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Reviewed by:
  • Polka! by Mollie Busta and Jon Hornbacher
  • Daniel Franklin Ward
Polka! 2017. By Mollie Busta and Jon Hornbacher. 76 min. Digital streaming and DVD formats, color. (The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board, Madison, WI.)

This beautifully crafted documentary, produced by and broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT), is a colorful examination of polka culture in present-day Wisconsin. The program is guided by director Mollie Busta, a popular Wisconsin polka musician who serves as the narrator, with much supporting commentary provided by folklorists Rick March and Jim Leary, as well as the personal narratives of polka musicians, dancers, and others participating in polka. The primary intended audience for the documentary is the public television audience in Wisconsin.

The program was promoted by WPT as a nostalgic look at the history of polka in Wisconsin, and interviews often appear to conjure nostalgic memories of polka culture, but this description is deceiving. While nearly everyone interviewed understands, has directly experienced, and deeply respects the multigenerational historical depth of polka in the region, particularly within their own families, all are actively involved, either as musicians or as dancers, in the world of polka as it exists in Wisconsin today. To Wisconsinites, polka is as tightly tied to their identity as the other nationally recognized products of their state. So, while beer, brats, and cheese are what usually define Wisconsin to the rest of the world, Mollie Busta takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of the state to demonstrate that polka is unquestionably Wisconsin's soundtrack.

At this writing, nearly half of the states in the United States have officially claimed square dance as either their official dance or their official folk dance, while only Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have embraced polka as their official dance. Wisconsin's population is ethnically diverse, and the varied communities participating in polka are equally diverse. Immigrants from all of Europe settled the state: Swiss, Germans, Finns, Swedes, Poles, and others. Each had their own style of polka. Throughout the documentary, individual Wisconsinites attest to viewing polka as their family's or their community's traditional dance from the old country and also generically as their shared Wisconsin heritage. Folklorist Jim Leary explains: "If you want to look at a dance form that distinguishes Wisconsin from other places not only in the nation but also in the world, it's polka music. So, it's fitting that it's our official State Dance."

Mollie Busta says: "It's a folk tradition like no other in Wisconsin. When we celebrate life, chances are we're dancing and playing the polka. It's part of our heritage. It's something we share with family. It's a connection to our community. The polka story is the story of Wisconsin." Melinda Whitehouse, a young bride whose wedding is celebrated with a polka reception, offers a simple equation: "Polka is Wisconsin!"

The documentary attempts to locate the origin of polka. The true origin is still undetermined, but every polka fan can tell a story about the first polka. What is most likely is that polka emerged in Central Europe. Folklorist Rick March has a plausible theory: "I say it came from the waltz." When the waltz first became popular in Europe, it was thought to be scandalous due to the high degree of interpersonal contact, with men and women wrapping their arms around one another. According to March, "around the 1840s they just upped the ante: Let's do it in 2/4 time and hop around frenetically!" It is important to know that polka became an immediate fad that spread throughout nearly all of Europe like wildfire. Before the polka fad subsided in [End Page 476] Europe, hundreds of thousands of polka lovers had immigrated to America, bringing their favorite music and dance with them. March asserts that "because it was the music and the dance that was popular in their homeland at the time they emigrated, it became their heritage here." The polka heritage thrived in Wisconsin.

Throughout the documentary, participants discuss the attractions of their beloved pastime. "It brings peace." "I've never seen a fight at...


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