Toledo group keeps Polish music alive and wellWritten by Joel Sensenig | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Besides the accordion, Polish language and many more strands of white hair, the scene at a polka music event is quite similar to that of a typical bar featuring a Top 40 cover band.
Well, that and the fact the polka band is considerably less likely to break into The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.”
Despite the obvious differences, both environments feature musicians playing energetic music while beer flows like water and dancers bounce to the beat.
Of course, there’s a large span in the amount of demand for each genre: Toledo is home to dozens of rock cover bands, but only a handful of polka bands.
That’s not to say the ethnic sounds of Poland are a bygone relic in the Glass City, however — and not just during the Lagrange Street Polish Festival each July. In certain circles here, the traditional sounds of polka are very much alive.
The largest, most prominent circle is centered around the city’s Polish Village, home of the Toledo Area Polka Society (TAPS), a 25-year-old organization dedicated to the promotion of live Polish music, more commonly known as polka. The group’s 500-plus members defy the notion that the traditional accordion-driven music of central Europe cannot thrive in a musical scene more conducive to the likes of Britney Spears, 50 Cent and Fall Out Boy — not to mention bands playing “Centerfold” every night.
TAPS started in 1982 when a group of polka enthusiasts met in an East Toledo garage. Their purpose in starting the group was simply to promote live Polish music, said Kevin Kwiatkowski, TAPS president and a 15-year member of the organization. What started out with 25 members grew to a one-time peak of approximately 750 members before an aging core caused the group to plateau at its current level of 500 enthusiasts. It now hosts monthly dances (usually on Sunday afternoons for the benefit of its senior members) at its home base, Conn-Weissenberger Hall, 2020 W. Alexis Road in North Toledo.
Although the reach of polka music may be shortening, those it grasps are usually in it for life, Kwiatkowski said.
“It’s my blood. It’s my family,” he said. “Once that sound is in your system, it just never leaves. I was raised in a very close Polish family, with a lot of tradition — and the music is part of the tradition. The Polish sound is a very happy sound; it’s a very friendly sound and it makes you feel good. And for that, it just sticks with you.”
Not just for the old folks
At 57, Kwiatkowski is on the younger side of the polka-loving population, an audience whose love is often misinterpreted by mainstream audiences.
“There’s a concept that Polish music is very oom-pa-pa, very heavy and very old,” Kwiatkowski said. “I think you’ll find in today’s Polish world, that is just not the case. The bands have established more of a beat and a sound that really attracts a young crowd.”
Toledoan Eric Hite is a member of that young crowd.
Like most polka enthusiasts, Hite, 30, developed a love for the music as a child. He picked up the accordion in his late teens after realizing there was a shortage of such musicians in Toledo. Needing a gig, he set down his beloved drumsticks and picked up the sideways keyboard instrument that’s a cornerstone of polka.
He now plays in a trio of Toledo-based polka bands: Crusade, The Mixx and Polka Floyd — a crossover act that performs Pink Floyd songs in the polka style. With Crusade, Hite has represented Toledo as much as anyone on the national polka circuit over the past several years. The band has routinely played clubs on the East Coast, Chicago and Wisconsin.
The gigs have gotten more sporadic in recent times, however.
“Crusade used to do about 85 to 90 shows in a season, and now it’s down to about 30 to 35,” Hite said. “A lot of clubs are closing up; a lot of promoters aren’t doing it any more.”
Hite attributes the waning popularity of polka to a natural process: aging.
“The older generation is unfortunately dying off or unable to come out anymore, and there’s not enough younger people that care enough about the music to carry on the tradition,” he said.
“I think it’s just that polka, for a lot of people who were raised with it, has been swept under the rug. The ethnicity definitely has not been carried on,” Hite said. “A person like myself who’s 30 years old, who grew up with polka and took an interest in it and is playing the music … unfortunately, I’m a rare exception.”
At 28, Toledoan Dave Swiergosz is one of the younger members of TAPS.
When thinking about why others his age may be looking elsewhere for entertainment, Swiergosz said, “I think it’s a stereotype. They think it’s just for old people. If they got out and listened to the music a little bit, they’d have fun.”
Maintaining the ethnicity of polka is a big deal to Hite.
“Back in the day, a lot of the stuff was sung in the Polish language,” he said. “A lot of people are doing rock ‘n’ roll tunes polka-style to make the music more relevant to people. And that’s cool and fine, but if you lose that ethnic identity, you’re crossing a fine line to where it’s not really polka anymore. It’s a shame to lose the ethnic identity of the music.”
The social aspect
While today’s average young person may not be in a hurry to polka around the dance floor, there’s still plenty members of older generations looking to make certain the genre doesn’t go the way of the accordion in the Top 40.
Stan and Mary Knapik, at 78 and 76, respectively, have been attending TAPS polkas for two decades.
The North Toledo couple enjoys the camaraderie found at the events.
“We’ve got something to look forward to each month,” Mary said. “They have music; they have lunches — you can’t go wrong. You just feel so good when you dance.”
Stan, who used to play in his own polka band, The Weekenders, agreed.
“It makes you happy,” he said. “You forget your troubles.”
The social aspect of polka actually rises above the music portion, Kwiatkowski said.
“Coming to a dance is very social,” he said. “You have family here. The neighborhood is here. We all went to school together. It’s more of a social event than a dance event.”
Hitting the dance floor
It’s when the music starts, of course, that the Polish dancing shoes come out.
While many enjoy the socializing aspect of the polka scene, the charm of dancing to a polka band cannot be underestimated, Kwiatkowski said.
“[One] thing that is wonderful about Polish music is you are holding your partner. You’re guiding your partner around the dance floor. You’re both in sync and in rhythm because you and she are doing the same steps together, so it’s very uniform,” he said.
Polka dances are divided into three categories: polka is the fastest tempo; an oberek is the mid-tempo dance; and the slowest steps belong to the waltz.
“It’s a three-beat, six-step process, with a hop,” Kwiatkowski said. “Most bands start you with a polka and then wind the crowd down because you’re out of breath. More older members dance the waltz and not the polka because of the speed.”
If the six steps and a hop prove too difficult, Mary Knapik said, a newcomer needn’t worry.
“Anybody can learn to dance,” she said. “But if not, they get out there anyway and move around and they’ll be happy with it.”
While many TAPS members are descendents of Polish immigrants, being one is far from a requirement.
Aggie Dahar, 60, decided this fall to join the club, although she’s not Polish. Dahar ran a floral shop on Lagrange Street for more than 20 years. In that time, she experienced an appreciation for the culture of many of her customers.
“I just developed a strong connection to the Polish culture,” she said. “It’s really important that people keep their heritage alive. That’s your foundation.”
The TAPS community may not be her blood relation, but Dahar feels part of it nonetheless.
“They’re warm and friendly,” she said of club members. “They make you feel a part of their family.”
Swiergosz echoed Dahar’s sentiment.
“It’s kind of a family tradition,” he said. “You can’t beat the people. Everybody’s always nice and welcoming.”
“Plus,” he said, “they’ve got beer, and they’ve got good music.”
For information on upcoming TAPS and other polka dances throughout Ohio and Michigan, visit www.polkausa.com or call TAPS member Mike Marek at (419) 345-5928.