My mother-in-law is looking at me as if I've just said I'd like to go dancing around her suburban Milwaukee neighborhood in a tutu, holding 20 sparklers in each hand. "Polka?" she says incredulously. "You want to go hear a polka band?"
My request must seem surprising since I'm the only person in the room over the age of 8 who hasn't grown up around accordions. Unlike my husband and his siblings, who are of Czech and German ancestry, I didn't grow up practicing the polka at family weddings. But I've always longed to learn an old-world dance. I glance around the room at my sisters-in-law and ask, "Interested?" They are.
I came to Milwaukee with the idea that I'd like to visit the well-known Art's Concertina, but when I reach Art by telephone, he says, "I retired. Good luck finding a place to polka tonight." When Art bids me farewell, I can't help but feel as if I've missed out on the heyday of polka by not seeking him out a bit sooner.
The weather is mild, so we collectively decide to attend an outdoor polka concert in one of Milwaukee's older neighborhoods. The band is set up on the patio of a local police station, and the crowd gathered in the grassy yard just beyond is made up of mostly elderly folks. Uniformed policemen shuffle around the band, mingling with the couples who have decided to dance.
Our group settles in as the band pumps out an oompah-loompahlike chorus. My husband, Matt, reluctantly shows me the steps he learned as a child. We shuffle and bounce and polka as best we can in the grass, not quite getting the moves right – polka is best practiced on a smooth dance hall floor. Nevertheless, my youngest niece, Mia, has decided that she's ready to polka like it's 1999.
Mia bounds across the grass, running and jumping until her little red dress becomes a hula hoop circling her tiny legs. Instinctively, she begins to catch on to the gliding steps of polka as she dances up to clusters of onlookers, seemingly determined to smile directly at everyone there.
She giggles and falls as she dances, each time quickly standing up to shout, "I'm OK." Her antics seem to make everyone around her feel the music a bit more. I begin to notice feet tapping and heads nodding. When Mia twirls back over to us, her mother asks if she likes the music. She doesn't speak; instead, she throws her hands over her head as if she's just won a prize.
The steady up-down-up-down pulse of the music is relentlessly cheerful. The more I listen to it, the more I can't help but laugh at the sight of Mia making her rounds.
When the afternoon light slowly gives way to evening, the band finally decides to quit playing, but Mia still can't stop dancing. As we make our way over to our ride, she circles us as if she's in orbit.
We chatter about coming to the neighborhood concert next year for a family reunion while, slowly, members of the crowd begin to approach us. Their motivation quickly becomes clear; they want to meet Mia.
One man shakes Mia's hand and tells her she did a lovely job of keeping up with the music. Another entertains her on a kazoo he seems to have been keeping in his pocket for just such an occasion. Mia greets her audience graciously, smiling, her feet still moving in time to the haunting music. She has become, in the space of an hour, a bona fide polka princess.
On the drive home, we ride by Art's Concertina. The windows are dark, and the schedule outside looks as if it hasn't been altered in months. Across the street, a modern-looking storage facility and a newly redone apartment facade makes Art's Concertina look out of place. We take pictures of the building's gritty exterior to document one of Milwaukee's finest polka landmarks, and then we drive on.
Surprisingly, I no longer feel disappointed to have missed out on the concertina experience. Mia has reminded me that traditions are never stagnant; they are always changing, dependent on new generations to carry them into the future.
Weeks later, I will learn that Art's old location is still a polka hall under different ownership. This news will fortify my hope for polka's future.
But, for now, my belief in the continuity of this culture has more to do with the rhythmic, humming sounds of joy coming from the little girl in the backseat – the one who is probably considering how to incorporate tutus and sparklers into next year's polka act.