Say it ain’t so but the heyday of polka may be passing.
The PolKofA Kansas Chapter – code word for the Kansas chapter of Polka Lovers Klub of America – may be disbanding. The club members will decide at their December meeting whether to continue.
The implications are huge.
“People are getting older. They don’t want to get out and dance anymore,” said president Angie Kaiser, 83.
In the organization’s September-October newsletter, Kaiser wrote: “We will have a membership meeting at the Christmas dance on December 8 to determine what needs to be done to dissolve the club. ... Many of you are aware that we lost money on every dance for the last several years. We have not been able to pay a band and rent a place to dance and break even.”
The club, which has about 250 members, is mostly made up of people who are now in their seventh, eighth and ninth decades of life. They were part of a generation of Kansans who grew up regularly tuning in to “The Lawrence Welk Show” on black-and-white televisions and before that may have danced live to him when he toured small Kansas towns. Certainly, they are people who have come to know and love Frankie Yankovic, one of polka’s biggest stars.
They were people for whom the schottische, waltz, fox trot, oberek and two-step are automatic responses when an accordion and tuba belt out songs with a steady oom-pah-pah beat.
They are people who most likely grew up in the tiny ethnic communities of Kansas – in towns such as Cuba and Wilson, Grinnell and Timken.
The club’s heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of its members had just retired and could travel to polka events around the country, said Kaiser, who grew up in Grinnell.
In 1998, polka almost became the Official State Ethnic Dance in Kansas but was defeated when the state Legislature denied making that happen.
Kaiser said she had hoped things might change. The club has tried to attract younger members, even conducting polka classes at $1 per lesson.
“We just had a Polkafest in Great Bend and we have a wood floor. Most of us are too old now to get down on our knees to help with the floor,” Kaiser said. “We can’t get anybody to take over. All the officers have been doing it for a long time. I’ve been an officer for 10 years. We just decided to disband the club all together.”
They only need 10 to 12 younger people to step forward to become officers, Kaiser said. But if that doesn’t happen and the club is forced to disband, they will be selling the club’s wood floor and the trailer used to haul it.
Glen Lojka, a third generation Czech from Cuba, said this is disturbing news.
“It means the culture is losing its heart,” said Lojka, who grew up dancing the polka on every festive occasion family and friends created.
Jay Price, Wichita State University’s history department chair, said the polka was a part of a cultural tradition for many 19th and 20th century Kansans, particularly those of German, Polish, Czechoslovakian and Mexican heritage.
“Part of it is that people don’t join clubs the way they used to,” Price said. “Clubs were for the post-war generation. It was their Facebook.”
“I feel bad we may have to disband,” Kaiser said. “I would be glad to hold on until somebody can take over, but our membership in December will decide whether to disband or keep going.”