You may have stuck a leg out for Germanfest’s Legs N’ Lederhosen contest, or maybe it was an arm for a beer stein, but have you tried your hand at polka?
Patric Didier, owner of American Style Ballroom and judge for the Germanfest’s Polka Like A Star contest June 14, says the dance is as easy to learn as getting a bratwurst during the festival, which kicks off Sunday with the official festival tent opening Wednesday at Headwaters Park.
Dance is like music, which is like food, Didier says. It’s the best way to connect to people through those arts or through those times where you can foster a good relationship with one another in a healthy atmosphere without the tension of politics or differences among each other.
Polka Like A Star gives the public a chance to first learn the steps for the polka by Didier and his assistants and then compete for prizes in a contest that will be judged by Didier and the audience. Didier says he has been a part of Polka Like A Star since its inception.
Every year we look for a couple of things, we look for character, personal style and development of the dance and who we think best exhibits that particular style, he says. We go by applause, so if you have a big fan base, you’re likely to make the finals, and in the end, we determine who the best dancers are and the crowd’s favorite.
Germanfest board member Robert Anweiler says dance and music can help patrons partly understand a different culture. He says this year the festival is expecting 50 musicians and dancers from Fort Wayne’s sister city of Gera, Germany. The Gera Accordion Orchestra will perform at different venues throughout the week and have learned how to play The Star-Spangled Banner for the opening ceremonies. Bolo Tie Line Dancers from Gera will perform and host a dance clinic as well.
Polka Like A Star’ is a good one that has gotten bigger, Anweiler says. Years ago, there were a lot of people who knew how to polka. Now when people come, they see a lot of people dancing and they want an opportunity to learn.
Didier says polka is made up of a triple rhythm, which means partners move in a series of three steps. The lead begins with three steps forward with their left foot and their partner moves backward with the right. Alternating steps, the couple begin a waltz-like prance counterclockwise around the line of dance.
The polka dance is very easy to get started – all you need is a beer and bratwurst, he says, laughing.
Polka, derived from pulka or half-step, describes the quick-step footwork of the dance. Although the dance is often associated with German festivals, polka was originated by the Czech working class, then introduced to ballrooms in Prague in the 1830s and then spread through Europe, reaching Paris in the 1840s. The dance grew in popularity in England and the United States by the late 1840s.
Within the genre, there are different styles – the European style, although it varies, is more of a traditional take, while American styles have their own geographic influences. Due to the large German population in Fort Wayne and other Midwest cities, the polka is influenced by the rhythmic oompah sound.
Christel Gehlert, a native of Hamburg, Germany, who is a dancer and author of Recollections of a Hamburger (pun is not intended, she laughs), says the polka was never a part of her formal dance repertoire when she was growing up.
She says that before she left Harburg for Fort Wayne in 1987, the polka was a dance Germans usually reserved for Oktoberfest or other festivals.
You have many dances that started in Europe, and dancing is fun, so it’s a very good way to show how people have fun in other countries, she says. The origin of many people here is German, and although they don’t speak German anymore, we try to keep our German heritage alive, and Germanfest is a part of that.
From the dance to the music to the food and, of course, the beer, Anweiler says the best way to start learning about the German culture is to experience it.
Our tagline for the festival is Essen, Trinken und Gemütlichkeit,’ which means Eating, drinking and having a good time with friends,’ he says. It’s just an opportunity to be with friends; it’s like having a picnic in the backyard.