Part I: A History of Polish-American Polkas
Part II: The International Polka Association
Part III: The Polka Scene in Two Cities
total pages: 221
148 black and white photographs
Publisher: Temple University Press
Review by Henry Doktorski:
Polka Happiness is a study of the polka in America; specifically the Polish-American style in Buffalo and Chicago but also including a comparative chapter on Slovenian-American style in Milwaukee. The authors had no polka scholarship to draw on when they started. To research their book, they attended dances and booster club meetings; they traveled to national and regional polka conventions; they interviewed musicians, promoters, disc jockeys, and fans; and they consulted community publications and leaders to learn as much as they could about Polonia, as Polish-Americans call their community.
I learned a great deal of fascinating history from this book. Did you know that the legendary origin of this dance is just as much mythology as history? The traditional story relates how a Czech servant girl invented the polka in the 1830s and that a local schoolmaster is said to have observed her song and dance. He wrote down the tune and the first polka was born. However, from one encyclopedia to another, the name of the servant girl changes and also the name of the town.
We do know that the polka is an urban dance; it has no roots in traditional peasant dances. Women play a prominent role in the dance, often dancing together. (Polka is the Polish world for "Polish woman," as Polak is the word for "Polish man.")
In the Spring of 1844, the polka became the rage in Paris and London and rapidly spread throughout the world, even becoming the national dance of Paraguay when that country began struggling for independence. There are Finnish polkas, Swedish polkas, Norwegian polkas, Greek polkas, and even Indonesian polkas. But would you believe that the polka has NEVER been popular in Poland?
The authors state, "Polish-Americans returning to Poland are often frustrated to find that the music and dance they know and love as "Polish" does not really exist there in the cities or in the villages or even in the folkloric ensembles unless a special effort is being made to please Polish-American tourists." Hence the title of chapter one: Made In America.
After nearly two hundred pages describing the polka phenomenon, the authors conclude:
Polkas have persisted for 150 years on all the continents and many islands too, but despite great diversification of ecological niches, the species is endangered. . . . The polka's ability to survive twentieth-century pressures on young people to consume the latest rock and pop fashions from their preteen years to marriage is being tested, and the recruitment of young dancers and musicians has been the most formidable challenge to polka continuity since the early 1950s. Young musicians form groups to give the polka a whirl, but where are the throngs of young dancers? If young people can break the constricting molds of cultural conformity to participate in musics that are local, diversified, rooted in tradition and community, then the polka has a bright future.
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