For the love of polka
A blast from the past, polka lives on in Rochester
Walking into Arthur Murray Dance Center, you get the feeling you’re entering a café. To the right, a few tables are set up; you take a seat and are offered coffee. Ahead of you is a coat rack filled with sport coats and suit jackets, everyone dressed as if fresh from the office. There’s a fireplace at the far end of the glossy dance floor and a glimmer from the lights above giving you the limelight. An experienced ballroom dancer will take you through the steps your first time there, showing you the basics from some of the dances.
But are you ready for polka? The steps for the dance seem so fast it may be hard to keep up. You watch two instructors showcase how it should look. They dance as if one body. Artists, they paint in a furious panic, the colors spritzing across the floor, giving the impression they don’t even notice the canvas beneath their feet. Kate Born, owner of the Rochester studio located in Pittsford Colony, has been a ballroom dancer since her early teens. She’s been working with Arthur Murray for sixteen years, owning her own studio for five. The company as a whole celebrates its 105th birthday this year.
Born sees a rise in attention to ballroom dance. “Ballroom dancing as a whole, which is really any dance which incorporates a partner, whether it is more the classic stuff, like waltz, tango, foxtrot, it’s definitely coming back on the scene. It’s been becoming more popular I’d say in the last eight to ten years, especially with Dancing with the Stars. Once that came on the scene, that was a big up-kick to people getting back into dancing.” What’s the clientele like? “Typically, if somebody comes in it’s because they have some sort of event where there’s going to be polka dancing, perhaps the Oktoberfest or something like that. I would say middle-aged and up.” The songs most often played for polka at Arthur Murray are “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Let’s have a party Polka,” and “German Polka Medley.”
At a table across from one another, plates of Swiss cheese slices and crackers between them, my grandparents Robert and Carole Leicht, of Rochester, reminisce about how polka brought them together. Tucked away in the ratskeller [basement] of an old house on Alexander Street some sixty years ago, Carole, along with some friends, ventured into the Hibernian Club, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization, late one evening.
“You came in through the side door,” says Robert, a regular at the establishment. “The door was locked, so you had to knock. There was an old Irish guy there on the other side; he called me High Pockets. He’d say ‘Hey, High Pockets, come on in!’ You’d go upstairs to put your coat away and then head downstairs.” In the ratskellar was a dance floor, a bar and a few tables. Often bustling, it was a great escape and place to meet new people.
On this particular night, just as Carole entered with her friends, so did Robert with his. At the time he was twenty-six, and she twenty. “So I met him there, and no one else could do his polkas. He double-times his, so if anyone tried to do his polka they’d say forget it,” says Carole, smiling. No matter the song, as long as it was polka, they’d be drawn to the dance floor in search of one another.
Robert and Carole kindled their relationship with polka, officially dating on Thanksgiving and becoming engaged the following Valentine’s Day. “No matter where we were or who we were with, I’d always find Robert and he would look for me and we would do the polka. He might have been with someone else, I might have been with someone else, but once the music came on we’d always find each other,” says Carole.
Ray Serafin does a polka radio show every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, from Greece Olympia on jazz901.org. Broadcasting all over the world, Serafin will often take requests and continues to be surprised by how much of the younger generations are listening to polka, “I’ve gone through several generations of people, and the younger— although you won’t see them come out to a polka event—they still have a feeling toward their heritage, and the show is a way that kind of connects them. I’ll get a call saying, ‘My grandfather used to sing this song all the time—do you have it?’ That’s how they stay in touch with the customs and the music.” With his radio show coming up on thirty-six years, making it one of the longest running radio shows in Rochester, Serafin has been keeping himself engaged with the music through his own band as well, “I have a band [Brass Magic] that’s played polka music for probably fifty years, I’m a collector of polka records also; I trade with people around the country. I just thought it’d be good to share the music with the people of Rochester. At the time we did not have a polka show, and I thought it was a good time to share the music.”
Over the years, polka has evolved, changing its tempo, ever in the works from new artists taking on the genre. “Little Wally [Walter Jagiello] really rejuvenated polka music. He’s from Chicago,” says Serafin. “He kind of introduced a different style of polka, a mid-western style that took hold and now everybody plays that style.”
“It’s really a happy type of music. I try to play a real mix of music so it will appeal to not only Polish-type listeners—we’re primarily a Polish-type show—but it’ll appeal to all nationalities. I’ll put a mix of things in there. A lot of English vocals instead of Polish vocals, and of course the whole show is done in English; there’s no Polish spoken or anything, but I mean we may throw in an Italian-type polka or a German-type polka, that kind of thing. Because I know we have all nationalities listening.”
Polka, be it the dance or the music, has been able to bring people together for years. It still has a place in the community and can be an easy way to enjoy your family’s heritage, or maybe a friend’s. Events like Oktoberfest offer a way to experience something new or just a reason to get out of the house, and who knows, you may even end up meeting someone because of it.
Dan Leicht is a freelance and fiction writer from Rochester. Find new work on his website, danleicht.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @Deeliopunk.