“Conversation didn’t seem necessary when I put the accordion down and swung some young lady around the floor.”
– Lawrence Welk
You’re wondering what a dance step ever had to do with dots. Or bubbles. Or what this has to do with mountain music. Maybe you remember how your elderly grandparents carried on about some guy named Welk with a bubble machine and his own orchestra and a TV show. Well, polka is back with a new fervor and it’s not just a geezer three-step anymore. The lively bounce has evolved into the modern equivalent of Slovenian slam dancing, drawing in younger crowds who grew up with mosh-pit ethics. Grab a brewski, a partner and twirl into the sea of musical bumper cars, because anyone who can count to three and is still breathing can polka. The trickiest part of the groove is not to slosh your beer on the downbeat, because the old timers on the floor frown upon wasted brew.
Early Central European immigrants, who came to mountain towns for work in the mines, brought with them musical traditions and culture that involved accordions, concertinas, horns and drums that broke into impromptu home jams and consequently ended up on packed barroom dance floors extending into the streets. You can bet the immigrants knew how to hold on to their drinks and their partners in the heat of the whirling oompah. Every mining town from the late-1800s into the 1900s had its own band composed mostly of the original work-hard/party-harder clan who hailed primarily from Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Ireland and Italy. After washing off the ore dust, they’d often grab their instruments and the entire family would head to the bar, which was an extension of the living room. Often, a toddler’s first steps were a three-step polka.
The Pete Dunda Band has been playing the polka-dancing circuit since 1976, but Pete’s been on the polka party scene for more than 40 years, taking accordion lessons since the age of seven — six-plus decades ago. Spanning a 23-year Air Force career as laser physicist and jet fighter pilot to being the ultimate polka king, Pete has continuously played various Rocky Mountain holiday events. He remembers earlier times in high-altitude bars. “It was very crowded and very wild in those days,’ he says. “At the early dances, you couldn’t move on Memorial Day … but the Fourth of July was obscene.”
The cultural generation gap was a bit wider then, as the old timers came to polka but the younger and newer locals and visitors would just want to bounce around spilling their beer all over everything and everyone. Pete remembers a quarter-inch of fermented amber liquid engulfing the entire floor and submerging the electrical cords for the band’s equipment just waiting to add even more spark to the already lively steps. “It got to be a drunk-out. Someone was going to get hurt on the dance floor,” he worried, but no one ever did, and the party was carried forward. These days the floors are jammed with all ages of dancers, couples young and old happily smashing into each other while laughing hysterically, like an upright rhythmic game of Twister between good neighbors.
Polka was probably invented by a Bohemian Polish peasant woman named Anna Slezak in a small country town outside of Prague in the early 1830s. It was composed to a folk song entitled, “Strycek Nimra Koupil Simla” (“Uncle Nimra Brought a White Horse”). Anna called the step “Madera” because of its quickness and liveliness, but “pulka” is Czech for “half-step,” which refers to the rapid shift from one foot to the other. The accordion, the backbone of the polka, was patented in 1829 and had only buttons and not the modern piano accordion with keys, which came into vogue around 1885.
After WWII, more German and Slavic immigrants to the United States brought their traditional folk songs and adapted them to polka mode as the craze of the ’50s brought various styles of polkas and the popularization of both the dance and the accordion. Names such as Yankovic, Cantino and Welk all put the dance on the floor and into the mainstream. Polka parties were held at local bars to celebrate the victories, homecoming and family. Jake Spritzer Sr., an old-timer from a mining family in Crested Butte, learned to polka as a young child, as his father played accordion. In those days, the Spritzer family had a band, but they would also play solo. “Nothing was planned,” Jake remembers. “They’d just sit down and do it. They were all very talented and several others around town also had instruments.”
Spritzer recalls how the locals would spill out into the streets dancing because, “The bars were so packed you couldn’t walk in or out. I was little, so I thought every town did this.”
Most mining-town populations in the Rockies did dance and play with abandon whenever they could carve a moment from their harsh real-world lives. Not only a stress relief from being cooped up in dark, dank mines all day, it was a celebration of memories of the old country. The homemade dandelion wine common and abundant in those days helped loose the feet and spirit. Back in the post-WWII days, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day were Jake’s favorites when, “Everyone would get together at each other’s houses and share lots of food. Everyone would stop over here and over there and accordions would be played.” It was a moving feast that ended up in the bars for a polka and a waltz.
It’s important to carry on tradition … being spun in tight circles while knocking back pints of libation in the swelter of a frothing dance floor where all that dizziness perhaps imitates love, invokes a collective memory of the old world and music that certainly makes everyone euphoric. Give in to your inner bohemian and save us a dance …
Check out the Pete Dunda Band at petedunda.com; for more info on the Rocky Mountains’ largest polka fest and club, visit bigskypolkaclub.com; in Colorado, the Edelweiss Club is a German dance organization with great info at tevedelweiss.org
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in a tiny cottage with a ginormous cat on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org