Monday, August 18, 2008

What is a "polka"?

The polka is a Czech genre of folk dance and music started in Bohemia in the 1830s. It's quick and lively; polka music is always played in 2/4 with four verses and as many repeated choruses (though sometimes the chorus is repeated after every other verse). Unlike many dance-music genres, polka is lyrically solid -- and incredibly diverse. Polka originated in the peasant culture, so the lyrics often reflect that life; and though polka lyrics can really be about almost anything, love and the loss of love seem to be the most common themes.
The polka is distinguishable by a few familiar characteristics. The music itself is very recognizable, some forms creating the oom-pah sound that many identify with only polka. It's always played with a bass, piano and horn section (usually including a tuba), but the most identifiable instrument in polka is the accordion. An image of a man playing an accordion in traditional Czech folk clothing is one that comes to mind for many people when polka is mentioned. The dance, too, is very distinguishable, if only for its vivacious energy. The polka dance is based on a half-step hop taken before the actual step. This hop almost serves a primer for the rest of the dance, and it's what makes the polka dance seem so incredibly bouncy and energetic. The informality of the dance also contributes to its carefree connotation. A typical polka dance will have no strict formation on the dance floor; dancers are free to move around the floor in whatever way feels most comfortable to them and the other dancers.
Though it's often associated with a nerdy, boring lifestyle (parents through the eyes of teenagers are always listening to polka), polka is still wildly popular within the United States. Throughout the years, however, it's morphed into a variety of forms, many of which are extremely regional. The Polish polka is found mostly in Chicago and encapsulates a number of styles. Slovenian polka, which is faster than traditional polkas, is often danced in Cleveland, and Dutch polka (the most familiar and popularized type) is the province of the Midwest.
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