The Polka

Contemporary Description

This is the mid-19th century version of the Polka.

The Position

Waltz position throughout.

The Footwork

1: The Lead slides his left foot along LOD while the Follow slides her right foot along LOD.

"and": The Lead closes his right foot to left with weight along LOD while the Follow closes her left foot to right with weight along LOD, both beginning to rotate clockwise. She pulls her right shoulder back, making space for him to get ahead of her and back around.

2: The Lead backs around in front of the Follow, stepping across LOD with his left foot, and showing his back to the outside wall, as in the first step of a rotary waltz. Likewise, the Follow steps straight forward with her right foot along LOD, slightly between his feet, as in the first step of rotary waltz.

"and": Small hop on Lead's left and Follow's right as the couple finishes the 180° turn in preparation to repeat with opposite feet, dancing over the elbows. Note: This really is a small hop. The purpose of the hop is simply to facilitate the turn, not to get airborne.

3-and-4-and: The Lead does exactly what the Follow did, and vice-versa.

Altogether, it goes "slide-close-turn-hop."

Counting Note: The counts above could just as effectively be named "1, 2, 3, 4" instead of "1, and, 2, and," if that's easier for you to conceptualize. But in practice, polka is usually counted as "1, and, 2, and."

Style Notes: 1) Some like to dance the polka in an extremely exuberant fashion, bounding across the dance floor. Others prefer a more subdued and smoother style. Both can be quite satisfying. But be sure to give the smooth version a try. 2) Some like to lean into each half of the dance, leaning toward the hands when dancing over hands, and towards the elbows when dancing over the elbows. 3) There are many different ethnic styles of polka dancing that can be found in immigrant communities throughout the U.S.

Like most 19th century waltz steps, the Polka can be reversed.

The Music

Polka music, in 2/4 time.

Contemporary Polka Variations

Contemporary variations of the Polka can be found on the Polka page.

© 2015 Nick Enge

(Click to expand)

Historical Descriptions

The Polka (Hillgrove, 1857):

Music in Two-Four Time.

What can be said about the Polka that has not already been said, will be the probable exclamation of many under whose eyes this little guide may fall. We reply, very little indeed, if it were intended to retrace the origin and to relate the history down to the present day, of that dance, now so generally practised in different countries of the globe. Whether the Polka be German or Hungarian by birth, is a question frequently discussed by writers on the subject. It has, in fact, during the last few years been so completely remodelled in France, that it may almost be said to have taken its rise there. All the violent gestures that characterized it on its first appearance in France and England have been abolished, the promenade by hand and changing arms, the heel and toe, or double step, all these, which are very suitable perhaps for a national dance, or to express the rode mirth of the peasantry, have been substituted by a movement more in accordance with the rules of good taste, and more congenial to the quiet refinement of a ballroom. What this movement really is, and what are the rules for acquiring it, form part of the object which the author of this little volume has in view.

The Polka affords a remarkable instance of the rapidity with which a fashion spreads over the world. In the year 1843, this dance made the grand tour of Europe in a few months. So great was the excitement which it created that its introduction into fashionable society may be regarded as the commencement of a new era in the art of dancing. The young, the old and the middle aged were roused by its attractions into a state that bordered on enthusiasm. Judges, senators, lawyers and physicians, unable to resist the soft persuasion, divested themselves of the soberness and sage-like gravity of age and profession, became young again, and took lessons in dancing once more. The movement thus given to this elegant divertisement still continues, and most probably will increase with time. Nor will morality ever have reason to regret that the movement was given, since a graceful accomplishment, which brings the two sexes together into social and respectful communion, has a decided tendency to cultivate the tastes of both, to wean the male sex from those gross habits of drinking, smoking, gambling and reveling to which it is naturally prompted when left to itself, and to develop in the female sex those elegances and graces which have their root in woman, but which man alone can thoroughly cultivate by means of his chivalrous attentions and agreeable society.

The origin of the Polka is unknown, but it is generally believed to be an ancient Scythian dance, as it has been immemorially known and practised in the northern countries of Europe, namely, Russia, Servia, Bohemia, Germany and Hungary. Among military tribes, it, is danced with spurs on the heels and hatchets in the right hands of the men in a sort of disorderly melee, resembling a charge in battle, whilst a furious beating of time with the feet, at intervals, takes place, as if on purpose to represent, the tramping of horses or the din of war.

There is only one Polka known or recognized in the fashionable world, but the style of dancing it varies considerably. The most elegant people and the best dancers always dance it in a quiet, easy style; and those gentlemen who rush and romp about, dragging their partners along with them, until they become red in the face, and covered with the dew drops of a high corporeal temperature, are both bad dancers and men of little refinement.

The gentleman should pass his right arm round the lady's waist holding her with sufficient firmness to be able to take her through the mazes of the dance with perfect safety. Her right hand should be held in his left hand, which he should raise towards his left shoulder in such a manner that he may be able to turn her round as with a lever, or point out as with an index the movement which he contemplates. The lady rests her left hand on the gentleman's right shoulder, her head slightly inclined towards the left.

The Step of the Polka.

The Polka step is very simple: it consists merely of three steps and one rest. The gentleman begins with a slight spring on his right foot, at the same time sliding the left foot forward; this is the first movement (the toe of the left foot being pointed outward and the heel pointed towards the right foot). The right foot is then brought up to where the left is, at the same time raising the left foot;-this is the second movement. Then fall on the left foot, raising the right foot behind; this is the third movement. After a rest of one quaver, spring with the left foot and slide with the right forward, thus reversing the movement, and do as before with the opposite feet. As the lady begins with the right foot springing on her left, the above directions reversed, apply to her.

The Polka consists of two opposite linnear movements, one towards the right, another towards the left. At the same time, a circular movement goes on, which completes one half of the circle in moving to one side, and the other half in moving to the other side, and a progressive movement at the same time goes on in the orbit of the great circle. The step can also be executed moving forward in a straight line, the one partner going forward while the other goes backward, and vice versa. And the circular movement can be made either from right to left, or left to right at pleasure, but it always begins with right to left, so that the other is called the reverse turn, but the step is precisely the same in both.

The general figure of the Polka consists of two circles, a great and a small, like those of a planet in its orbit. The planet revolves round the sun and on its axis at the same time-so each couple is not only moving in a great circle, but is wheeling round in small circles of eight steps each, or six steps and two rests. As the dance is an ad libitum dance, in which much individual liberty is allowed, the great circle is frequently broken up rate a melee of apparent confusion. But it is usual to begin with the great circle in perfection, each couple following the other in regular succession. This makes a very beautiful figure, but it requires every gentleman to be thoroughly master of the step. After that, as it is reasonable to suppose that some may feel disposed to giddiness by the circular movement, the forward and backward movement may be indulged in at pleasure, and the couples may go within or without the great circle, or do the reverse, turn as they may feel disposed. It is the province of the gentlemen to take the lead in all these changes, and they ought to be frequent. When the lady expresses a desire to pause for a little while, the gentleman takes her aside and waits until she feels refreshed, and inclined once more to join the whirling maze.

The Polka requires considerable practice on the gentleman's part to dance it well, for the gentleman has to guide his partner through the mazes of the disorderly melee into which it usually forms itself, and this he must do in such a manner as not only to preserve the step and time, but also to avoid collisions with other couples by gracefully and easily wheeling round or passing between them, as circumstances demand. The lady, being passive in this movement, has much less to learn.

Ladies, however, not being all alike, either in figure or facility of movement, should consider well whether or not they are imposing a severe task on their partners by their passivity, and generously assist them when they seem to require it. A lady who dances well can easily do this, and however ponderous in person, may make herself as light in the arms of a partner as a slender girl of eighteen. Many ladies of magnitude, however, object to do this, and play the passive young girl, and thus convert a light and agreeable pastime into a task of extreme toil and hardship to the gentlemen who dance with them. The gallantry of the gentlemen seldom makes more of this than material for an innocent joke; but even this may very easily be avoided by a little more activity on the part of the lady. It is all very well for slender young ladies to be led, but a woman of mature figure and stately appearance aspires to lead, and the leadership becomes her when dancing with boys, even though the boys be old ones.

The lady in leaning on the shoulder of the gentleman should bear as lightly as possible, for the dance is never well or agreeably executed until all sensation of weight or labor is thoroughly removed, and in the accomplishment of this end more depends on the lady than on the gentleman.

Every accomplishment has its vulgarities, and so has the Polka; but a person of refined taste can at once perceive the difference between the elegant and the inelegant, the delicate and the indelicate. It is only when well practised that any of the fine arts can improve the tastes and morals of the people; when otherwise practised they must corrupt them. Painting, and sculpture, and poetry itself can be made instrumental to the basest of passions; so may dancing. The best gifts of God may be abused. Gold itself, the most incorruptible of metals, is the most corrupting of them all.

All romping, dragging, hugging, leaning or stooping over the shoulders of partners, is decidedly objectionable, and only fit for places of loose resort. In respectable private houses, it is universally discouraged, but it must be confessed, and with extreme regret the confession is made, that public balls, even those of a high pretension, are very far from being so decorous in this respect as they ought, to be. Much of what is objectionable to a delicate taste perhaps arises from bad dancing, but there are good dancers who yield themselves up to the excitement of the moment, forget the proprieties of social etiquette arid descend into the vulgarities of low and irresponsible society, that has no character to support.

For more dance descriptions, see our three books on dancing:
The Book of Mixers: 100 Easy-Teach Dances for Getting Acquainted (2022) by Richard Powers and Nick & Melissa Enge,
Cross-Step Waltz: A Dancer's Guide (2019) by Richard Powers and Nick & Melissa Enge, and
Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living (2013) by Richard Powers and Nick Enge.

For full-length teaching videos, visit: University of Dance.

For help crafting a life you love, visit: Project Quartz.

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