in Bohemia, and is still a common genre in Czech and Slovakian folk music. Polka is still a very common folk music genre in Poland. In light classical music, many polkas were composed by both Johann Strauss I and his son Johann Strauss II; a couple of well-known ones were composed by Bedřich Smetana, and Jaromír Vejvoda was the author of "Škoda lásky" ("Roll Out the Barrel"). The name, which is sometimes interpreted to refer to the Czech word polka, meaning a Polish woman, has led to the dance's origin being sometimes mistakenly attributed to Poland. It should also not be confused with the polska, a Swedish dance with Polish roots; cf. polka-mazurka. A related dance is the redowa. Polkas have a time signature.

The polka had become very popular with European immigrants to the Americas in the mid-1800s. As immigrants from different parts of Europe spread across the U.S. as the central states were settled, each community, with its own combination of immigrant groups, adapted the polka and made it their own. The connections between members of the immigrant communities was very important, because it helps people to remember that their lives are connected with the lives of the people around them, and that their needs and desires need to be balanced with the needs and desires of the others in the community. The energy and vitality of the polka and other popular folk dances and the evenings of dancing that developed around them made a great contribution to the strength of the immigrant communities. The polka was a uniting force for new communities of mixed immigrants, and is still popular in many communities in the U.S., South American and Europe.

The Dance and the Music

Typical 19th century polka rhythm

The polka is a lively dance, of Bohemian origin, danced by couples, usually in a large circle moving clockwise. The couples rotate as they travel around the circumference of the circle. The music for the polka is in moderately fast 2/4 time. The music is regular, with four or eight bar phrases, and the dance follows, moving constantly without pauses.

The movements of the feet mimic a rhythm of two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note that was popular in nineteenth century polkas. The name polka is believed to be derived from pulka, the Bohemian term for 'half-step', a term that was applied due to the rapid shifts of weight from one foot to the other in the fast-paced dance.

In a standard polka, on each beat, the dancers execute three steps with alternating feet: [1] right left right -hop-; [2] left-right left -hop-, one foot chasing the other as the dancers move around the ring; with added turns, jumps, kicks and other movements.

Foot pattern for 2 measures of a Regular Polka

A variation found in the Masovia region of eastern Poland[1] is called the Polka trzesiona, there the feet follow the same rhythmic sequence, but the feet move more vertically, rather than advancing around the floor, such that the dancers are jumping in place more so than moving forward.

A further variation is the polka tramblanka, where each pair of triple steps is followed by a pair of hops on each leg, which yields the following step pattern: [1] right left right -hop- [2] left right [2] left -hop- [1] right ------- right -------- [2] left ------- left --------

Foot pattern for 2 measures of a polka tramblanka

Origins of the polka

Polka 1848.jpg

It is often believed that the polka originated in Poland; however, it first appeared Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. First appearing in the early 1830s, as a peasant dance, the polka was livelier than the dances that preceded it, such as the gavotte, minuet, polonaise, and waltz. After being introduced into the elite ballrooms of Prague in 1935, it became popular among both the elite and the common people. By 1940, the polka had been introduced to Paris, where it quickly became popular in the many salons and ballrooms, becoming popular even with some who had previously been uninterested in dancing. As the polka gained popularity, prominent musicians of the time, even the famous Vienna composers Johann Strauss I and his son Johann Strauss II, who were well known for their waltzes, also composed polkas. Sometimes the polka steps were danced to the music of the mazurka, a folk dance of Polish origin in 3/4 time that had also gained popularity as a ballroom dance in the nineteenth century. By the 1940s, the polka had become so popular with Polish immigrants that it was added to the repertory of the folk dance companies of Poland, despite its origins outside of Poland.

Migration to the United States

The polka travelled to the United States along with the many European immigrants who arrived in the new world during the mid 1800s. Other Bohemian dances, such as the trasak, skosna, and reidovak were also popular at first, but over time the polka emerged as the popular favorite in the U.S. Until the polka arrived the most popular dances in the United States had been the contra dances of British and French origin, reflecting the homelands of the earlier settlers. Many of these were line dances performed by two rows of dancers facing each other, while the Cotillion, a French contra dance was performed by a square of four couples.

The new Polish, German, Czech-Bohemian, Slovenian, Norwegian, Finnish and Spanish immigrants brought the polka with them in various forms from their home countries, and as these groups migrated and mixed across the United States as the Midwest was settled, the versions mixed and new styles evolved, associated with different regions of the United States. As time went by, Chicago and Cleveland emerged as the as American polka capitals. When European immigrants traveled to South America during the same period, the polka accompanied them as well, where it again developed new distinctive styles.

In later decades, after the western states were settled, and theaters were built, the polka found its way into the repertory of the popular vaudeville shows that dominated the theater fare in the late 1800s. Often the last part of the performance was a polka or other popular ethnic dance, and by the early 1900s, entire evenings of polkas began to appear in theaters and dance halls. Over the years, the polka has faced various kinds of competition, from the Charleston, the Jitterbug and other new dance trends, but it has survived them all, and is still a popular social dances in the United States, performed often at weddings in addition to dance halls, county fairs, and other gatherings.

Many varieties of polkas have developed, influenced by the ethnic mix of each geographical area, and indeed, of each of the musicians in each polka band. Elements of the German landler, the Polish oberek, the Hungarian czardas, and the Czech sedska were factored in. For example, bandleaders Lawrence Welk, brought his own German and Russian musical heritage into the mix, and Frankie Yankovic, his Slovenian heritage.

The Polka in the classical repertoire

When it was at its heyday in the mid 1800s, the polka round its way into the pages of classical music history. Bedřich Smetana incorporated the polka in his opera The Bartered Bride (Template:Lang-cz) particularly in Act 1. Another polka in the mainstream opera literature is a polka from the French County of Nice, found in Gaetano Donizetti's Élixir d’amour (Elixir of love). Igor Stravinsky composed Circus Polka in 1942 for a ballet work choreographed by George Balanchine, a work created especially for the Ringling Brothers, performed by 50 ballerinas and 50 elephants.

Since the polka, originating in Bohemia, is not associated with a particular region Poland, polka dancers wear a variety of Polish costumes, such as those shown here, from Krakow.

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 center 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 which have survived obscurity. Josef Lanner and other Viennese composers in the 19th century also wrote many polkas to satiate 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 tempos. In principle, the polka written in the nineteenth 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' (polka française) 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 dating around that time would be the 'polka schnell' which is a fast polka or galop. It is in this final category Eduard Strauss is better known, as he penned the 'Bahn Frei' polka op. 45 and other examples. Earlier, Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner wrote polkas which are either designated as a galop (quick tempo) or as a regular polka which may not fall into any of the categories described above.

The polka was also a further source of inspiration for the Strauss family in Vienna when it was written only for plucked string instruments (pizzicato) resulting in the well-known 'Pizzicato Polka' jointly written by Johann II and Josef Strauss. Johann II also wrote a later 'New Pizzicato Polka' (Neu Pizzicato-Polka) op. 449 culled from music of his operetta 'Fürstin Ninetta'. Much earlier, he also wrote a 'joke-polka' (German "scherz-polka") entitled 'Champagne-Polka' op. 211 which evokes the uncorking of champagne bottles.


Although the ballrooms of European high society, where the polkas of the Johann Strausses and others were popular, had at their disposal a full range of classical musicians to perform the compositions, the peasants throughout Europe and the settlers in the young United States had to rely on much smaller musical ensembles to provide the accompaniment for their dances. Early polkas in Eastern Bohemia were played on the violin, an instrument that remains popular today in folk dance ensembles.

A concertina, a hand-held bellows driven reed instrument used in many polka ensembles in Europe and the U.S.
An Austrian Harmonika or Accordian. Accordians had a wider musical range than the concertina, but using metal reeds, a less pleasing tone.
The piano accordian gave more possibilities of simultaneous harmonies in the right hand.

But it was the accordion, which emerged in Germany during the 1820s and 1830s, and the smaller concertina, developed in England and Germany about a decade later that became the backbone of many peasant and immigrant dance bands. Utilizing a melodic keyboard for the right hand and chord buttons for the left hand, a long musician could play melodies in his right hand, and simultaneously provide a rhythmic accompaniment of chords with his left. Later, the piano accordion was developed, with a keyboard for the right hand resembling the center octaves of a piano keyboard. This allowed the accordion player an even fuller range of choices, including simultaneous melodies and harmonies in the right hand. Various styles of musical ensembles evolved around the concertina and accordion. These often had eight to twelve musicians, including one or two accordions / concertinas, bass, percussion, fiddles, and a combination of wind instruments, primarily clarinet, saxophone and trumpet, and sometimes singers.

Contemporary American styles

Slovenian-style polka is one of the most prevalent American styles of polka, developed from Slovenian musical traditions, and usually associated with Cleveland and other Midwestern cities. It is a fast style, and is also known as "Cleveland Style" or, more rarely, "Croatian Style." The Slovenian style polka in the United States of America came about when immigrants from Slovenia taught the old songs to their children. Those children, as adults, translated the old songs from the Slovene language into English, and arranged them in a polka beat.

A Slovenian style polka band always includes a piano accordion and a Diatonic button accordion, also called a "button box." There is often a electric guitar, banjo, saxophone, or clarinet, as well as a bass guitar and drum set for rhythm. At first Slovenian style polka was just music for ethnic clubs and union halls, but the commercial success of Frankie Yankovic and other musicians soon introduced the genre to a wider audience. Dr. William Lausche incorporated the elements of classical music and early jazz at which point the style took on a type of swing that can be heard in his piano playing, even on some early Yankovic recordings. Johnny Pecon and Lou Trebar consequently extended the style to its furthest reaches harmonically, to the point of even including blue notes, substitutions, borrowed and altered chords homophonically or in the implied or broken form.

In addition to Frankie Yankovic, notable musicians in this style include Walter Ostanek, Joe Grkman, Dick Tady, Johnny Pecon, Eddie Habat, Stan Blout, Kenny Bass, Bob Timko, Lou Trebar, Dr. William Lausche, Eddie Platt, Lou Sadar, Paul Yanchar, Adolph Srnick, Johnny Kafer, Joe Luzar, Dick Flaisman, Bruce Burger, Marty Sintic, Matt Hoyer, Mary Udovich and Josephine Lausche, and many others.

There are also various other styles of contemporary U.S. polka bands. The North American Polish-style polka has roots in Chicago, and can be classified into two styles: 'Chicago honky', using clarinet and one trumpet, and 'Chicago push' featuring accordion, Chemnitzer concertina, bass, drums, and (almost always) two trumpets. North American Dutchman-style (actually not Dutch, but a derivative of Deutsch, or German) features an oom-pah sound, often with a tuba, and has roots in the American Midwest. Conjunto-style has roots in Northern Mexico and Texas, and is also called "Norteño." In the 1980s and 1990s several bands began to combine polka with various rock styles, sometimes referred to as punk polka, alternative polka or San Francisco-style. Mexican bands in the Rio Grande Valley feature button-box accordion, guitar, bass and drums. Often the guitar is a 'bajo-sexto', a lower-pitched 12-string guitar. Duranguense polka from Durango, another Mexican type of music, uses electric guitars, violins, drums, saxophones, trombones, keyboards, trumpets and a tuba-keyboard or a bass guitar, it is in a rapid beat.

There are many Irish bands in the U.S., and they play polkas in a distinct Irish flavor, featuring fiddle, acoustic bass and concertina. Another style of polka found in Arizona, played by Native American bands and often called Chicken Scratch Music uses two saxophones as the primary instruments. Polka in Canada has developed along similar styles as the United States, with Cleveland-style polka in Southern Ontario the most popular.

Polka in South America

Wherever German and other European immigrants went, the polka went with them, from Mexico all the way to Uruguay. Flourishing in the mid 1800s, South American polkas underwent their own unique permutations, and can still be found today in many areas.

In the pampas of Argentina, the Peruvian "polca" has a very very fast beat, with a 3/4 compass. Instruments used: acoustic guitar (usually six strings, but sometimes seven strings), electric or acoustic bass (sometimes fretless), accordion (sometimes piano accordion, sometimes button accordion), and sometimes some percussion is used. The lyrics always praise the gaucho warriors from the past or tell about the life of the gaucho campeiros (provincial gauchos who keep the common way).

Paraguayan polka, which has developed as Paraguay's national dance, Danza Paraguaya, is very different from the traditional polka, mainly because the Paraguayan version combines ternary and binary rhythms, where as the European only uses binary. The juxtaposition of the mentioned rhythms gives the peculiar sound that characterizes this style. There are several variants of the Paraguayan polka such as polca syryry, polca kyre'y, polca popo, polca saraki, polca galopa, polca jekutu. All of them are slightly different because of the different influences and styles adopted by the composers in the early years of the Paraguayan polka.

Other varieties of the polka can be found in the folk dance and music of Argentina, where it has been influenced by Ukrainian and African elements in addition to its European roots, and in the Bahamas, where the Heel and Toe Polka has developed into one of the five official folk dances of the island, along with the Quadrille, Conch Style, Calypso Waltz, and the Sculling Dance.

Like other countries in South America, Venezuela first encountered the polka in the middle of the 1800s. Over the course of time, elements of creole people and afro-venezuelan dance have been incorporated into the polka in Venezuela and local musicians have loaded it with Venezuelan characteristics.

In the Andes and throughout Venezuela, the polka is played with a variety of instrumentation at popular dances and traditional celebrations. At popular dances in the state of Lara, the polka is interpreted with violins, cuatros, guitars and tambora, and alternated with waltzes, merengues and joropo. In Barinas state polka music accompanies the dancers in the festival of Corpus Christi. In the states of Trujillo and Táchira, the polka has been integrated into the Pato Bombeao, (dance of the dwarves). In the doll of the Calenda in Trujillo state, the polka that is interpreted by violins, mandolin, Tambourine, maracas, cuatro and tambora. And in Apure and Bolívar the dance known as the Paloteo contains many elements of the polka.

Polka in contemporary Europe

The polka, while not as popular as it is in the Americas, still persists in Europe today, included in the repertory of small instrumental ensembles, especially in former Eastern European countries, and among the Jewish Klezmer folk music ensembles, who play a wide variety of dance music for Jewish weddings and other occasions throughout Israel and Europe, as well as in the United States. Recent recordings of polkas in Europe feature groups such as the Polish trio Kroke, Die Schlauberger (Germany), Apparatschik (Russia ), Figli di Madre Ignota (Milano, Italy). Polkas are listed as one of three main categories under The Best of German Music [2]

Polkas are also listed among the important dances and songs of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Commercial recordings of polkas have been made in nearly every European country, including Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, France, and the Ukraine, in addition to the more dominant polka countries, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

In Poland, polkas are part of the repertory of folk dance ensembles from many parts of the country, each with their own distinctive costumes. One of these ensembles is Zespol Piesn i Tanca Slowianki or Lublin, the student folk dance troupe from Krakow. Lublin also sponsors Polonian folk dance workshops for folk dancers from other countries, and training courses for directors of Polonian dance troupes located outside of Poland.

The Polka in today's culture

A number of organizations have been formed in the U.S. to preserve the cultural heritage of polka music, including the International Polka Association based in Chicago, which honors its musicians through the Polka Hall of Fame, the United States Polka Association based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Polka America Corporation, based in Ringle, Wisconsin. Since 1993, the polka has been official state dance of Wisconsin.

Since 1986, a Grammy Award has been given annually for Best Polka Album. The first award went to America's Polka King, Frank Yankovic, for his "70 Years of Hits" album.

From 1956 until 1975, Polka Varieties an hour-long television program of polka music originating from Cleveland, Ohio, was televised by WEWS-TV for an hour on Sunday afternoons. The program, later syndicated to include 30 television markets, featured various popular Polish, Slovenian, Italian, and Bohemian-style bands. America's "Polka King" Frank Yankovic was the original band to perform on the show. Other bands included Richie Vadnal, George Staiduhar, Markic-Zagger, and Hank Haller. Original host Tom Fletcher was replaced by Paul Wilcox, whose presence became an indelible part of the show.

The Yankee Polka is often one of the compulsory dances listed for participants in international Ice Dancing competitions. In American studios teaching social dancing, polka is generally one of the dances offered, often grouped with the Western Dance section. Walter Ostanek, a Canadian band leader was featured in the 2006 Bravo! network documentary The Cult of Walt: Canada’s Polka King.

See also


  1. Grażyna Dąbrowska. Taniec ludowy na Mazowszu [Folk dance in Mazovia](Kraków, PWM Edition, 1980), 180.
  2. The Best of German Music - Drinking Songs, Marches, and Polkas of Germany Disc 4 by Various Artists Label: Legacy International Genre: Salsa Release: 2006

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • (Spanish) Ardizzone, Miriam. Atlas de tradiciones venezolanas. [Caracas, Venezuela]: Fundación Bigott, 2005.
  • Greene, Victor. A passion for polka: old-time ethnic music in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 9780520075849.
  • Keil, Charles, and Angeliki V. Keil. Polka happiness. (Visual studies.) Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. ISBN 9780877228196.
  • Meyen, H. The ball room guide, being a compendium of the theory, practice, and etiquette of dancing, embracing the newest quadrilles, polkas, waltzes, schottisches, &c., also, the Meyen quadrille. New York: E. & J. Magnus, 1852. OCLC: 4615947.
  • Michel, Artur. The Czech polka: world sensation of 1844. New York, N.Y.: [s.n.], 1944. OCLC: 45025029

External links

All links retrieved November 24, 2022.


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