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The 3/4 beat of the Polska constitutes the rhythmic framework for some 80 percent of all the traditional music of Sweden, both vocal and instrumental. Though its name quite obviously comes from Poland, this unique musical idiom may well have existed in the Northlands before acquiring that designation. "Långdans" (long-dance) music is an example of Polska-like rhythm which predates the Polska itself.
In triple meter but unrelated to the waltz, the Polska as both a musical and rhythmic form, can be traced back to the late 1500s. For some two centuries it reigned supreme as Sweden's "national dance," finally becoming supplemented but not completely supplanted by the waltz in the mid 19th century.
Following World War I, however, only the Hambo managed to survive as a widespread manifestation of the Polska dance in Sweden though in neighboring Norway, its close cousin the Pols, and more distant relatives Springleik and Springar, were still to be found alive and well in some rural areas.
In striking contrast to the near demise of the Polska as a dance form in Sweden, was the remarkable living tradition of folk fiddlers. It was Polska music which predominated, yea, virtually overwhelmed, their repertoire. And, it is thanks to that phenomenon that the current renaissance in Polska dancing in Sweden was made possible.
It happened around 1970. Perhaps it was a part of the search for "roots" by people the world over; in any case, young Swedes discovered their own folk heritage, and found it was incredibly rich in music, fiddle music; fiddle music to which their grandparents and great-grandparents had danced. And what were those dances? Nearly all Polskas, of course! Not complicated dances with intricate figures such as the so-called "folk dances" that had been performed by organized folk dance societies for half a century or more, but simple couple dances with lots of room for improvisation, and virtually all in Polska rhythm.
So, while hundreds of youths took up the fiddle to learn to play this old music, thousands more learned the old dances which went along with that music. Workshops, seminars, study circles, and research in the manner of oral history projects, proliferated in an intense search for knowledge of the old dance forms. And the results have been phenomenal.
Today in Sweden, there are several books on "bygdedanser" (regional ethnic dances) with both descriptions and printed music, as well as a great number of splendid recordings, available to the general public. And so, after a century or more of separation, the Swedish folk fiddler is reunited with the dancer, and a renewed sense of ethnic pride is sweeping the land.
It is a privilege to be able to share some of this material with American folk dancers.
Reprinted from the 1980 University of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp syllabus.