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The polka is a Central European dance and also a genre of dance music familiar throughout Europe and the Americas. It originated in the middle of the 19th century in Bohemia. Polka is still a popular genre of folk music in many European countries and is performed by folk artists in Poland (Clarinet Polka), Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Slovakia. Local varieties of this dance are also found in the Nordic countries, United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Latin America and in the United States.
Although the dance did not originate in Poland, its name is derived from the Czech polka meaning "Polish woman" (feminine form corresponding to polák, a Pole). The theory that it comes from the Czech word půlka ("half"), referring to the short half-steps featuring in the dance, is now "discredited". Czech cultural historian and ethnographer Čeněk Zíbrt, who wrote in detail about the origin of the dance, in his book, Jak se kdy v Čechách tancovalo cites an opinion of František Doucha (1840, Květy, p. 400) that "polka" was supposed to mean "tanec na polo" (n.b. the absence of diacritics), i.e. "a dance in half", both referring to the half-tempo 2/4 and the half-jump step of the dance. Zíbrt also ironically dismisses the etymology suggested by A. Fähnrich (in Ein etymologisches Taschenbuch, Jiein, 1846) that polka comes from the Bohemian word pole (farmland). On the other hand, Zdeněk Nejedlý suggests that the etymology given by Fr. Doucha is nothing but an effort to prove the "true Czech folk" origin of Polka. Instead, he claims that according to Jaroslav Langr ("České krakováčky" in: Čas. Čes. musea, 1835, Sebr. spisy I, 256) in the area of Hradec Králové, the tune Krakoviáky from the collection Slovanské národní písně of František Ladislav Čelakovský became very popular so that it was used to dance (Czech dances) třasák, břitva, kvapík, and this way was called "Polka". Nejedly also writes that Václav Vladivoj Tomek also claims the Hradec Králove roots of a Polka.
The word was widely introduced into the major European languages in the early 1840s. It should not be confused with the polska, a Swedish 3/4-beat (help·info) dance with Polish roots (cf. polka-mazurka). A related dance is the redowa. Polkas almost always have a 2/4 (help·info) time signature. Folk music of Polka style appeared in written music about 1800.
The beginning of the propagation of dance and accompanying music called polka is generally attributed to a young woman, Anna Slezakova (born Anna Chadimova) of Labska Tynice, Bohemia, who danced to accompany a local folk song called "Strýček Nimra koupil šimla", or "Uncle Nimra Bought a White Horse", in 1834. She is said to have called the dance Madera, because of its liveliness. The dance was further propagated by the music teacher Josef Neruda, who witnessed Anna dance in an unusual way, put the tune to paper, and taught other young men to dance it. Čeněk Zíbrt mentions that when he published this traditional story in 1894 in Narodni Listy newspaper, he received a good deal of feedback from eyewitnesses. In particular, he wrote that according to further witness, the originating event actually happened in 1830, in Kostelec nad Labem, where she worked as a housemaid. Zibrt writes that he published the first version of the story in Bohemia (June 5, 1844), from where it was reprinted all over Europe and in the United States. Zibrt also wrote that simple Czech folk claimed that they knew and danced Polka long before the nobles got hold of it, i.e., it is a truly folk Czech dance.
It was so well received by both dancers and dance masters in Paris that its popularity was referred to as "polkamania." The dance soon spread to London and was introduced to America in 1844. It remained a popular ballroom dance until the late 19th century, when it would give way to the two-step and new ragtime dances.
Polka dancing enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after World War II, when many Polish refugees moved to the US, adopting this Bohemian style as a cultural dance. Polka dances are still held on a weekly basis across many parts of the US with significant populations of central European origin. It was also found in parts of South America.
There are various styles of contemporary polka.
One of the types found in the United States is the North American "Polish-style polka," which has roots in Chicago; two sub-styles are "The Chicago Honky" (using clarinet and one trumpet) and "Chicago Push" featuring the accordion, Chemnitzer & Star concertinas, upright bass or bass guitar, drums, and (almost always) two trumpets. North American "Slovenian-style polka" is fast and features piano accordion, chromatic accordion, and/or diatonic button box accordion; it is associated with Cleveland. North American "Dutchmen-style" features an oom-pah sound often with a tuba & banjo, and has roots in the American Midwest. "Conjunto-style" polkas have roots in northern Mexico and Texas, and are also called "Norteño". Traditional dances from this region reflect the influence of polka-dancing European immigrants. In the 1980s and 1990s, several American bands began to combine polka with various rock styles (sometimes referred to as "punk polka"), "alternative polka", or "San Francisco-style".
There also exist Curaçaon polkas, Peruvian polkas (becoming very popular in Lima). In the pampas of Argentina, the "polca" has a very fast beat with a 3/4 compass. Instruments used are: acoustic guitar (usually six strings, but sometimes seven strings), electric or acoustic bass (sometimes fretless), accordion (sometimes piano accordion, sometimes button accordion), and sometimes some percussion is used. The lyrics always praise the gaucho warriors from the past or tell about the life of the gaucho campeiros (provincial gauchos who keep the common way). The polka was very popular in South and Southwest of Brazil, were it was mixed with other European and African styles to create the Choro. The polka (polca in the Irish language) is also one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra, a district that spans the borders of counties Kerry, Cork and Limerick. Many of the figures of Irish set dances, which developed from Continental quadrilles, are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, and are typically played with an off-beat accent.
The polka also migrated to the Nordic countries where it is known by a variety of names in Denmark (galopp, hopsa), Estonia (polka), Finland (pariisipolkka, polkka), Iceland, Norway (galopp, hamborgar, hopsa/hopsar, parisarpolka, polka, polkett, skotsk) and Sweden (polka). The beats are not as heavy as those from Central Europe and the dance steps and holds also have variations not found further south. The polka is considered a part of the gammeldans tradition of music and dance. While it is nowhere near as old as the older Nordic dance and music traditions, there are still hundreds of polka tunes in each of the Nordic countries. They are played by solo instrumentalists or by bands/ensembles, most frequently with lead instruments such as accordion fiddle, diatonic accordion, hardingfele and nyckelharpa.
While the polka is Bohemian in origin, most dance music composers in Vienna (the capital of the vast Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was the cultural centre for music from all over the empire) composed polkas and included the dance in their repertoire at some point of their career. The Strauss family in Vienna for example, while probably better-known for their waltzes also composed polkas which have survived obscurity. Josef Lanner and other Viennese composers in the 19th century also wrote many polkas to satisfy the demands of the dance-music-loving Viennese. In France, another dance-music composer Emile Waldteufel also wrote many polkas in addition to his chief profession of penning waltzes.
The polka evolved during the same period into different styles and tempi. In principle, the polka written in the 19th century has a 4-theme structure; themes 1A and 1B as well as a 'Trio' section of a further 2 themes. The 'Trio' usually has an 'Intrada' to form a break between the two sections. The feminine and graceful 'French polka' (polka française) is slower in tempo and is more measured in its gaiety. Johann Strauss II's Annen Polka op. 114, Demolirer polka op. 269, the Im Krapfenwald'l op. 336 and the Bitte schön! polka op. 372 are examples of this type of polka. The polka-mazurka is also another variation of the polka, being in the tempo of a mazurka but danced in a similar manner as the polka. The final category of the polka dating around that time would be the 'polka schnell' which is a fast polka or galop. It is in this final category Eduard Strauss is better known, as he penned the 'Bahn Frei' polka op. 45 and other examples. Earlier, Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner wrote polkas which are either designated as a galop (quick tempo) or as a regular polka which may not fall into any of the categories described above.
The polka was also a further source of inspiration for the Strauss family in Vienna when Johann II and Josef Strauss wrote one for plucked string instruments (pizzicato) only, the well-known 'Pizzicato polka'. Johann II later wrote a 'New pizzicato polka' (Neu pizzicato-polka), opus 449, culled from music of his operetta 'Fürstin Ninetta'. Much earlier, he also wrote a 'joke-polka' (German "scherz-polka") entitled 'Champagne-polka', opus 211, which evokes the uncorking of champagne bottles.
In the United States, Polka is promoted by the International Polka Association based in Chicago, which works to preserve the cultural heritage of polka music and to honor its musicians through the Polka Hall of Fame.
Polka is also popular in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Beer Barrel Polka is played during the seventh inning stretch and halftime of Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks games. Polka is also the official State Dance of Wisconsin.
Nickolas Daskalou was one of the early polka pioneers starting in the late 1930s. Nickolas won the first America's Polka King award in 1947. Subsequently, he was crowned "Biggest and Best Polka Dancer" in the western world. Nickolas is also recognized for producing and conducting the classic "Polka Rock" in 1967.
From 1956 to 1975, Beginning with its inception in 2001, the RFD-TV Network aired "The Big Joe Show", a television program which included polka music and dancing that was filmed on location in various venues throughout the United States from 1973 through 2009. RFD-TV replaced The Big Joe Show with "The RFD-TV Polka Fest" in January 2011.
In 2009, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hosts/produces the Grammy Awards, announced that it was eliminating the polka category. The Academy's official reason for eliminating the polka award was “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” The Academy's decision stems from the declining number of popular polka albums considered for an award in recent years. For example, out of the five polka albums nominated for an award in 2006, only one album was widely distributed in the mainstream.
The most popular genre is Cleveland - Slovenian style polka (and waltzes), also Chicago - Polish style polka and Czech, German style polka (and waltzes) and so on. Among some of the better known polka (and waltzes) artists and composers include Happy Louie and Julie, Lenny Gomulka, Frankie Yankovic, Walter Ostanek (Canada), Verne Meisner, Mike Schneider, Tom Brusky, Walt Groller, Joey Miskulin, Jimmy Sturr, Marv Herzog, Kyle Redman Polka Band, and (in combination with more modern styles) "Weird Al" Yankovic (no known relation to Frankie Yankovic) and The Our Gang Orchestra. The American band Primus' leader Les Claypool has once described their music as "psychedelic polka". The jam band Leftover Salmon also incorporates many polka songs into their repertoire, including their popular "420 Polka."
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