When the Midwestern Polka Club gathers for a polka dance and hog roast Saturday at Marion County Park and Lake, the number of dancers is likely to be a fraction of what it used to be, Charlote Casey of Marion said.
In recent years there have been as few as 30 dancers, compared with 100 or more in the past, she said. The reason for the decline is because few young people are taking up the traditional dance that Czech, German, and Polish settlers brought to the U.S. It used to be that children learned to polka from their parents, she said.
“I’ve been dancing ever since I could walk,” Casey said.
She fondly recalls learning to polka by standing on her father’s feet as a young child while he danced. She has listened and danced to polka music ever since.
Even after her husband, Maurice, died in 2002, she wasn’t ready to give up dancing. So for the past several years, she has been dance partners with Stan Kijowski of Abilene.
“He’s 87 and still dances,” she said.
They even made a trip to Wahoo, Neb., to dance at a taping of “The Mollie B. Polka Party,” which airs on RFD-TV.
Although they share a love of polka music, they disagree on their favorite styles. Casey prefers the Czech style, with its horns and tubas. Kijowski likes the clarinets featured in the style of Poland, where he grew up.
“I don’t care for the clarinets,” Casey said. “They could leave them out.”
Kijowski said he often danced with older girls as a young boy to help them show off their polka talent to make older boys jealous. During World War II, he repeatedly escaped from the Nazis occupying Poland and joined the Polish Underground before eventually moving to the U.S.
Mary Ann Conyers of Marion recognizes the decline of polka in the area, but she does her best to reverse that course by teaching her children and grandchildren to polka.
“We don’t do Christmas music,” she said. “We do polka music and dance.”
Conyers learned to polka from her family while growing up in Pilsen, with its strong Czech presence.
“I’m carrying on the heritage with polka dancing,” she said.
She feels an especially strong link to polka, partly because of her family history. Her grandfather, Rudolph Svitak, built the Starlight Ballroom in Pilsen. Before becoming a television host and star, musician Lawrence Welk played at the Starlight Ballroom, Conyers said.
“People came from everywhere to go to dances,” she said. “I hear the music, it just lights me up. It’s happy music. It just makes you feel good.”
Conyers had to teach her husband, Keith, how to polka after going to a couple of dances with him.
“He was a little rough for a while, quite a while,” she said. “But he absolutely loves it.”
Although she does what she can to keep polka alive in her family, Conyers is worried that it will all but disappear in Kansas.
“They say everything cycles, but around here I don’t think it will,” she said.
On the bright side, she said polka is still going strong in Czech communities in Texas, such as Ennis, where the younger generations continue to learn the dance.
The Midwestern Polka Club will have a polka dance, Halloween masquerade, and hog roast starting at 2 p.m. Saturday at the lake hall at Marion County Park and Lake. Admission to the dance is $7 for club members and $8 for non-members.