What on Earth is Polka?
    Geographic origins and history
    By Jason Adrien

    What is Polka?  Is it a dance?  Is it music?  In actuality it is both.  Polka is a vigorous, lively, social dance that originated among peasants of eastern Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and spread into Prague in the 1830's.  In the mid nineteenth century it reached Paris and swept through ballrooms and theaters throughout Europe and the Americas in a variety of versions.  Regional variations such as the Rheinlander, polkamazurka, and the Polish polka appeared because each region refined and simplified polka to their own tastes.  Characteristically polka couples circle the ballroom, often at reckless speeds, using a simple step, close, step, and hop technique.  The music is in 2/4 time with a strong, defining upbeat.  Because of polkas long history it has acquired many terms and phrases, essentially its own vocabulary, contributing to the size of this cultural icon.  The polka continued to be danced in the 20th century but less commonly than the fox-trot and latter forms.

    What are the origins of the word "polka"?  The complexity of this issue is fairly high because both the Poles and the Czechs contend it originated in each others homeland.  It is believed that the polka dance originated by the Poles who lived in southern Hungary.  In Polish the word polka means "polish woman".  Also there is speculation that the word polka is a corruption of the Czech word "pulka".  Either way there are many facts and interpretations that need to be taken under consideration if this issue is to be resolved.

    Many composers wrote polkas using them in ballets and operas.  A good example of this is the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana who included notable polkas in his opera "The Bartered Bride".  The most common instruments and components that accompany modern polka are the concertina, accordion, a vocalist, bass guitar, clarinet, trumpet, drum, and saxophone.  Lastly who are some of the great polka players today?  Just some of the greats are Lawrence Welk, Frankie Yankovic, Jimmy Sturr, Lou Trebar, and the Brave Combo.  Lawrence Welk  has survived into the 1990's as one of the most successful polka bandleaders.  Frankie Yankovic, who I was told just passed on, was a very popular bandleader in the 1940's and 1950's.  Jimmy Sturr was a great clarinetist who won six Grammy's.  And the Brave Combo is a popular Texas band who is known for their offbeat polkas.
 

Additional Links:

Polka News and Events 

Arizona Polka Dancing

Polkanet 

 

Further Readings:

-"A Passion for Polka: Old-Time Ethnic Music in America" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

-Fifth edition of "Grove's" (1954, Vol. III, p.333)

-"Standard Dictionary of Folklore" (New York, 1950, Vol. II, p.876)