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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

Month

July 2011

Polka Till You Puke

Polka is the law in Wisconsin. Or so they tell you in Pulaski, home of Polka Days, a weekend celebration of the Wisconsin state dance near Green Bay. It draws a serious polka crowd, both young and old, as well as some of the country’s most popular polka bands.

Polka pride is evident on the many funny t-shirts worn by attendees

Polka began as a Czech peasant dance in the early 19th century. It spread to ballrooms in Prague and then Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. The French loved to polka and their enthusiasm for the dance helped increase its popularity. Polka soon spread to England and then to the United States where Polish-Americans adopted it as their national dance in the early 20th century. The name ‘polka’ is derived from the Czech phrase for ‘half-step’ in reference to the dance pattern of lightly stepping from one foot to the other.

Polka emerged at roughly the same time as its signature instruments: the accordion and concertina. These squeeze boxes became the 19th century’s most popular mechanical musical innovation because one person could play the part of an entire musical ensemble, playing melodies and harmonies with one hand and chords and bass in the other hand. These instruments became prized possessions that many immigrants brought with them to the United States.

A variety of polka styles developed in different sections of the country, particularly the Midwest. The styles became associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Polish, Slovenian, and Dutchman, based on the ethnic heritage of the musicians or composers.

Radio brought polka to an even wider audience in the 20th century. After World War II, polka joined, for a brief time, popular culture, in large measure due to the accordion stylings of Frankie Yankovic of Cleveland, Ohio. Rock ‘n roll eclipsed polka in the 1960s but polka has remained popular in many communities throughout the Midwest.

Polka is clearly still big in Pulaski judging from the huge, cheering, and dancing crowds. It’s an impressive sight–two tents with wood dance floors packed with people, polka-ing with abandon, and not a little skill.

Eavesdropping

Sometimes I think it might be fun to start recording everything I hear while walking around town or waiting in line at the store. At the farmer’s market this morning, I heard a man tell his friends: “I think I slept on my kidney wrong. It’s really sore this morning.” I’m pretty sure that’s not possible.

Sleep is a common prescription for good health today. Getting enough of it, that is. In the 19th century, many alternative health movements promoted things we now think of as common sense: eating a heathy diet, drinking water, getting fresh air, and exercising. But few health reformers actively promote sleep. It seems that sleep wasn’t the same issue that it is today. Scientists and doctors speculated on what sleep was for and what happened while you slept (especially what you were dreaming) but didn’t seem to worry so much about the amount of sleep people were getting.

In part, this may be due to technology. Electricity wasn’t widespread until the 20th century so working late into the night or before dawn wasn’t an issue in many cases. There were certainly many other things to keep people up at night, however, from lice and other bed bugs to stinky chamber pots.

Or maybe it was, as historian Roger Ekirch suggests, that sleeping through the night wasn’t expected. He proposes that interrupted sleep was the norm and that it’s only now that we equate a good night’s rest with uninterrupted sleep. He says–and many others seem to agree–that artificial lighting has changed us. Harvard chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler has compared artificial lighting to a drug in its physiological effects. Among other things, it alters our levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our circadian clock. In the past, we may have slept in segments, sleeping for a few hours, waking and doing something, and sleeping some more.

It’s certainly always been possible to sleep in an awkward position and wake up with sore muscles. I’m just not sure that extends to body organs.


Defining Home and Region

Where’s home? Is it where you live now or where you’re from? And if you’ve moved, when does your new place transition to “home?”

I’m staring down nearly nine years in Madison, Wisconsin, this summer. I came for school but stayed for… work and friends and then love. And even though I’ve never felt more connected to a place than I do Madison, I still feel surprise when people refer to me as a “Wisconsinite” or a “Madisonian.” Obviously, I’ve made the cut in their minds but for some reason I’m not sure I’ve made it in mine. What I think of as my “formative years” happened somewhere else even if I’m not all that different from the people in my new home.

My husband and I have been talking about the Midwest as a region a lot lately. Where is it? What is it? Who considers themselves part of it, Midwesterners, and who doesn’t? Midwest Living magazine includes Oklahoma in the Midwest but I’d venture to say that many people in Wisconsin wouldn’t consider Oklahoma Midwestern (no offense to those Oklahomans who do). And what about Ohio? It kind of is and isn’t, straddling the line between the Midwest and the East but firmly in the eastern time zone.

I was born in the Midwest and live there again now so does that make me a Midwesterner? Even though I spent two-thirds of my life in the Northwest?

All of these things–home and region–are really choices we each make about where we choose to identify some part of ourselves. For some, not choosing can be a regional identity, too: rootlessness. And maybe that’s my choice right now.

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