Carl Finch hollers into to the microphone at the 800 people in the Knights of Columbus Hall: “Everybody come out on the floor for the ‘Chicken Dance’!”
The Saturday-night crowd challenged the hall’s capacity--just, it seems, to see Finch and the rest of Denton’s Brave Combo.
There had already been plenty of chicken dancing by this, the second night of the polka festival. But that didn’t stop hundreds of polka fans from pouring onto the hall’s 3,000-square-foot hardwood dance floor. Hastily, the dancers formed about 20 different sized circles. Finch cracked a joke about not needing to explain the dance’s steps and then launched into the song. After the flapping of the arms and the twist-shaking of the tooshes, the dancers in each circle clasped hands and
danced ran to the right, then turned and ran back to the left. The rings of dancers kept bumping into each other, and, as the song repeated, Brave Combo played it faster and faster and faster.
It was crazy. Picture a gigantic friendly mosh pit. Everyone was laughing. Not a frown in sight.
This Memorial Day weekend, on the downtown streets and in three of the city’s fraternal halls, an estimated 50,000 polka fans and townsfolk gathered for the 42nd Annual National Polka Festival in Ennis to celebrate the city’s Czech heritage through polka music, colorful costumes, street dancing and traditional food.
I’ll confess that, before going to the festival, my knowledge of polka music was severely lacking. I’d never been to a polka concert much less a polka festival. I’ve never owned a polka record or CD--well, unless you count that one “Weird Al” Yankovic album I bought in high school. But for some reason, the prospect of going to a polka festival really appealed to me. I mentioned it to my wife.
“A polka festival?” she said. “Seriously?”
We missed Friday night’s King & Queen Dance Contest but arrived in downtown Ennis early Saturday morning. The parade kicking off the downtown festivities was scheduled for 10 that morning, and, by 9 a.m., the streets of downtown Ennis were already flooded with people. We staked out a spot along the parade route and waited. A lady passed by pulling bites off a funnel cake sending up a poof of powdered sugar and, at a pastry shop across the street, people lined up outside on the sidewalk to get fresh-baked kolaches and donuts.
Once the parade started, the floats kept coming--for an hour. The parade included marching bands and polka bands, clowns and classic cars, Budweiser girls and the Budweiser Clydesdales, who were followed by a group of Boy Scouts carrying snow shovels.
After the parade the polka bands started playing in the three fraternal halls around town. It was obvious, after looking over the band schedule that seeing all the bands was not an option--a different band was always playing at each of the three halls. At one of the auditoriums, Fritz Hodde & The Fabulous Six took the stage. (With only five members in the band, they win the most inappropriately named band award.) They played a rousing set of mostly traditional polkas and waltzes, as well as some twangy-country tinged numbers.
Later, at another hall, Mark Halata & Texavia played some traditional polka tunes, with a few rockier numbers mixed in. The only band I saw at the festival with a tuba, they played a more oom-pah style polka.
Between sets, the West High Junior Dancers performed a few traditional Czech folk dances and, of course, the Chicken Dance.
And that's the thing about the Polka Festival. It was all very similar. You get in the car and you drive to the halls and, if you don't happen upon one of the real different-sounding acts, you could close your eyes and not know the difference between Band A and Band B--they all play the same stuff. It's weird, though; that similarity, which you and I might find a bit tiresome, is exactly why festival organizers are now estimating that 50,000 people came to Ennis last weekend for this event.
“This year’s festival was very successful,” Danny Zapletal the festival director said from home on Monday afternoon. “We were worried that attendance may be down because of the high gas prices. But we had people from as far away as New Jersey, Wisconsin and California. We were real pleased with the turn out.
“I was born here, and it’s a great feeling to see all the people having fun and dancing, and to see all the kids running around. The whole reason any of us get involved is to preserve and celebrate the culture. It’s important to the people, there’s a big Czech community here in Ennis, and we work hard to keep the heritage alive.”
Well, the liveliest performances I saw were delivered by Brave Combo and Polka Freak Out--both based in Denton. Last year, they were both nominated for a Grammy in the Best Polka Album category.
I caught up with Polka Freak Out’s Bubba Hernandez on Monday evening while he was driving back to Dallas.
As Hernandez' band--which, like so many of the others on the festival bill, mixes other genres in with its polka tendencies--started its set at the fest, the crowd seemed taken aback. Those on the dance floor weren’t sure whether to polka or cumbia or form a conga line.
“I could see the audience going in and out; it wasn’t good for the older or the younger crew,” Hernandez said. “But then a few songs in, the people started getting it.”
Which brings us back to the “Chicken Dance,” which nearly every band played. I called Brave Combo's Carl Finch to ask him about the festival and his band's version of the song and what makes his band's version so distinctive.
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“It’s great that you noticed from a musical point of view," he said. "Because we go from a major key to a minor key, it makes it more a Klezmer-like 'Chicken Dance.' It becomes a wild ritualistic dervish-like experience. And our version is a good example of what we hope to do all the time: to take the most mundane, predictable thing and make it new. And hopefully change peoples’ attitudes.”
My attitude certainly was changed. When I went to Ennis, I kinda thought it was gonna be cool (if only for the kitsch factor), but I left actually thinking it was. Now, I don't know if I'm gonna go out and buy a bunch of polka CDs, but I'd certainly consider attending the Polka Festival again next year. It's cool stepping into another culture like this. In spite of the bands that were boring, seeing so many people having a good time at the Brave Combo show, for instance, kinda overcame all that. And it was super tough not to get sucked into that cheer--especially when there are that many people around, and the streets are flooded. It was almost like a political rally, it was so inspiring.
“Most people make a joke out of polka music,” Finch said. “It’s a clichéd joke. But it’s stupid to use polka as a joke when so much of today’s mainstream music is more of a joke than polka music ever was.”
If Finch isn't thinking that polka is going to one day overcome that connotation, he's wrong. But for one outsider who'd never been that familiar with the genre, this festival did help diminish those thoughts. --Daniel Rodrigue