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.

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