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Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Cult of Polka

My husband, Mike, and I have been dancing for forty-two years, but until recently had never met anyone in the CULT OF POLKA.

This is how it happened…. From May to October we go “Up North” every weekend to Little Green Lake in Markesan, which means we're an hour and a half away from our usual dancing haunts in Milwaukee. A few years ago, at a corn harvest festival in Markesan, we heard an oompah-pah sound. After we were done munching our free corn (provided by the Markesan Del Monte cannery), we wandered to the source of the music. There, in front of the library, sat a guy playing accordion and another guy playing drums.

Live music, baby! We started dancing in the street. Did you know that you can swing dance to any polka? We made that happy discovery that sunny August day.

Some other people joined us dancing – real polka dancers. It takes a lot of energy to dance the polka, especially wearing tennis shoes and hopping around on a hot asphalt-paved street. After “The Beer Barrel Polka,” they walked over to us. We were all sweating, out of breath and laughing.

“There’s live music every Friday at the Legion Hall in Fox Lake,” the man told us.

We decided to try it. Fox Lake is an easy stop for us as we drive north from our home to Markesan. The next Friday, we found the Legion Hall easily. Mike dropped me off at the front door while he went around back to park the car.

I opened the door…and almost turned right around. There wasn’t a speck of hair pigment in the room. All I could see was a sea of white at long tables, another oompah-pah band, and about a dozen white-haired couples doing the slowest fox trot I’d ever seen. A few of the dancing couples were composed of two women.

Mike opened the front door. I was still standing there in shock. I looked at him. He looked at me. We started laughing.

“Should we leave or stay?” I asked.

“Let’s give it a try,” Mike suggested.

We paid our seven dollars each and found a seat at one of the long tables. People were friendly. We had a beer, ate some peanuts, and started dancing.

That was our introduction to the Cult of Polka. We don’t laugh anymore. We’ve come to realize that those old people have more pep than we do. Yes, they do conserve energy by dancing slowly. But even dancing slowly, it’s hard to keep doing the polka all night. It takes zip.

My Aunt Shirley once told me that my grandparents were great dancers. Grandma and Grandpa Hoerig were farmers in St. Michael’s, Wisconsin, and finally I have a feeling about this part of their lives from almost one hundred years ago. I bet they danced in their church hall to little polka bands like the ones we’ve come to know.

Since we’ve become a part of the Cult of Polka, we’ve been surprised at a few things:

1. There is a man who celebrated his ninety-sixth birthday at Fox Lake a couple of years ago. He's about four and a half feet tall, and a popular dance partner to ladies who are much taller. We saw him this summer, still dancing.

2. My parents used to complain that when polka bands play, every song sounds like a polka. I didn’t understand what they meant then, but I do now. The waltzes and fox trots all have that merry ricky- jicky polka feeling.

3. The schottisch is fun, and so is the Polish hop. They resemble the polka, but are significantly different. Mike and I haven’t mastered them but would like to. The Polish hop is even bouncier than the polka. Last weekend we saw an older couple hop for four hours. It made my knees ache to watch.

4. If you ask a polka band to play a Latin song, they will gladly do so. It will usually be “Blue Spanish Eyes” and you can do a slow rumba or a fast cha cha to it. If you ask them to play a tango, they might have one in their arsenal, like “Blue Tango” or “Hernando’s Hide-away.” If you ask them to play a Cajun tune, they might know “Jambalaya.”

5. Mike and I know many of the words to songs that were written long before we were born. We both grew up in homes that were full of music. We heard our parents sing the tunes, and apparently the lyrics are filed away in deeply-recessed file cabinets in our brains.

6. Polka bands are not always composed of old guys. Some of the musicians are younger than I am – no grey on their heads. I’ve talked to them and learned that they’ve often come to music because it was something their fathers did.

Last weekend was Memorial Day weekend and we visited the Prairie Lanes Recreation Center in Markesan for the first time. The entertainment was provided by Don Peachy and his fellow musicians. The charge was eight bucks a head – a dollar more expensive than Fox Lake Legion Hall, but with a bigger band. Prairie Lanes is run by a friendly couple who call themselves Bonnie and Clyde. The Memorial Day dance is the last one for Prairie Lanes until Labor Day. I asked Clyde why.

“There are too many outdoor festivals in summer,” he explained. Then he added, “You should have been here the other weekend. We had the Ralph Thull Trio from Kewaskum. They’re part of a family band called the Good Time Orchestra. We stopped counting at one hundred twenty people. We served three hors d’oeuvres – it was very exciting.” 

My mother used to tell stories about Eddie Thull, a farmer who lived down the road from her family's farm in St. Michael’s. St. Michael’s is near Kewaskum. I bet Ralph is a relative of Eddie. It’s a small world.

 We stayed at Prairie Lanes for all four hours of Don Peachey’s show. His band had five pieces: keyboard, accordion, drums, and two horn players who toodled on five different clarinets and saxophones. The horns had beautiful harmony, as did the men’s voices, and the players had a lot of spirit, whooping and shouting at appropriate moments in the songs. I’ve never seen that before in a live band, but I think I remember such goings-on when I used to watch Joe Schott and the Hot Shots on a Milwaukee TV station when I was very young. Oh, and their Latin numbers did not sound like polkas!

At one break, two white-haired ladies asked me to take their picture with Don Peachey. The ladies had been dancing with each other to every song. They both wore red shirts, like the members of the band. 

I asked them, “Are you groupies?” They said no, they were sisters.

I took the photo of them with Don, then gave my hand to each of them in turn as they stepped off the platform. They joked back and forth with the bandleader.

“You’re flirting!” I said. “You are groupies!”

“He’s flirting too,” they countered.

I started writing down the names of the songs because Mike and I couldn’t believe how many we could sing along to. Here’s a partial list of song title approximations – I bet, if you are of a certain age, you could sing along too....

“The Milwaukee Waltz (Round and around and around we go)”
“Five Minutes More” (I think this must have been racy in its day.)
“Put Your Little Lips” (sounded like a schottish)
“You Wore a Big Yellow Tulip (and I Wore a Big Red Rose)”
“Corinna Corinna” (not the Siegel-Schwall version, but a slow fox trot version that we modified to a two-step until my knees gave out)
“Elmer’s Tune”
“Oh Johnny (How We Had Fun)”
“Waltz Across Texas”
“Winkin’ at Me” (another one that I bet was considered racy in its time)
“Waltz of the Bells”
“Blue Spanish Eyes”
“Tango and Roses”
“Little Brown Jug” (played slowly; if all jitterbugs were this slow, I could swing-dance all night)

As the band packed up, we chatted with one of the horn players. His case was torn and battered at the corners.

“This belonged to my dad,” he said. “I first started playing in his band when I was a teenager. Now my three sons all play in bands. It’s all because of a teacher that suggested to my dad that he join the school orchestra. My sons’ wives, all their friends, and everything they do, is related to music. And it all goes back to that teacher who gave my dad the nudge to join a band.”

Wow. The power of music, thank a teacher, and the Cult of Polka all wrapped up in one anecdote. 

Music is a big part of my life, too, and I can only hope to be dancing when I’m ninety-eight years old, however slowly I may be going around the floor. Maybe by then I'll have learned the schottish and the Polish hop.


  1. This brings back lots of memories. I love to polka! I've been to many wedding dances, years ago, where the Thull family played. I think they used to throw wax pellets on the floor to make it more dance-able. And Marilyn will probably tell you all about Don Peachey.

    1. I forgot to mention the wax pellets on the floor. The floor was so slick at Bonnie and Clyde's that I was afraid I'd fall. Seemed pretty treacherous. I'm glad the post brought back memories for you!