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|Posted November 29, 2007|
A Rural Dance Tradition In Twilight
NICOLE BENGIVENOS/THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Jim Novotny, center, twirls his wife, Bev, to a number performed by the Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra at a polka dance held at the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Neb.|
By BEN RATLIFF
OMAHA It was a Sunday afternoon at the South Omaha Eagles Hall, a Czech stronghold in an increasingly Hispanic neighborhood here. Under a low ceiling and fluorescent lights, Lila Dvorak, 74, danced a two-step polka to the music of a three-piece combo.
Ms. Dvorak is Czech-American, and a child of the Great Depression, like almost all of the 150 or so people present. She is a regular at the dances and wore a fancy magenta dress for the occasion. Polka people are happier people, she said. I dont think you see anyone around here with a long face.
All over the United States, where there are Eastern Europeans, there is polka. In the isolated farmland counties of eastern Nebraska, where it is not uncommon to drive 30 miles for groceries, polka helps tie people together. The dances and the radio shows devoted to the music keep old friends in touch and circulate local news.
Brought to the United States by Central European immigrants in the mid-19th century, polka is now part of American vernacular culture, a music with little commercial viability but a strong social function. From state to state, its details and dance steps carry codes of Old World origin and New World region.
This evening Mark Vyhlidal was calling the tunes, with a reduced version of his usual ensemble, the Mark Vyhlidal Orchestra. Mr. Vyhlidal, 45, is a central figure in the polka scene of eastern Nebraska. At the Eagles Hall his band topped the bill, playing in two-song sets: polka, waltzes and what he calls modern, which mostly means Nashville-style country music. Earlier that day he had been busy promoting the gig on the radio. Starting at 9 a.m. every Sunday for the last 19 years, he has broadcast from KJSK in Columbus, Neb., as host of All-Star Polka Show, a kind of weekly newspaper for the older generations here.
Polka reflects their lives: their sense of humor and romance, and what they remember of Czech family ritual. And Mr. Vyhlidals listenership, spanning a 200-mile radius, including parts of South Dakota and Kansas, wants to hear about itself.
In between songs by famous local Czech-American bandleaders like Al Grebnick and Ernie Kucera, Mr. Vyhlidal makes room for callers and their family news: deaths, births, deployments, knee replacements. He stays unfailingly crisp and upbeat, except when he reads a funeral home advertisement; then his voice takes on deep, sympathetic tones. At 11:15, its time to turn up the volume, as Mr. Vyhlidal announces the weeks polka dances at the bars and veterans halls.
He is a naturally gifted musician. In his band he plays accordion, valve trombone, trumpet and keyboards, all of which he taught himself. He writes his arrangements at his kitchen table, without a piano. His son Jacob, 8, plays button accordion, and his version of the polka war horse Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie has become a popular feature at the bands shows.
|A Labor of Love|
At dances, the audience gathers near the stage, where the cornmeal on the floor eases the glide, to cheer on the rare sight of a polka fan from the next generation. Mr. Vyhlidal has kept his current band intact since the early 1990s, and its players are among the younger and more versatile polka musicians around. But they have to schedule the gigs around other employment.
In Mr. Vyhlidals case, he almost never plays during the cold months, since a function of his day job superintendent of public services for the city of Fremont, 40 miles northwest of Omaha involves driving a snowplow. Playing polka isnt a living, although it could have been in the 1970s, when dances were much more plentiful.
Its a getaway from normal life, said Mike Helgesen, 60, the Vyhlidal bands tenor saxophonist.
Mr. Vyhlidal added: A lot of it is about the heritage. Keeping it going. There are songs we know that have been around for a hundred years, and theyre still being played.
|Styles for States|
Polka came to Nebraska in the 1850s, when Czechs fled worsening economic conditions in Bohemia and Moravia, drawn by the promise of large tracts of American farmland. In the beginning polka meant just one thing: a specific, two-beat couples dance. But now it describes a range of dances and rhythms usually achieved with an accordion, a tuba and sentimental lyrics about family, food, love and rural memories.
There are plenty of stylistic differences. Polish polka, for instance, is a different animal from Czech. It is faster and more staccato, with every instrument playing more fills; it sounds urban, and it swings. Czech polka is simpler, more legato and emotional. In a small combo it can sound heavy and sad, even at a medium tempo.
Polka took off in the United States with the advent of radio and records, just like the rest of American popular music; by the 1940s, a popular polka bandleader like Frankie Yankovic was selling millions of records. For Czech polka, the significant name around here was that of Mr. Kucera, a drummer from Abie, Neb.
At one time or another, Mr. Kucera, who started his band in the early 40s, seemingly employed nearly every polka musician in the area. He was all farmer, pure Czech, a great soul. The older he got, the more sublime he got, said Bud Comte, the proprietor of Renee Sound Studio, a polka recording studio with an attached feed store in David City, Neb. Mr. Kucera retired from performing in 2000; he died in July at 87.
Nebraskas leading Czech polka bands have always had to play in several styles. Touring all over the Midwest and down into Texas, they are at pains to replicate the polka style of each areas ethnic group: German in parts of upper Wisconsin and Minnesota, Slovenian in lower Wisconsin, Czech in Texas. (Polish polka is usually beyond the call of Czech bands.)
But even within Czech polka there are differences. In the 60s Ron Nadherny, 73, a drummer and bandleader based in Omaha, used to tour with John Wilfahrt, better known as Whoopee John, one of the countrys most famous polka bandleaders. We found out that in Iowa the tempo was a little slower than it is here, Mr. Nadherny said. In Minnesota it was a little faster than it is here. Wisconsin, it went like a bat out of you-know-what. And they all danced to it with different steps.
In Nebraska polka is farmers music, and since the farm crisis of the 1980s, the farming population here has shrunk to a fraction of what it used to be. As a result, most of the rural counties have been thinning slowly and steadily, some losing more than 10 percent of their populations since 2000. At the same time, non-Czech immigrant populations have greatly increased; since 1990, entry-level jobs at meatpacking plants across Nebraska have nearly quadrupled the states Hispanic population, mostly in its cities, to more than 130,000.
Sometimes it seems as if Mr. Vyhlidal is propping up the music as the polka scene slips away. Most of the great bandleaders have retired or died; many of the orchestras and eight-piece bands have shrunk to three-piece combos. There are fewer places to play, and the surviving ballrooms are drawing much smaller crowds. Even the tighter police presence on the small roads around Omaha has played a role in polkas demise: it discourages the time-honored practice of drinking plenty of Busch Light at a dance.
And its possible that Ms. Dvorak might lose her Sunday party soon: the Fraternal Order of Eagles building in South Omaha is for sale.
|Spinning at the Starlite|
On a Sunday evening at the Starlite Ballroom the areas largest polka palace and the only one with a wooden dance floor Lenny Blecha, 42, leaned against the bar, watching his wife dance with a succession of old men. It was the annual birthday dance for his distant cousins Bob and Greg Blecha, father-and-son farmers and jacks-of-all-trades from Pawnee City, Neb. Their band, the Bouncing Czechs, split the bill with the Mark Vyhlidal combo. The crowd looked sparse, maybe 200 people; it was an unusually warm day, and many farmers had been out harvesting.
The Starlite Ballroom opened in Wahoo in 1964. On a rural highway set against alfalfa and corn fields, about 25 minutes west of Omaha, it routinely drew 800 people for Saturday night polka dances in the 60s and 70s. Some of the booths are stenciled with a reserved sign, but now you can sit where you please.
Lenny Blecha runs an auto-body shop in Table Rock, Neb., and also buys and sells polka records on eBay. Television, he says, has hurt live music in general, and all of his friends listen to rock and country. But hes still incredulous that even the older folks in the rural counties arent doing more to keep the polka bands working and the dances running.
Most of these people here are senior citizens, and if something says Free, theyre going to show up, Mr. Blecha said. If its a dollar donation, the dance hall is full. If they charge you five dollars, half the crowd wont be there.
He ordered a beer. Im one of the youngest here, and we get a lot of compliments, he added. People wish there were more of us. And the younger generation I visit with, they dont understand. I say: Why dont you go visit with your parents and grandparents and find out what they listened to? This brings you back to your roots.
But older locals seem to have a more philosophical view of the decline of their polka traditions, citing the same reason over and over, in much the same way. It is one of the binding narratives for a highly sentimental music.
Its our generations fault, said Darlene Kliment, 68, who owns the Starlite with her husband, Ron. When we were growing up, our parents would take us to the dances. Wed fall asleep on the side of the stage, or in the booths.
But then when our generation grew up, we got baby sitters.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, THEARTS, of Thursday, November 29, 2007.
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