Czech Culture & Adaptation

Just dance

November 23, 2012

Polka, rock, and a night to remember

When I came downstairs modeling my borrowed black dress and sporting 2-inch black patent wedge heels, the children were thrilled. It’d been years since I’d dressed up to go dancing, and I was anxiously anticipating the night ahead. When Radek made his entrance a few steps behind, the children were less-impressed. “So, you’re going to work, not a dance,” Oliver joked since Radek was wearing the same suit he wears to work. Radek assured them he’d be dancing with me.

When we arrived at the grand, wrought-iron Výstaviště exhibition complex, its central pavilion and clock tower were backlit by spotlights against the night sky. I told Radek I felt like I was walking toward Paris’s Eifel Tower, or at least one of Paris’ historic wrought-iron subway entrances. Built in 1891 for the General Land Centennial Exhibition held in Prague, the now-renovated pavilion complex still exudes a turn-of-the-century charm. As my heels clicked across the cobblestone path, I felt as if I were traveling back in time.

When we entered the Pražan restaurant our time travel was complete. Radek pushed open the heavy wooden doors, and we stood in a room decorated with wall-to-wall wooden parquet, dark-wooden wall paneling and a carved wooden ceiling. The tables were arranged in straight rows facing the alcove above where a band, complete with saxophone and a female lead singer, were warming up. A few old-fashioned instruments were strung along the balcony for decoration, or as if to remind us, that there would be an atmosphere of times past in the air that night. My eyes took in the floor-length dresses and sparkly jewelry of the ladies present, while Radek nudged me further into the room. We were greeted by a gentleman in full army uniform who offered us a shot and told us where to put our coats. As I scanned the crowd for a familiar face, our neighbors, beers in hand, approached and guided us to their table, already filled with friends and former university classmates.

Finally the band got going and opened with a waltz. One brave couple in matching red satin took to the floor. As they waltzed, spinning and shining under the ancient chandeliers, other couples slowly pushed their meals to the side and began to join the dance floor, our neighbors included. Radek leaned back and whispered, “See, this is how we may get ourselves into trouble.” Implying that since we don’t normally formal dance, we could instead find ourselves sitting back and sipping drinks all night. Luckily, after a waltz, a cha cha and a polka, the band played a slow song that even Radek and I believed we could handle. As we danced, I really did think of our wedding night, which had been perhaps the last time we’d danced as a couple.

After the slow song the band played a polka. My neighbor Michal grabbed my arm and said, “Anyone can polka, let’s go.” He guided me around the edges of the dance floor moving at break neck speed, instructing me only to “gallop” with the music. As we skipped and danced our way through the song, I could feel my legs in their high heels begin to ache, and I started to perspire. For a moment, I could imagine my German grandmother in the post-war days in Berlin with her American army husband attending a military dance. Or my German aunt and husband who came from Berlin to my aunt’s wedding in Virginia and showed the folks in Southwestern Virginia what a European couple looked like dancing. I loved the feeling of moving effortlessly across the floor (thanks to my sure-footed partner’s lead).

The polka ended and we returned to our table for a break. Every time a new song began, my friend Pavla and I tried to guess which dance it was. She was more knowledgeable than I, but as the night wore on I began to recognize a few familiar styles. Every time the band played a polka, Michal came over and grabbed my hand, saying, “You already know how to do this one, come on.” His wife, meanwhile, took her turn with several of their university friends, all of whom really knew the classical steps. Apart from married couples with children, there was one young teenage couple who had obviously taken formal dancing lessons. They were strikingly composed among the couples, and when they didn’t know a step, they weren’t afraid to stop, check out the feet of the pair dancing closest and start again.

Later in the night, our neighbors confessed that a group of their friends had gotten classical dancing lessons last year for Christmas. I wondered if I could possibly convince Radek to sign up for adult dancing lessons. I figured I’d have to wait until Anna Lee turned 17 and perhaps we could do it as the same time she learned. Radek hinted that Anna wouldn’t likely want any part of a dance class with her parents at that point. Thanks to Anna’s singing lessons, however, I was able to recognize a few Czech songs. When the band played “ŠŠŠ” or “Akáty šumí,” the Czech version of “Sugartown,” Radek and I both grinned and stood up to dance. We also danced to Václav Neckář’s “Půlnoční,” a song the children had taken to last Christmas when they heard it constantly on the radio.

Just before midnight the band packed up, and a rock ‘n roll cover-band set up. Throughout the evening, I’d heard whispered references to the underground cover-band that was to be appearing at midnight. The original band was called “Uširváč” and was banned under Communism, not for its political stance, but for the too-Western style music they played. Their hit songs “Máma táta” or “Marijuana” were simply not permitted during Communism. Pavla told me that her father had once gotten tickets for a contraband concert that they’d attended until the police arrived and closed down the show. When the rock ‘n roll band began to play, Czechs flooded the dance floor. The hard-rock music and the head popping dancing style that accompanied it could not have been more different from the first half of the evening. I didn’t know what to think, but I joined the crowd and danced until I simply couldn’t.

When the music stopped and the ball was finished, some of our neighbors headed out for drinks at a nearby bar. We however headed for a cab home. It had been a night to remember. I’ll never forget dancing my first polka and feeling like I’d traveled back fifty years for the first-half of the night, then twenty-years for the second-half.

When I looked up “polka” later, I discovered it was an original Czech peasant dance that became popular in the mid-1880s. It got its name from “pulka” which means “half-step” in Czech. Described as “easy to learn, but requires a lot of energy,” the polka seemed like my kind of dance. I couldn’t wait to try it out again. When I told my mom how much fun I’d had at the Czech ball, she mentioned that she and my father were attending their dance club’s Winter Cotillion while we’re in the US for the holidays. She hoped Radek might pack his suit so that we could do a ball repeat, and then we could be the ones to show the Americans a taste of European dancing.

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