What is Polka, Anyway?

A beginner’s guide to this traditional Milwaukee favorite

Some kids might have liked the rock band. To 5-year-old Mike Schneider, it was a bit loud. Frank Yankovic, none other than “America’s Polka King” played next, and boy, the result on Schneider’s young mind was a word often associated with polka: happiness.

The always-smiling bandleader and accordionist played a classic, the Happy Wanderer polka, and the chicken dance at a church festival on the South Side where Schneider was attending with his family. Milwaukee was then a bubbling melting pot of Slovenian, Polish, German and other polkas, and while the pot has since cooled, you can still find some warm bubbles here and there.

Schneider (who is 39 now and German but plays Slovenian-style polka) is based in Wisconsin, and he and his band play all over the country, including in Milwaukee.

He’s a full-time polka man. “Polka is the happiest music you’ll ever hear,” he says.

His career reached a certain peak in 1999, the year his band played Summerfest and the Marcus Center’s old Rainbow Summer outdoor concert series alongside another polka group, to a full house. And the same year, the band serenaded a member of NSYNC who was in Milwaukee on his birthday (or close to it) and wanted to hear some real polka. Schneider obliged him with the Pennsylvania Polka, a Yankovic standard, and Happy Birthday.

What is the polka?

Places to Dance the Polka in Milwaukee

Old German Beer Hall: 1009 N. Old World 3rd St.

Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall: 1920 S. 37th St.

Lakefront Brewery: 1872 N. Commerce St.

Beer Gardens: various locations (warm months only)

The word is associated with both a dance tradition and a folk music. According to legend, the dance originated in Poland and spread throughout the world, including Latin America.

The basic rhythms tend to be predictable and punchy (like the German “oom-pah”), compelling people to dance, and different styles proceed at different tempos. Slovenian tends to be quick and pushes the accordion to the front like a lead guitar. Melodies may come from folk sources and reinforce the feeling of uplift.

Traditional dancing is often carried out in a circle and is done with a partner. Like the music, the steps are simple but celebratory. The dancing tradition is also a social one, and while fewer small events happen today, there are still larger festivals across the Midwest during the warmer months.

Polish Fest. Photo by Rebecca Kames.

The small shindigs are captured in Rick March’s book, Polka Heartland: Why the Midwest Loves Polka, which opens with his visit to the Ellsworth, Wis., Polka Festival in 1986. This is pure polka junkie stuff: large tents pitched at the festival grounds and people inside dancing on waxed plywood floors, some of whom had practiced kicks and other advanced moves.

“The pleasant warmth of a friendly, multigenerational community pervaded the dance floor,” March writes.

One of the city’s better-known polka acts, The Squeezettes, has attempted to spread the accordion to other kinds of music, and with very few restrictions. ABBA? Yes. AC/DC? Yes.

“We adjust arrangements to showcase our band, not to adhere to a genre,” says lead singer Chanel le Meaux. As with traditional polka, the organizing principle is fun and danceable, and many old-school polka people have said they are “reinventing polka for a new generation.” A few purists have objected.

Squeezettes accordionist Linda Mueller grew up going to weddings with polka bands, where “everyone from the 14-year-old punk rocker cousin to grandma would be out on the floor dancing,” she says.




Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.