August 2, 2014

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Is Cleveland’s polka party winding down?

KIRTLAND — The aging of polka dancers could jeopardize a tradition popular in the eastern European immigrant community.

People are getting older and dying off, and raising interest among the younger generation has proven to be difficult, said Joe Blatnik, secretary-treasurer of the SNPJ Farm Board that hosts polka dances in this community east of Cleveland.

AP
Dorothy Smrtnik (left) and Rudy Rusian dance at the summer pavilion in Kirkland on Sept. 9.

Individual Slovenian lodges cover the costs of a band at the dances, but membership is waning at lodges, Blatnik said.

“Most of the people you see now are slowly going to fade away,” he said. “The bottom line is whether we can get the 30- and 40-year-olds out there. That would be great, but I don’t know how we’d do it. It doesn’t seem like they’re interested.”

The SNPJ Farm has an open-air pavilion in a wooded retreat that has been a haven for polka-loving Slovenians since 1939.

The retreat is run by the area SNPJ — Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota, or Slovene National Benefit Society, a group dedicated to preservation of Slovenian cultural heritage.

The 37-acre retreat was established in the days when local band leaders such as Frankie Yankovic, Johnny Pecon and Lou Trebar set dance halls thumping with the new Cleveland-style Slovenian polka.

That style — less bouncy and brassy than its Polish counterpart — includes a sweeping, slower-tempo dance based on the music and stylings of the Viennese Waltz popularized by Johann Strauss in the 19th century.

“We love the waltzes,” said Stan Jenovic, 71, of Wickliffe, as he danced with his wife, Carol, at the retreat.

“The music is very pretty, with a nice, soothing slower pace,” Carol Jenovic added.

Compared to the up-tempo polkas, the waltz is “smoother, with that kind of ballroom Viennese effect to it,” according to Tony Petkovsek, polka radio show host and chairman of the National Cleveland-style Polka Hall of Fame.

Tom McManamon, 69, of Cleveland, whose Irish heritage hasn’t kept him from becoming a devotee of polka, maintains an Internet site listing dates and locations where people can waltz.

McManamon said the original Viennese Waltz, once regarded as scandalous for exposing ladies’ ankles, was revived in the 1930s as a folk dance in Austria, Germany and Cleveland, due to its large number of Slovenian immigrants.
McManamon said the waltz remains strong among the German, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak and Czech communities.

Former band leader Marty Sintic still writes polka waltzes but wonders how long the music would last without a fresh infusion of youth.

Looking around the dance pavilion at dancers whose average age seemed to be in the 60s, he blamed the man in the blue suede shoes.

“It’s all Elvis’ fault,” he jokingly said. “If he hadn’t brought rock in, we’d all still be dancing to Frank Sinatra.”