The Polka

The origin of this once celebrated dance is difficult to ascertain. It is believed by some to be of great antiquity, and to have been brought into Germany from the East. Others affirm that its origin is of more recent date, and its birthplace considerably nearer home. An authority on these matters remarks; “In spite of what those professors say who proclaim themselves to have learnt the Polka in Germany, or as being indebted for it to a Hungarian nobleman, we are far from placing confidence in their assertions. In our opinion Paris is its birthplace, and its true author, undoubtedly, the now far-famed Monsieur Cellarius, for whom this offspring of his genius has gained a European celebrity.”

Whatever we may be inclined to believe with regard to this disputed question, there can be no doubt of the wide-spread popularity which for many years was enjoyed by the Polka. When first introduced, in 1843, it was received with enthusiasm by every capital in Europe; and it effected a complete revolution in the style of dancing which had prevailed up to that period. A brisk, lively character was imparted even to the steady-going quadrille; the old Valse a Trois Temps was pronounced insufferably “slow;” and its brilliant rival, the Valse a Deux Temps, which had been recently introduced, at once established the supremacy which it has ever since maintained. The galop, which had been until this period only an occasional dance, now assumed a prominent post in every ball-room, dividing the honors with the valse.

But all these dances, though modified in character by the introduction of the Polka, were for a time thrown into the shade by this new claimant upon public favor. Its popularity was unrivalled in the annals of dancing. Rich and poor, young and old, grave and gay, all were alike smitten by the universal Polka mania. All flocked to take lessons in this new and fascinating dance; and the professors of its mysteries fairly divided public attention with the members of the Anti-Corn-Law League, then holding their meetings at Drury Lane Theatre. We will even go so far as to say that Messrs. Bright and Cobden were scarcely more anxious to destroy the vexatious Corn Laws than were these worthy Polka-maniacs to create corn laws of their own, which, if more innocent, were equally undesirable.

For many years the Polka maintained its position as the universal favorite; but, during the last five or six seasons, its popularity has slowly but surely declined. It is never danced now in the ball-rooms of the aristocracy, but the middle classes have not yet quite discarded their old friend, though even amongst their programmes its name rarely occurs.

Perhaps no dance affords greater facilities for the display of ignorance or skill, elegance or vulgarity, than the Polka. The step is simple and easily acquired, but the method of dancing it varies ad infinitum. Some persons race and romp through the dance in a manner fatiguing to themselves and dangerous to their fellow-dancers. Others (though this is more rare) drag their partner listlessly along, with a sovereign contempt alike for the requirements of the time and the spirit of the music. Some gentlemen hold their partner so tight that she is half suffocated; others hold her so loosely that she continually slips away from them. All these extremes are equally objectionable, and defeat the graceful intention of the dance. It should be performed quietly, but with spirit, and always in strict time. The head and shoulders should be kept still, not jerked and turned at every step, as is the manner of some. The feet should glide swiftly along the floor—not hopping or jumping as if the boards were red-hot.

You should clasp your partner lightly but firmly round the waist with your right arm.

Your left hand takes her right hand; but beware of elevating your arm and hers in the air, or holding them out straight, which suggests the idea of windmills.

Above all, never place your left hand on your hip or behind you. In the first place, you thus drag your partner too much forward, which makes her look ungraceful; in the next, this attitude is never used except in casinos, and it is almost an insult to introduce it in a respectable ball-room.

Let the hand which clasps your partner’s fall easily by your side in a natural position, and keep it there. Your partner’s left hand rests on your right shoulder; her right arm is thrown a little forward towards your left.

The Polka is danced in 2/4 time. There are three steps in each bar; the fourth beat is always a rest.

the three steps being performed on the three first beats of every bar.  It is next to impossible to describe in words the step of the Polka, or of any circular dance: nothing but example can correctly teach it; and, although we shall do our best to be as clear as possible, we would earnestly recommend those of our readers who desire to excel, whether in this or the following dances, to take a few lessons from some competent instructor.

The gentleman starts with his left foot, the lady with her right.  We shall describe the step as danced by the gentleman: the same directions, reversing the order of the feet, will apply to the lady.

1st beat.—Spring slightly on right foot, at the same time slide left foot forward.

2nd beat.—Bring right foot forward by glissade, at the same time rising left foot.

3rd beat.—Bring left foot slightly forward and fall upon it, leaving right foot raised, and the knee slightly bent, ready to begin the step at the first beat of the next bar.

4th beat.—Remain on left foot. Begin next bar with the right foot, and repeat the step to end of third beat. Begin the following bar with left foot; and so on; commencing each bar with right or left foot alternately.

The Polka is danced with a circular movement, like the Valse; in each bar you half turn, so that, by the end of the second bar, you have brought your partner completely round.

It was at first customary to promenade your partner round the room, doing a kind of balancez to each other in the Polka step before commencing the valse figure. But this fashion soon became antiquated, and has fallen into complete disuse.

The circular movement of the Polka admits of two directions—from right or left or from left to right. The ordinary direction is from right to left. The opposite one is known as the reverse step. It is more difficult to execute, but is a pleasant change for skilled dancers, if they have become giddy from turning too long in one direction.

In dancing the Polka, or any circular dance where a large number of couples are performing at the same time, the gentleman must be careful to steer his fair burden safely through the mazes of the crowded ball-room. A little watchfulness can almost always avoid collisions, and a good dancer would consider himself disgraced if any mishap occurred to a lady under his care. Keep a sharp look out, and avoid crowded corners. Should so many couples be dancing as to render such caution impossible, stop at once, and do not go on until the room has become somewhat cleared. In a few minutes others will have paused to rest, and you can then continue. Your partner will be grateful that your consideration has preserved her from the dismal plight in which we have seen some ladies emerge from this dance—their coiffeurs disordered, their dresses torn, and their cheeks crimson with fatigue and mortification, while their indignant glances plainly showed the anger they did not care to express in words, and which their reckless partner had fully deserved. A torn dress is sometimes not the heaviest penalty incurred: we have known more than one instance where ladies have been lamed for weeks through the culpable carelessness of their partners, their tender feet having been half crushed beneath some heavy boot in one of these awkward collisions. This is a severe price to pay for an evening’s amusement, and gentlemen are bound to be cautious how they inflict it, or anything approaching to it, upon their fair companions. Ladies, on the other hand, will do well to remember that by leaning heavily upon their partner’s shoulder, dragging back from his encircling arm or otherwise impeding the freedom of his movements, they materially add to his labor and take from his pleasure in the dance. They should endeavor to lean as lightly, and give as little trouble, as possible; for, however flattering to the vanity of the nobler sex may be the idea of feminine dependence, we question whether the reality, in the shape of a dead weight upon their aching arms throughout a Polka or Valse of twenty minutes’ duration, would be acceptable to even the most chivalrous amongst them.

We have been thus minute in our instructions, because they not only apply to the Polka, but equally to all circular dances where a great number stand up to dance at the same time.


This is taken from Routledge's Manual of Etiquette.




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