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Polka and family go hand-in-hand in Pilsen

Svitak and Holub partner to preserve Czech legacy

News editor

It all must have been a blur for tiny Jaxon Svitak, whirling around a crowded, darkened Pilsen Community Center floor Sunday in the arms of his great-grandmother to the lively strains of live polka music.

He’s too young to know that he had just been baptized into a family and community heritage that stretches back generations.

“Jaxon is four weeks old and he had his first dance with me,” Mary Ann Conyers of Marion said. “No one else could break him in with that very first dance except his great-grandmother.”

It was much the same for Conyers, who from her earliest days was destined to dance polkas. Her grandfather, Rudolph Svitak, opened Pilsen’s historic Starlight Ballroom in the 1930s, and his son, Frank, kept the venue alive until it closed in 1984.

“Keith (her husband) always said I could probably dance before I could walk,” Conyers said.

Sunday’s polka revival, featuring the Jim Kucera Band of Waverly, Nebraska, is the second spring event Frank Svitak Jr. and Tom Holub have organized to complement ones put on the past several years in fall.

“We got together and said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Holub said. “We just try to keep an old tradition going here.”

The events draw dancers from well beyond Pilsen. Dancers came Sunday from Wichita, Newton, and Salina, and included Floridians and Texans that were in the area visiting.

Jaxson was the youngest participant, but there were other youngsters out on the floor, bucking a trend elsewhere.

“When this band was here last spring, (Jim Kucera) said, ‘I cannot believe the young people you guys get to dance,’” Holub said. “He travels clear to Wisconsin to play.”

Holub wasn’t surprised that the community center was packed on an afternoon of sunny skies and warm temperatures.

“It’s so wet the farmers can’t do anything, but I think the ones who want to really do this would come anyway,” he said. “It doesn’t happen all the time.”

While Pilsen once boasted three dance halls and regularly drew most of the well-known polka bands, Svitak dispelled what elsewhere might be called an longstanding urban legend about famed bandmaster Lawrence Welk.

“Dad told me he never played here,” Svitak said. “He said he drove to Abilene to see him. That’s as close as he came.”

Conyers has traveled the Midwest with grandchildren in tow for polka events, and she said families are the reason polka still thrives in the area.

“I would say it’s heritage and tradition,” she said. “They dance at home. These people have been really very good to pass this down to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Holub said the biannual Pilsen dances will likely continue as long as enthusiasm and turnout remain strong.

“All the profits go to upkeep for the building, so we can do it again,” he said.

Last modified April 27, 2017

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