“It is a dance-intoxication, in which people for the moment release themselves from every care, every burden and oppression of existence.”

– Frederika Bremer

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In the long history of ballroom dances, there is only one of them whose American debut would be forever linked with a presidential race. In June of 1844, Philadelphia’s North American reported:

“We are not given to faith in the marvelous, but it is passing strange that at the moment when fantastic toes in Europe are busy with the Polka, equally fantastic pates in America are busy with a Polk.”

His campaign against Henry Clay would be subject to endless jokes, but Democratic candidate James K. Polk, whose running mate was Philadelphia born George M. Dallas, would survive the unfortunate similarity of his name to that of the dance to become the 11th President of the United States. As for the Polka, its rise from obscurity to universal fame had began only a few short years before.

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The Polka originated somewhere in rural eastern Europe and appeared in salons in Prague and Vienna by the late 1830s. By the time it exploded upon the ballroom dance world of Paris in the early 1840s, its origin had been lost in myth; those who can profit by a new fad always like to claim a role in its success.  Overnight, all of Paris was in the thrall of what was commonly called  “Polkamania.” As the public clamored for lessons to learn the new dance, well-known teachers like Henri Cellarius, featured left, on the cover of an 1848 Polka published in Philadelphia, and his rival Jean Coralli of the Paris Opera Ballet nearly came to blows in a public showdown, each claiming to be teaching the “authentic” version of the Polka. The dance’s popularity was helped in no small measure by the fact that in an effort to take advantage of the demand for lessons, these and many other Parisian dance teachers had hired attractive ballet-girls as teachers. This filled their dancing salons with hormonal young men as eager to embrace their lovely teachers as to learn the proper mechanics of the dance.

Early in 1844, ballerina Carlotta Grisi, who had originated the role of “Giselle,” danced the Polka with her partner Jules Perot on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, right, thus introducing it to English audiences. Not everyone was thrilled with the dance. The April, 1844 The Illustrated London News stated:

“It is a waste of time to consider this nonsense. The weathercock heads of the Parisians have been delighted always by any innovation, but they never imported anything more ridiculous or ungraceful than this Polka. It is a hybrid confusion of Scotch Lilt, Irish Jig and Bohemian Waltz, and need only to be seen once to be avoided forever.”

The fact was that the small, graceful hops of the Polka  could easily turn into a rollicking, raucous romp – fun, yes, but unacceptable in the polite ballroom, see illustration below.  It presented the tempting possibility to deviate from the physical control and decorum that was the hallmark of Victorian gentility. In only a few months, this controversial new dance would reach Philadelphia.

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Polka sheet music was being published here in Philadelphia by Fiot at 169 Chestnut St. by 1843, but as late as June 4th, 1844, the actual dance was still only a rumor to readers of the North American:

“The Polka is the name of a Bohemian dance, now the rage in London and Paris. Nearly all the professors of the ‘poetry of motion’ have recently visited Paris for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the dance, and each maintains that his is the only true Polka.  . . . The “hard-fisted democracy” will find it extremely difficult to learn this new dance, however fascinating and easy it may be to their willing teachers. It may be more difficult for them to to introduce the Polka into the country than they imagine”

Rumor would become reality in a few weeks. By the end of August, Philadelphia Dance Mistress, Madame Hazard, advertised that she would begin classes the first of September in:

Not to be outdone, a Miss Mallet announced that she had the pleasure to announce to her patrons and Ladies of the city that she was now ready to teach

On September 18th, Henry Whale, at the Assembly Buildings at 10th and Chestnut Sts, joined the fray, offering simply to teach:

“The Bohemian and Parisian Polka, Waltz and all the new and fashionable dances will be taught during the season.”

The key words in dance instruction advertisement during most of the 19th century  were “new” and “fashionable.” Many local dance masters traveled to Paris and London each summer to learn the latest dances being done there so they could bring them back in time for Philadelphia’s winter social season. It’s no wonder that the same atmosphere of rivalry that set Parisian dance academies at each other stirred up Philadelphia competitions. Things begin to heat up as the season progressed, as Madame H. modified her advertisement to read:

“Mad. H.’s great success in teaching the very elegant and brilliant dance called the Polka, as danced in all the brilliant circles of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, London &c., is rewarded by a numerous class at her residence. She will be happy to receive a few more pupils to prevent delay.”

She now not only advertised the authenticity of her dance instruction, but actually claimed the Polka as her own. Miss Mallet soon countered, claiming:

“. . . she is ready to teach the celebrated POLKA DANCE. It is an easy, graceful and most fascinating dance, having nothing Theatrical about it, and can be learned in a very few lessons, either in a class or privately.”

Mallet was hinting that perhaps Madame Hazard’s version was the crass theatrical variety, while hers was “graceful” and suitable for the genteel young ladies who were her pupils.

The last entrant in Philadelphia’s “Polka Wars” was an exiled Hungarian army officer dashingly named Gabriel de Korponay, left, who arrived in December at middle of the season. A dancer and teacher, he conducted classes here in English, German and French and  claimed to have introduced the Polka to America. His wife played piano, composed and gave music lessons. Korponay would settle in Philadelphia and later served as a captain in the Mexican War and as a colonel in the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

These extravagant claims and the one-upmanship continued to appear in the advertisements of the North American throughout the rest of the 1844-45 social season. However, the fact is that by 1844, the “authenticity” of any Polka style being taught was really a moot point. The dance, like most of the fashionable dances of the nineteenth century, had been entirely re-made in Parisian ballrooms to suit polite tastes and had lost most of the rough edges of its peasant origin. This same phenomenon would appear again in 1913 when the Tango was introduced to America from Argentina after being sanitized by Parisian dance masters.

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For a brief period, the Polka replaced the Waltz as the most popular couple dance in Philadelphia ballrooms. Polka Quadrilles were now all the rage, replacing the usual simple walking steps used in the figures with the Polka “hop, step, step.” In early 1845, Godey’s Ladies’ Book published a color lithograph called “The Polka Fashions” below:

The Polka was the topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, “Have you seen it?” “Can you do it?” Philadelphia stores sold Polka hats, Polka jackets, Polka boots and the only Polka fashion that has endured to this day – fabrics covered with Polka dots.

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“Polkamania” lasted only a brief time. The European and American interest in the struggles for independence among the Czechs and Poles that had turned all eyes on eastern Europe and discovered the Polka now welcomed newer dances like the Mazurka, the Redowa and the Polonaise. The Polka would continue on as a staple of fashionable society balls until the end of the nineteenth century, when it would wane and finally give way to the two-step and American-born ragtime dances. It wouldn’t see a major revival in the U.S. until around World War II,  becoming a source of traditional ethnic pride among eastern European immigrant communities in American cities and celebrated in popular songs like “The Pennsylvania Polka” and “The Beer Barrel Polka,” composed by the Czech musician Jaromír Vejvoda:

“There’s a garden, what a garden,
Only happy faces bloom there
And there’s never any room
For a worry or a gloom.
There’s music, and there’s dancing
And a lot of sweet romancing.
When they play the polka.
They all get in the swing!”

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●  The Polka quote from Swedish writer and feminist Frederika Bremer is taken from the 1844 New Monthly Magazine and Humorist.

●  The 1848 Cellarius Polka Quadrilles were truly a local production. The sheet music was printed by the Philadelphia publisher A. Fiot,  the dance sequence was choreographed by Philadelphia dance master Jules Martin and set to music composed by Philadelphia African-American musician  A. F. R. Conner.

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